Gabe Marks of Washington State might be the most interesting guy in college football

  • Washington State wide receiver Gabe Marks, a fifth-year senior, is a breath of fresh air on the field and at the podium. AP

  • Washington State wide receiver Gabe Marks (9) and wide receiver Tavares Martin Jr. (8) celebrate a touchdown scored by Marks during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Oregon in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Young Kwak) Young Kwak

  • FILE -- In this Dec. 26, 2015, file photo, Washington State wide receiver Gabe Marks celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the Sun Bowl NCAA college football game against Miami in El Paso, Texas. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton, File) Andres Leighton

Washington Post
Thursday, November 24, 2016

PULLMAN, Wash. – It would be nuts to anoint any one of the tens of thousands of college football players as the most interesting, but if you tried, one candidate must be Gabe Marks, the all-time receptions leader in the Pac-12 Conference, fifth-year senior wide receiver at Washington State, from Venice in Los Angeles, 6 feet, 190 pounds, astute and wry observer.

Before and during the No. 23 Cougars’ run to 8-3 and a colossal tussle today with No. 5 Washington, Marks’s meetings with reporters have become should-watch YouTube for insight, candor and humor, often in a flat voice nearing deadpan. The sessions often stretch past 20 minutes, unusual for a college athlete. They’re opinionated without being arrogant, sharp without being mean, explanatory without being stale, novel without being brash, worthy of attention without being attention-needy.

In a nation full of canned brevities, Marks speaks in fresh block quotations.

“It’s hard to recruit guys, you know. You don’t really know until you know. It’s all just, you know, a cat-and-mouse game, everyone trying to manipulate each other in the whole recruiting process. And, you know, the player’s lying about how much he weighs and how fast he is and stuff like that, and then coaches, you know, promising players what they shouldn’t be promising, things they can’t promise you, like playing time and stuff like that. It’s like everyone does whatever they can to get guys and it just becomes watered down and you don’t really know what you’re getting till the guy puts his helmet on.”

He might thrum his fingers on the podium, or praise Sir David Attenborough for his narration of an iguana-snake chase scene in a BBC nature documentary, or respond to reporters asking solemnly about injured fellow receiver River Cracraft, “Uh, we’re going like, ‘In Memoriam?’ ”

“It’s a fantastic opportunity,” said Brady Johnson, the sports editor of the student newspaper, “when you’re presented with an interviewee who’s not reading off a scripted dialogue.”

Marks has thrived in Coach Mike Leach’s passing laboratory, with career totals of 301 receptions for 3,314 yards and 36 touchdowns, and a conference receptions record that came on Nov. 12 when he said, “I wasn’t feeling all ‘blushy’ and stuff, all romantic or anything. It was cool. I appreciated the cheers ...”

He has 74 catches for 755 yards and 12 touchdowns this season, gaudy numbers that don’t quite match his junior year (104 for 1,162 and 15), but have stirred his insight, as when Marks said of Leach’s 2016 offense, “The distribution of the ball this year has been more of a socialist state, you know.”

“I don’t like to admit it sometimes, but the run game affects my life ... Back in the day, we’d just run it and nothing would get done and it was like, ‘Just don’t run it. Just throw me the ball. We’ll get more yards if you just throw me the ball.’ But now these guys average, like, eight yards a carry or some crazy stat, and it’s hard to deny that type of production so I just, like, roll with it.”

When Marks was an eighth grader, his mother involved him with a mentor and trainer, Ron Allen, because, she said, “I was either going to lose him to the streets or find something to keep him occupied.” Soon, his feelings for football exceeded adoration, so that in the weight room at Venice High, football Coach Angelo Gasca noticed a wiry ninth-grader in a lifting vest.

“He was going from station to station in the weight room, and it just stood out to me,” Gasca said, “And I was like, ‘Damn, I’m keeping that guy with me.’ ... I saw a single-mindedness. ... He wasn’t lolly gagging or engaging in side conversations. When he was doing power-cleans, he had the technique down. A technician. Very, very serious about his work.”

Marks became a four-star receiver according to Rivals.com and followed Teondray Caldwell, a teammate and dear friend who lived with Marks’s family, to Washington State, after Leach assistant Jim Mastro knocked to visit Caldwell and Marks answered the door. Almost five years later, the receiver from the metropolis has bonded with the 32,000-strong college town near the Idaho border, with its Cougar insignias painted on intersection pavements, its little Cougar flags on office desks, its Cougar statue introducing downtown. Johnson calls Pullman “a town you have to physically make an effort to drive to and arrive at.”

Here arrived a player with both an animated field persona and an understated nature, such that his mother, Jordanna Gersh, deems the field part an “alter ego.” Marks has found nirvanas in both the loud field and in the quiet town. Where he used to take the last possible flight back to school, nowadays, Gersh said: “When he comes home to L.A., he doesn’t like to be here too long. It’s too crowded. It’s too busy.”

For a football player, he’s visible and interactive around town, Johnson said. Ryan Siefkes, Johnson’s assistant sports editor, said the people appreciate that Marks returned for a fifth year. “There’s something about the Cougar aspect that everyone’s very tight-knit, everyone’s very prideful of being a Cougar,” Siefkes said.

After all, they’re chronic underdogs, a rural counter to their urban rival from Seattle even as both sides wallowed through much of this young century, the Cougars enduring 11 non-winning seasons between their 10-3 record of 2003 and their 9-4 finish of 2015. Then they started this season 0-2 before charging to the cusp of the Pac-12 title game with an eight-game winning streak, and before victory No. 4 on Oct. 15 against UCLA (27-21), the Bruins pointedly warmed up on Washington State’s side of the field.

“I don’t know if they do that to everybody, but it’s just kind of like, you know, it’s just kind of douchey, you know? Is that, like, okay to say? I mean” – turning to a Washington State media staffer “don’t cut that. Let’s be honest. It makes you look like you’re trying to be tough because everyone thinks that, you know, because you live in Westwood and you wear baby blue, that you’re not tough and it makes you look less tough, because you’re trying too hard. It’s just weird, you know? You don’t have to do that.”

Before the loss last Saturday at Colorado, the 2001 Washington State graduate Darren Tieder stood at the front of the stands, encouraging Marks as he went by during pregame, calling Marks “hugely popular” among fans and saying: “I just feel like he’s so soft-spoken, people are like, ‘That’s just Gabe talking.’ He’s not trying to offend anybody. He’s just saying what he sees.”

Marks, on the concept of night games: “I don’t know what my obligation is to the university to answer this the right way or not, but I think college football should be played in the daytime.”

On creating his avatar in a video game: “When I edited myself, I was the best player in the country. I mean, no one edits themselves to be, like, the fourth-best receiver on the team. That’s weird. ‘I’m only going to make myself the second-best receiver on the team, so it’ll be kind of realistic.’ No. ‘I won four Biletnikoffs in a row.’ ”

He might say to a young reporter, “Aw, dude, you came in here with the question of the day. That’s huge, dude.”

Marks’s mother watches all of it from Venice, feels proud of his candor, wonders sometimes if he realizes he’s talking to actual reporters, and says, “I say if anyone has a bad day, google Gabe on YouTube and you’ll have something to laugh about.”

Gasca watches too, and says, “There’s something about him that’s different. He’s refreshing, right? There’s no filter, but he’s not mean-spirited. It’s not like he’s pushing some brand or something. There’s no brand. I’m tired of hearing the word ‘brand.’ ”

Of his NFL possibilities, the coach said: “He might not be big enough, he might not be fast enough, but he’s good enough.” Along his path strewn with rare dedication, he became also a listenable voice.