PULLMAN – Gabe Marks developed a cough.
Specifically, he acquired Mike Leach’s cough, the one that only comes out in interviews. Leach, the Washington State football coach, has long attributed this question-induced throat tickle to the dusty backdrops that accompany every press conference.
But keen observers know Leach is simply allergic to reporters and their nonsense. And now Marks is, too.
In recent months, many of those who spend time around the WSU football team have begun to observe that Marks is taking on more of his coach’s persona. It’s an interesting adaptation for the team’s most creative personality.
It is spring, and as we began the interview, a dive into the psyche of one of college football’s pound-for-pound most productive receivers, Marks set his phone down on the table. It was playing the rapper Drake’s new album, “Views,” which was released earlier that day and will continue to play at full volume for the rest of our time together.
It is not lost on me that the first song he plays is “U with me?” and it’s undeniably spooky when the second verse begins: “I wanna know how much time you spent on them paragraphs/Where you’re getting me/All that gray in our conversation history, you/Playin mind games, when you sayin’ things.”
All right, Gabe. Point taken.
Drake is an ebullient artist whose success breeds success and creates more success by telling you about his successes. But he’s also stunningly introspective, opening up about his failed relationships (and willing to name names) in a way most rappers are not.
Marks similarly knows he’s talented and he’s willing to let you know he knows. His Twitter handle, @throwitupto9, is more celebration than instruction (also, his current Twitter name “9 God” is an homage to Drake).
He is unique among interview subjects for his desire to cast aside the traditional roles of reporter and athlete. Even during postgame press conferences, which are practically scripted for their predictability, Marks asks the follow-ups. He challenges the premise of questions he does not like, and the dry sarcasm he occasionally employs can be mistaken for a straight, if puzzling answer.
“I just don’t take stuff from people, you know? If I don’t like what you’re saying, I’ll tell you I don’t like what you’re saying,” Marks said. “If you don’t like that I don’t like what you’re saying, we have a conflict of interest.”
With that in mind, I employ a strategy: I acknowledge to Marks that the convention of pretending this is a normal conversation is a farce.
I get to set the table for the discussion, but he retains the ultimate power to decide what we talk about by not answering questions. So would it be all right with him if I just asked him everything I ever wanted to know and he could either give thoughtful answers or tell me to get lost?
He’s cool with it.
Marks is the most dominant athlete in 1-on-1 matchups I have covered. Yet, I have covered many athletes who had greater physical advantages over their opponents than Marks does. So, I’ve attributed his success largely to his greater desire.
Spring football is a perfect example. Marks got in a fight seemingly every other day. Once, he walked up to a defensive end and threw his helmet at the guy’s head.
Another day he punched a cornerback in the helmet as soon as the ball was snapped. Come to think of it, he scored on that play. (Marks said he’s done that at the start of every spring practice to “establish some ground rules.”)
So, Gabe, what’s with all the fights?
“My competitive nature gets expressed physically sometimes,” Marks said. “I don’t know. I like to win. People don’t like to lose. We’re all grown men out there, things happen.
“I used to fight a lot. I got in a lot of fights growing up. Not at school, I didn’t fight at school. Just with the guys growing up. With a group of friends you just, you fight over anything. Basketball games. I used to get in a lot of fights because I’m very sarcastic. Do you remember Teondray?”
Teondray Caldwell, I affirmed. He used to play running back for the Cougars, then left the program shortly after he was moved to safety. Like Marks, he grew up in Los Angeles’ Venice neighborhood.
“Yeah, he’s a big dude, right? I fought him a couple times back in Venice. We fought a couple times. It rarely went my way. I might have got a couple punches in.”
I asked if losing ever stopped him from fighting, since he does not seem to mind punching above his weight class in practice.
“Nah,” Marks said. “It’s all about doing it. Let people know you’re not about that (stuff).”
Marks never fought more than during his surprise redshirt year. Entering his third year in the program, Marks was working through some injuries, and maybe a little time off for bad behavior. He then developed an infection that threatened to keep him out for at least a few games, so the coaches decided that he might as well redshirt.
This means that Marks, already one of the team’s best players, spent the year on scout team. He saw his role as the guy who pushes the defense, who gives them a fight and not metaphorically.
“I’d purposefully fight people, just because,” Marks said. “Just to make sure that they weren’t thinking it was a game out there or anything. Me and coach (David) Lose, we’d plan out who we were going to go after at practice.”
I ask Marks if perhaps the loss of control in his personal life, the arrest on four charges including fourth-degree assault and criminal trespass, as well as the illness, had turned him into a more competitive player. Perhaps the chaos, I posited, pushed him toward the part of his life over which he had the most control.
Marks rejected the premise, then embraced it.
“Things like that just refocus you a little bit, because it’s easy to get complacent and stuff like that,” Marks said. “I kind of feel like, sadly, little things have to happen to me all the time just to make me realize I need to stay focused. I wish it didn’t have to be like that, but that’s how it is.”
Where Marks also perceives chaos is in his place on campus at a predominantly white university where most students come from more privilege than he does. Because of his status as an athlete, Marks has one of the loudest voices on campus, although he rarely makes use of the soap box.
On March 27, however, Marks tweeted “(I don’t care) what yall have to say. We play for washington state university and for anyone to treat us like less than a person can’t be here” and “I love my university but my university is not without flaw!”
This had been the year for athletes to speak out on social justice issues. Marks is savvy and I wanted to give him the chance to expand upon his thoughts with more than 140 characters.
“I think because we play sports sometimes they think we’re not entitled to the things we’re entitled to because we’re not paying for our school,” Marks said. “They don’t understand what we do for the school, and how much we sacrifice to be able to play here and the time we put in here so they can come on Saturdays and cheer and have fun, and be really drunk while we’re out there dying for the school, you know what I mean?
“I just want some common decency, because sometimes people forget that it’s 2016 and act like I’m in Mississippi in the 1960s. It gets kind of weird sometimes. I have to take a step back and not punch somebody in the face, because I know I’d end up on ESPN or something like that.”
Marks opened up about his competitiveness. At least, he gave me a glimpse of the mindset he takes into the individual matchups that compose his time on a football field. Marks is a good receiver who does great things by initiating contact a split second before a bigger linebacker expects it, by making the first move toward a football even when a defensive back is in position for the tip or interception.
He believes receivers have the ability to control the pace of the game through their individual play, and when he’s in a rhythm the Cougars are unstoppable. Just look at last year’s win at Arizona, in which he made four touchdown catches, continuing to pour gas on a roaring blaze.
“It’s just a primal thing,” Marks said. “Either you’re going to die, or he’s going to die. I’ve lost my fair share out there.”
That redshirt year proved to be an enormous risk for the Cougars once it became clear Marks could capitalize on his 104-catch, 1,192-yard, 15-touchdown junior year and enter the NFL draft.
Then, it became a godsend. Marks made the choice to return to school quickly and in an uncharacteristically subdued manner, tweeting out his announcement shortly after the Sun Bowl win over Miami.
Marks said he considered turning pro but knew he wasn’t ready. He also knew he wanted one more year in which football was fun, not a business, and that he would soon miss the collegial atmosphere the Cougars have built.
“Leach is going to find other guys, but after this I’m not going to play with these guys again,” Marks said. “So I wanted to do it one more time. College football is fun, dude.”
After a covering a wide range of topics, I left resolved to write a piece that would allow Marks to reveal himself in his own voice.
“I don’t run out of material/You shouldn’t speak on me, period/You try to give ’em your side of the story/They heard it but they wasn’t hearing it.”