Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009...12:44 pm
Ex-Viking to be inducted into Ky Pro Football Hall of Fame
Former Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jim Marshall, a member of the famous “Purple People Eaters,” excelled in the wrong profession to realize his desire for anonymity.
“I try to stay quiet and anonymous until people like you open my life,” Marshall said last week when I called. “I don’t even go to games. I don’t like to sit in the stands with people jumping up and down. I feel safer on the football field, where you know the traffic flow.”
As I said, wrong career choice to avoid reporters.
From 1960, when he played for the Cleveland Browns, and from 1961 to 1979, when he played for the Vikings, Marshall didn’t miss a game, playing a position that is known to chew up and spit out players in less than half that time. Of a span of 282 games, he started in at least 270 games consecutively, a record.
He earned the nickname Iron Man by reporting to work game after game despite injuries and illnesses.
I wanted to talk to Marshall about his induction on June 19 into the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame, and I wanted to find out more about his Kentucky connection, one of the requirements for induction.
James L. Marshall, 71, was born in Wilsonville, a community near Parksville in Boyle County. It had been a hamlet for freed slaves after the Civil War.
“I was down there a year or two ago,” he said. “We had our own school and church in Wilsonville. I went there to check on my relatives’ graves and looked at the school my mother went to and my aunt taught in,” he said.
It was a one-room school house that his aunt, Ella Mae Marshall, was working to preserve before she died in 2003.
“My aunt was the first special-education teacher in Boyle County,” he said.
Marshall moved with his parents to Columbus, Ohio, when he was 5, but he said he never really left Kentucky.
“Every summer, I was back in Wilsonville with my grandfather,” he said. His grandfather owned a farm there. “That continued until my grandfather died when I was 15.”
It was his father and grandfather who molded him, he said.
“They taught me to go out and try to make things better,” Marshall said. “If you can’t improve it, don’t touch it. I try to help people around me to realize their own personal health and to explore their growth and become good productive human beings in our society.”
Marshall began playing football at Columbus East High School and later played at Ohio State University, where he became an All-American. He skipped his senior year in 1959 to play football with Saskatchewan in the Canadian Football League because that’s what his buddies were doing. After a year there, he was drafted by the Cleveland Browns. He landed in Minnesota in 1961, where he ended his career after 18 years.
In the late 1960s, with defensive tackles Alan Page and Gary Larsen, and defensive end Carl Eller, Marshall became famous as part of a defensive line that struck fear in quarterbacks. Because of their purple jerseys and a popular song by that name, they became known as the Purple People Eaters. Their rallying cry became “meet you at the quarterback.” They helped the Vikings reach the Super Bowl four times, but they never won.
Before those glory days, however, Marshall made a mistake in a game that is recalled in nearly every reference to him. He recovered a fumble and then ran it back 66 yards to the wrong end zone, giving the opposing team two points for a safety.
In the same game, however, Marshall caused the fumble that allowed the Vikings to score and win the game. “I never gave them something for nothing,” he said.
That one mistake might be costing him a place in the national Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“It’s not a thorn in my side,” he said. “It would be welcomed. If awards are your criteria, then you need to be in a different profession. I had a great career, and I am thankful and blessed to stay in pro football as long as I did.”
After football, in 1991, Marshall joined with another Vikings player, Oscar Reed, and lawyer Leonard Lindquist to form a non-profit organization in Minneapolis called Life’s Missing Link, now known as The Link. The organization provides services — including life skills training, advocacy, employment and shelter — for low-income youth.
About the same time, however, he was arrested and charged with third-degree possession of cocaine.
Marshall said he had been in a great deal of pain in his knees and shoulders, the result of years in football, and from a broken back and compound fractures of his left arm and leg when he crashed an ultra-light plane in 1980.
“So in the course of that, you find things to anesthetize yourself,” he said. “It was a one-way street that led to some bad things. There are more people out there who could fall into that trap, so I formed an organization that went out and found people who had problems and brought them into the fold and helped them get rid of some of the problems they had.”
He got back to what his father and grandfather had taught him: to make things better. He did it through The Link.
Now he’s retired and enjoying life as a newlywed. Marshall said he married his best friend six months ago, when he was 70.
“It’s time for me to enjoy my life and spend as much time doing what I like to do best,” he said. “Right now, that’s boating, lying by the pool and running along the beach.”
I asked where that is. He said I didn’t need to know. But, he said, he could see the Caribbean from where he is and that there are beaches on both sides.
I guess retirement has granted Marshall some of the anonymity he has been seeking.