Marquise Goodwin was 14 years old when he came to his mother and looked to her intently, insisting he needed a job.
“Momma, Brye and Deja need some shoes,” the boy insisted, concerned about two of his sisters. The adolescent’s eyes burned with the desire to be a man.
Tamina Goodwin looked to her oldest child soothingly. Life had often steered her down rough roads. She had been a single parent for most of her four children’s lives and at times worked odd hours to meet her family’s needs. They never spoke of Marquise’s father; he left after fathering Tamina’s second child, Deja, who had cerebral palsy. The father of her two youngest daughters was out of their lives, as well.
Marquise saw the demands on his mother. He wanted to help.
“No, momma’s got this,” she assured him. Marquise never listened.
Tamina still sees her baby in the 21-year-old going to work on this June afternoon, standing on the track at Oregon’s Hayward Field for the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.
Marquise would seem to have everything now. He is the reigning U.S. long jump champion and national high school record holder. He’s jumped on three different continents. And when he’s not starting for the Texas football team, he’s maintaining a 3.3 GPA in kinesiology.
But his jump on this day is one he’s focused on for years – one that could fulfill a long-held promise. He’s held the picture in his mind: A talented artist, Marquise dreamed of being an architect. So for a high school class project he designed Deja the house he planned to build her. He spent a semester designing the floor plan, the electrical appliances and the wheelchair access points, pouring his attention into the tiniest details.
Ever since, he’s been trying to will that house into reality.
And if he tries to slow down, Deja snaps his focus back into position. Her face flashes through Marquise’s mind, and he’s back on track. He’ll think of everything God gave him, and then of his 20-year-old sister’s need for assistance with bathing, eating and transportation. So much has been given to him, he tells himself. And that gift can provide something to Deja and his family that nobody else can supply.
Then his focus sharpens. Marquise leans back on the runway, lifts his right arm over his forehead and trains his eyes on the pit. Tamina, watching from the stands, is bent over with anxiety, knees pressed to her chest, impatiently holding the air in her lungs. But her son is calm.
And when Marquise bursts down the runway and plants his foot with a powerful thrust, a shotgun blast sounds from the board as all that focus, speed and strength thrusts his body forward toward the goal that is the motor of his life.
Marquise and Deja were born only 10 months apart, and though one was born with world-class athletic ability and the other with cerebral palsy, they’ve been inseparable.
They were often confused as twins, and Marquise and Deja’s extensive family still mixes up which of the two is the older. It’s an easy mistake. They have been joined at the heart since birth, separated by only 10 months, though their worlds looked vastly different.
Marquise was first, born while Tamina was a senior basketball standout at Lubbock’s Monterey High School. He arrived two months premature, but healthy and ripe with athleticism passed on from Tamina, who earned a basketball scholarship to a junior college outside Dallas. Her mother, Billie Williams, offered to help raise Marquise so her daughter could continue school, but Tamina became pregnant again as a freshman. This time it was a girl, Shaniquah.
The family nicknamed her Deja.
But the second pregnancy wasn’t as smooth. Deja arrived three months premature, and doctors feared she might not live six months. She weighed three pounds. Her skin turned pale yellow in the incubator. Her fingers and tailbone hadn’t yet developed. And she remained on a heart monitor even when Tamina brought her home after 36 days in the hospital.
Life continued to be complicated. Marquise and Deja’s father left the family. Tamina quit school and started a cleaning service in Lubbock – the first of several jobs that took the family to three different cities before Marquise reached middle school.
Then, at 2 years old, Deja’s slow development led to a diagnosis of cerebral palsy. Doctors said she might not be able to speak and could be severely mentally challenged. She would need constant assistance for eating, bathing, even sitting up in a chair.
But Marquise never saw anything different in his sister. Others struggled to understand Deja’s slurred speech, but Marquise understood her clearly and the two constantly conversed. Marquise couldn’t understand why Deja couldn’t come outside to play with him, so he stayed inside to keep her company, helped feed her, and sometimes pushed her chair to the side of a field to watch him play football.
“You guys watch out for my sister,” he would warn his friends before the games. Deja cheered wildly from her chair. They were each other’s shadow. Marquise always protected her. And from an early age, Deja inspired him.
That watchful eye followed the example Marquise gleaned from Tamina’s father, Ira, the closest thing he knew to a biological father. Ira was a gruff, hard-working, blue-collar man who earned his living detailing cars in Lubbock’s Elite Detail Shop and working the fields as a ranch hand in Clyde, Texas. His love came with a crusty edge, but he looked out for his children. He helped financially support Tamina and watched over Marquise like his youngest son.
“We’re going to Silas today; you want to roll?” Ira might say, and then he and Marquise would be off in his car to see friends, travel to Marquise’s youth track meets or work together on the ranch. Marquise hated the ranch, with its searing heat and bugs that would crawl over him as he baled hay. But it never tore him away from Ira.
“You can be whatever you want to be, have whatever you want to have, do whatever you want to do,” LaTina Jennings, Tamina’s sister, remembered Ira telling Marquise. “It’s your life. You have to take control of your destination.”
Marquise’s success at Texas in academics, football and track is inspired by the thought of providing a better life to Deja (left) and his mother, Tamina (left, above).
Marquise’s relationship grew tighter with Ira than with anyone else. When he moved into his dorm room in Austin his freshman year, the only decoration Marquise brought for his walls was a wrinkled photograph of Ira wearing a blue suit and a white brim hat with blue trim, his face as weathered as the paper. Marquise later had the picture tattooed on his right forearm. Whenever Jennings sees games at Darrel K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, she doesn’t need to look for No. 84 to find Marquise. She just looks for Ira’s characteristic walk and sees it in her nephew.
But Ira never saw any of it. He died at age 70, shortly before Marquise’s freshman year at Rowlett High School. It left Marquise feeling alone.
Tamina hardly ate for two months after Ira’s death. She fell ill and was hospitalized. Marquise grew quiet. He didn’t talk about Ira for several weeks, and even then only in short bursts.
The boy was different when he emerged from his emotional hideaway. He looked at his family’s needs, how his mother would be gone for long stretches, how Deja needed constant assistance and how his younger sisters, Chez and Brye, were still pre-teens in need of paternal guidance. Ira filled some of those gaps by providing a man for their family.
“I had to assume that role, man,” Marquise said. “I had to make stuff happen.”
First, he told Tamina he needed a job. And when she declined his offer, Marquise hatched a new plan. He saw his life in a series of steps – methodical achievements in school and athletics, each bringing him closer to success that could provide for his family. His mind locked on that goal, a distant destination with a logical route.
But as Marquise looked to care for his own family, a new support network soon emerged to watch over him.
It took 30 minutes in the seventh grade for the football coaches to see someone special had entered their district.
Coyle Middle School had just started its morning practices, and Cougars coach Richard McCroan had released his team for the day’s classes when a slightly built young woman approached from behind.
Tamina Goodwin introduced herself and explained that her son entered school late after recently moving to Rowlett, a Dallas suburb. She gave McCroan a sealed letter and a soft appeal. “I’d like you to give him an opportunity to try out for football,” she said. Then she turned and left.
McCroan walked into school, opened the letter and found a touching plea. Tamina poured out her love for Marquise, how successful he had been on his elementary school teams and provided a newspaper clipping as evidence. It didn’t register as unusual – just about every player on Coyle’s team had a parent who thought their child was special. But McCroan could see something was different when he stepped into Marquise’s class.
A grinning kid in a pressed Hanes T-shirt and blue jeans stepped up. “He’s smiling ear-to-ear, and he’s the sweetest, best-looking kid I’ve ever seen in my life,” McCroan said. He handed Marquise the paperwork to get a physical. “Son, if your momma loves you as much as she says she does, then you’re going to get to play football.”
Marquise’s grin widened, and within the first half-hour of practice his coaches were doing the same. At an age when adolescents’ motor skills are self-defeating, Marquise’s movements were fluid. His friends on the Garland Track Club, who nicknamed him “Flash,” would poke fun at his perfect running form. But when Marquise ran by McCroan, his assistant Ron Johnson turned in astonishment. “I can hear him when he runs by,” Johnson said.
Marquise played wide receiver and cornerback and never lost a game at Coyle. But McCroan was drawn to him like a father not because of his athletics talent, but because of his gentle nature and welcoming smile. So when an opportunity to join the high school coaching staff opened, McCroan took it mainly so he could continue coaching Marquise and, like a proud father, see him blossom.
It nearly didn’t happen. McCroan gave Marquise a ride home one night early in his freshman year, and when the pair arrived, they learned that the family was moving. Tamina could no longer afford Rowlett and planned to move to Mesquite, another Dallas suburb where her mother, Billie, lived. Marquise lost Ira just a few months earlier. Now he was losing the coaches and teammates that were becoming extended family.
Marquise became upset. He didn’t portend to drop out, but he made every threat short of it. “I’m not going anywhere else to school,” Billie remembers Marquise telling Tamina. “I’m going to go to Rowlett.”
Marquise may have had no choice if the people of Rowlett hadn’t rallied to his side. And it wasn’t just because of his electrifying athletics ability. Everyone who came in contact with Marquise then, as now, was drawn in like McCroan. His personality was magnetic – selfless, polite and respectful. He had a way of making others feel good and asked for nothing in return. So they were compelled to cheer his success.
And the volunteers came in swarms when they heard Marquise needed support. The family of a football teammate, Diamonte Blake, initially agreed to house Marquise. And when that couldn’t work long-term, Marquise’s summer track coach, Darrell Jackson, and his wife, Edith, opened their door. McCroan and other close friends gave Marquise rides to see his family. Other Rowlett residents and civic groups helped the Jacksons with food, clothing and other basic essentials to support the community’s adopted son.
Special bonds formed during Marquise’s teenage years. His middle school coach, Richard McCroan, became a father figure for Marquise, and Marquise was considered part of the family. Left to right: Marquise and McCroan’s son, Wade, pose at one of the family’s Fourth of July picnics. McCroan and Marquise relax in front of the TV with other friends and family. McCroan with Marquise declaring loyalty to Texas during National Signing Day at Rowlett High School.
It was difficult being away from his own family. Marquise missed large portions of Chez and Brye’s childhood, and saw Deja only occasionally. But new family swooped in. He looked up to the parents of friends and coaches like grandparents. McCroan and his wife, Tracie, considered Marquise part of their family and welcomed him, Tamina and all their relatives to their family ranch each summer for a Fourth of July bash.
Their reward was watching Marquise blossom into a world-class athlete and successful student. He maintained A’s and B’s in school while developing into one of the top-20 receiving prospects in Texas and a legend on the track. He took gold medals in the long jump and 400-meter relay at the World Junior Championships in Poland and became just the 20th high schooler to go farther than 26 feet in the long jump. When he set the U.S. high school record at 26 feet, 10 inches, school officials started measuring their pits to ensure Marquise wouldn’t jump over them.
“He’s like a rock star,” Rowlett football coach Kiff Hardin said. “I’ve never seen anything like it, just the explosion coming off the board. Yeah, it draws a crowd.”
But none was quite like the 2008 Texas 5A high school state championship, during which Marquise put on a show.
He started in the early afternoon by winning the triple jump by more than two feet, and then defended his long jump title. Marquise turned to the crowd before each leap, slowly clapped his hands over his head and encouraged fans to follow along, like a football cheerleader. He worked them up until the stands were rolling thunder as he raced down the runway and jumped 26 feet, 1½ inches – nearly two feet better than his closest competitor.
Marquise retreated to the shade for a three-hour break and had the stadium in awe when he returned. At 6:05 p.m., he ran the second leg of Rowlett’s 400-meter relay team, whose time of 40.26 was the fastest in the nation that year. Then at 6:40 p.m., Marquise took second in the 100 meters, and with only 10 minutes to catch his breath was still bent over when the gun sounded for the 800-meter relay. Marquise’s left hamstring gave up before his heart did, tightening during the final steps of his leg. Rowlett finished third.
That day Rowlett clinched its first state track championship in 90 years, winning with 70 points. Marquise, with three state titles and five total medals, contributed to 60.
Olympic-quality athletes are no strangers to Texas track and field. Head coach Bubba Thornton has lost track of the full roster he’s sent to the games. Yet when he and other Texas coaches consider Marquise’s challenge in making the Olympic team, one play from a different field comes to mind.
It was Sept. 17, 2011, in Pasadena, Calif. The Longhorns football team was up, 21-7, on UCLA and driving at the Bruins’ 19-yard line. Texas quarterback Case McCoy stepped up in the pocket and dropped a short pass over the middle to receiver Mike Davis, who sprinted to the left sideline, where the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Marquise was waiting to lay a block.
UCLA junior defensive back Andrew Abbott, two inches and 20 pounds bigger, initially bit inside, then turned back toward the sideline to chase Davis when his chin found Marquise’s left shoulder pad. Abbott’s feet greeted the air in front of him and his helmet shot into the air like a popped cork, landing after his back met the ground. It drew a personal foul penalty but left a lasting memory.
In his 64th year with Garland ISD, Athletics Director Homer B. Johnson (left) became a strong influence in Marquise’s life. In 1984, the district renamed its 18,000-seat stadium in his honor. Marquise played his entire middle school and high school career in Homer B. Johnson Stadium.
“With his smile you don’t think that, and when you talk to him, you don’t see toughness there,” Texas coach Mack Brown said. “But he’s really tough. And I would think to be able to handle both sports and be an Olympic-type athlete, you’ve got to be tough just to go through those grueling hours of practice and training.”
And the hours have stitched into days and months ever since he arrived. Football practices start in early August and can run into January. Track picks up immediately afterward, overlaps with spring football and wraps up in June. It leaves Marquise with a six-week break before the cycle begins anew.
Yet he’s left behind nothing but a vapor trail of highlights. He scored the only touchdown in a win over Oklahoma after walking onto the football team as a freshman and later made a clutch 39-yard reception on third-and-25 in a national championship game loss to Alabama. He’s won two NCAA outdoor long jump titles and set Texas’ school record in the event. And this year Marquise won his third straight Big 12 outdoor long jump title in a conference-record 26 feet, 10 ½ inches, while running the 100 meters between jumps.
Even when Brown offered to let him redshirt last fall so he could focus on the IAAF World Championships, Marquise texted him just days after missing the finals in a tiebreaker, asking if he could still play.
“I’m missing football,” he typed. “Can I help?”
That was on a Sunday, after Marquise missed all of preseason practice while his teammates were adjusting to a new receivers coach and changes in the offense. He practiced on Tuesday, played in 12 of 13 games, and was third on the team in receptions. Through it all, he maintained his 3.3 GPA.
But it’s all part of the plan he laid out seven years ago. If track doesn’t provide a future, then football might. And if athletics can’t provide for his family, his degree will. But he doesn’t take his foot off the accelerator on any of the paths.
And he always remembers why he pushes himself.
Marquise regularly visits his supporters in Rowlett, who are forever tied to him as family. He even made a special trip in the midst of football season to see Hardin inducted into the Garland Independent School District’s Sports Hall of Fame. Marquise worked a room of former coaches and civic dignitaries like a politician, signing autographs, shaking hands and presenting a proud image for his former coach.
But his priority is to one person. Marquise’s first call after each football game goes to Deja, who is always watching, surrounded by family cheering for her brother. And his free time isn’t set aside for friends when he returns home with his ever-growing celebrity image. Instead, he takes Deja out to eat, to a movie or to Billie’s house. And sometimes when he’s in Austin, Deja will call and tug at his heart. “Brother, I want a pizza,” she’ll say. Thirty minutes later, a Domino’s pepperoni pizza will arrive at her door.
Marquise’s focus on being successful on and off the athletics fields has helped him become a starter on Texas’ football team, an NCAA and U.S. champion on the track, and a 3.3 GPA student.
Marquise makes no effort to hide his motivation. The house he designed for Deja in high school must become a reality.
And he is close. Everyone around him senses it.
It’s why last summer, as he was preparing to leave for the U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships, Marquise pressed Tamina to fly out with him. “If you need me there, I’m going to do my best to get there,” she assured him. But although she’d found a supportive employer at a Dallas Wal-Mart, where she now manages the children’s department, Tamina was still raising three children on her own. A flight to Oregon was too expensive.
“Momma, I need you there,” he kept pleading.
So Marquise called Tamina at work one afternoon. “Check your email,” was all he said. And when she opened her inbox a flight itinerary was inside. For months Marquise had been stashing money a little at a time, putting off nights out with friends and personal purchases to squirrel away a modest savings.
“You better be at the airport at 7:30 in the morning,” he said.
Tamina started screaming in the Wal-Mart offices. “I’ve got to take off! I’ve got to take off!”
And that’s how she found herself at Oregon’s Hayward Field last summer, watching under clear skies as her baby boy went to work. She can still see Marquise on his fourth attempt, the tension tightening his focus, leaning his body forward, then back, building up to the moment, then streaking down the runway looking straight ahead, ignoring the board until planting for takeoff.
“It’s like he was flying in the air,” Tamina remembers with awe. “That height he got on it: perfect. I mean, it was like the perfect form.”
The crowd exhaled with a long “oooooooh” when he landed, and Tamina jumped when she looked across the pit and saw Marquise was beyond the 27-foot marker. She cied and screamed before the announcement was even made: “Oh my God!”
Marquise had been trying since high school to eclipse 27 feet. He was always coming up just short, and Olympic qualifying would likely require him to break that barrier.
So the announcement wowed Tamina: 27 feet, 4 inches. Marquise was the U.S. long jump champion.
And the Olympics were officially within his grasp.
Marquise’s biggest supporters flocked to their computers, phones, televisions and stadium seats June 24 to witness his final jumps at the Olympic Trials.
In Mesquite, Deja settled onto Billie’s couch to watch the NBC broadcast, surrounded by her family. At his home in Trenton, Texas, McCroan turned on the computer from which he’d been emailing updates to two dozen friends, family members and Garland school district officials. And in Eugene, Rowlett track coach David Nanez and his wife, Cara, found their seats at the south end of Hayward Field, the gift they’d each decided upon to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.
Tamina found a seat in the 13th row of the main grandstand after persuading ushers to let her watch from the stadium’s prized seats across from the pit. Once again, Marquise spent the previous months saving money to bring Tamina with him. And once again he kept it a secret until after he had jumped 27 feet to win the NCAA outdoor title. “You’re going to Oregon,” he told her that night.
Tamina’s excitement and anxiety were all consuming. She wore a pink vest so Marquise could easily pick her out in the stands, but it covered a Longhorns T-shirt that read, “Losing? Never heard of it.”
“I’m not going to show it off until it’s done,” she said nervously.
Marquise walked calmly around the infield without a trace of nerves. Two jumpers faulted on their first three attempts and exited the competition, but Marquise leapt in front with a 26-foot, 5¾-inch first attempt. And when Will Claye – the only jumper in the competition to fly farther than Marquise this year – overtook him with a 27-foot leap on his third attempt, Marquise matched him moments later with his own 27-footer, moving back in front by a tiebreaker.
His calm was intimidating. As his competitors paced along the runway between jumps, Marquise sat on the ground, leaning back on his arms with his legs spread, as if soaking in the sun on a beach. He blew kisses to Tamina before his fourth attempt, then jumped 26 feet, 11¼ inches to cement his place on the Olympic team.
Tamina rocked on the bleacher seat and kneaded her fingers into her knees. “I’ve used more of my energy than I ever have,” she said through quick, shallow breaths. “I feel like I did the long jump.”
Even the news that Marquise had clinched his spot on the Olympic team didn’t calm her. He wanted to win, she said. And with two jumps to go, Claye snatched the lead away, ripping off a 26-foot, 11¾-inch leap on his final attempt to grab the tiebreaker over Marquise. One final jump separated Marquise from simply making the Olympic team, and leading it.
The pole vaulters had cleared the course. The sprinters had completed their final runs. Hayward Field remained packed, but only Marquise was left to draw the crowd’s eyes. The scoreboard screen focused on him as he stood on the runway. Marquise looked to the grandstand and clapped his hands over his head, imploring the crowd to follow. Tamina cupped her hands over her mouth as the pace of the roaring claps picked up and Marquise leaned back, pulled his right forearm in front of his face and took the 20 climactic steps of his life until he hit the board with a resounding crack.
At that moment in Mesquite, Deja threw her hands into the air and stiffened her body so excitedly that she nearly slid off Billie’s couch. As Marquise’s aunt, LaTina Jennings, was driving home from work in a rush to see Marquise jump, her phone started ringing as if it had short-circuited and was stuck in an infinite loop. And in Trenton, McCroan jumped out of his seat with such explosive elation that he couldn’t figure out how his head missed the ceiling.
Tears welled up in the corner of Tamina’s eyes as she saw Marquise pop out of the pit triumphantly and skip back up the runway. She stood and bounced nervously, hands cupped in front of her face.
“Is that your son?” someone asked just as the result was posted.
Twenty-seven feet, 4 inches.
In a moment he was building toward for several years, Marquise jumped 27 feet, 4 inches on his final attempt at the U.S. Olympic Trials to win the event and head to the London Games as America’s top long jumper.
“Yeeeaaahhh!” Tamina screamed in a piercing tone, jumping with her hands over her head. She pulled the pink vest off as she rushed out of the stands to meet her son, the Olympic Trials champion.
“Now I can show my shirt off,” she said, giggling.
Tamina was still trembling when she saw Marquise walking to the medal stand, his eyes bright and mouth open with a wide smile as he approached with a victorious strut. “Come here, baby,” Tamina said, and Marquise scooped her off the ground with a powerful nine-second embrace.
His life had been steadily building toward this moment. But as Marquise waved yellow flowers and an American flag from the tallest podium atop Hayward Field, he gave no indication of its personal significance. He thanked God. He expressed his gratitude. And he treated the moment with stoic grace.
Then he stepped down from his life’s grandest achievement, and his phone started ringing. Of course, it was Deja.
“Congratulations, boy!” she screamed.
Her house was one step closer to completion.
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of NCAA Champion magazine.
Photos courtesy of Stephen Nowland, NCAA Photos; Billie Williams; University of Texas; Richard McCroan; and Chris Pietsch, the Register-Guard.