Three years ago, Marshal Cohen made a stunning debut as a sophomore quarterback for the Wolverines.

But promising starts don't always lead to smooth finishes.

Marshal Cohen ’16 bobbles a snap and sprints towards his offensive line. It’s the first game of his senior year, and it’s the big one. Loyola. Two years ago, on this same field, Marshal and his Wolverines shocked everybody with a win.

But that was two years ago. That was an ACL tear, a surgery and hours of rehab ago.

There’s nowhere to run on the inside, so Marshal bounces to the open field. He started the game with an interception but followed that with a big run to get his team where they are now: inside the 20-yard-line, about to tie the game up.

He sprints past the 15, the 10-yard-lines, and he sees a safety coming his way. He plants his foot to cut, and the safety comes in low to make the hit, below that surgically repaired left knee.

Marshal flies in the air and lands on top of the safety, but the knee does not move. He hears the sound that has haunted him for the last two years, the sound he never wanted to hear again. It sounds like someone biting into a carrot, the sound of cartilage and ligaments and scar tissue snapping, the sound of high school hopes and dreams ripping in half.

He tries to jog to the sideline, but it hurts too much to run. The team doctor does his tests, and without saying a word, looks at the trainer. The trainer looks at Marshal, and he knows.

He lies back on the trainer’s table, puts a towel over his face, and begins to cry.

Marshal was too big for Pop Warner when he signed up at eight. He wanted to play quarterback, like everybody else, but he looked like an eight-year-old offensive linemen, so that’s where the coach played him.

Two years of offensive line, and Marshal had had enough. He searched for another team that would let him play quarterback, and he found one in the Wilshire Huskies. He still remembers the first play when everything clicked, when he went from dreaming of playing in college to knowing he would play in college. He remembers watching NFL players on TV and being able to translate their moves to the Pop Warner fields.

It was his first game with the new team. In his purple uniform, he got his handle on a bad snap, and then raced outside. A defender was coming, and Marshal planted, cut and got free. Then he juked another guy. It was only a 10-yard gain, but it was enough.

“I can do this,” Marshal thought. “This is fun.”

He was hooked. Football was taking him places.

When Marshal reached middle school, he knew had to find a school with a real, tackle football team. It didn’t matter what division they were in. He didn’t know what divisions were, as long as there were pads and helmets and goal posts. That’s how he ended up at Brentwood, which plays in, as Marshal describes it, “Division 13.”

As a freshman, he should have started at varsity quarterback, and according to Marshal, anyone on the team would agree. But the coach leaned on seniority, and the other quarterback was a senior. Marshal’s Varsity dreams were dead in the water. The JV team that he led went undefeated, the first JV team to do so in school history.

In their first game, they were winning 44-0 at half time. The second half was mayhem; the JV coach let Marshal call plays. Offensive linemen lined up at receiver. The game was over, and they were just boys playing football, having fun.

After the game, the varsity coach learned what happened. Furious, he went to every JV player’s helmet and ripped off the wing decals, so they were just plain and blue.

“We knew we were good,” Marshal explains now. “And he didn’t like that.”

It was only a few more weeks before Marshal knew he had to transfer. He wanted to play football, and he had gotten a taste of that. Now, he had to play real high school football. “It was fun, but it wasn’t challenging,” Marshal said. “It wasn’t competitive.”

“There’s no one behind me,” Kanoff replied, who had committed to play quarterback at Princeton.

He met Chad Kanoff ’13, then Harvard-Westlake’s senior quarterback, at a quarterback camp. They were doing drills, and Marshal explained what he wanted: a good school with a good football team.

“There’s no one behind me,” Kanoff replied, who had committed to play quarterback at Princeton.

So, Marshal sent a Harvard-Westlake athletic director an email with some tape. He applied and got in.

After his first summer practice, he went home with his new playbook. The Wolverines ran a no-huddle offense. There were plays to learn, but harder still were the hand signals. All week, he practiced with his dad and his friends. They would play coach, and he would play quarterback, getting the signals and making the play.

At the end of that week, they had a 7-on-7 scrimmage. The first play, Marshal looked to the sideline for the signal, but all he saw was a blur.

He nodded like he understood, dropped back and threw an interception.

“I had no idea what [Coach] was doing,” Marshal says. “He was going so fast.”
Quarterback Marshal Cohen ’16 breaks a tackle in a run against Serra in 2013.
Credit: Jack Goldfisher/Chronicle

Marshal didn’t know if he would be able to play in the opener against Loyola his sophomore year until the Tuesday before the game. There was a holdup with his eligibility after the transfer. That week of practice, Marshal kept making small mistakes. He was trying to get everything under control.

It seemed like the entire school came out to see that game, the biggest in school history. When Marshal ran out, he wa­­s excited, ready to see himself against real competition.

“This is real football,” he thought. “This is what I’ve been looking for.”

This was a rivalry, but a lopsided one. Harvard-Westlake could beat Loyola in debate competitions and Science Bowls. Harvard-Westlake is the nerd school, Loyola is for the jocks. Loyola, the six-time state championship winners. Harvard-Westlake, who rarely makes a playoff run.

The game started out slowly in the August heat, as the Wolverines methodically running the ball down Loyola’s throat. It wasn’t until the second drive that they threw the ball. All game long, Marshal ran and threw the ball around Loyola’s defense, but he had no idea what he was doing. On a read option, he would make the wrong read but run around the linebacker and find the end zone anyway.

“What’s so special about that game, personally, is I was just playing,” he says. “Not having any idea what I was doing.”

At the end of the fourth quarter, he took a knee and hugged his senior center. The players on the sideline ran out towards him, and then came the fans, his new classmates, and they all celebrated there at the center of the field. A school that didn’t care about football transformed into a Texas high school for one night. This was Friday Night Lights. This was real football.

And, with a sophomore star at the helm, it seemed to just be beginning.
The team dumps water on Head Coach Scot Ruggles after their 27-21 victory in 2013.
Jack Goldfisher/Chronicle

The next four games followed a similar pattern. The crowds were as big as they had ever been, and the Wolverines played the best football they ever had. When they played Sylmar, Time Warner televised it as their game of the week, and they won 65-24, now 4-0.

After every game, Marshal would have to wait before heading into the locker room. Newspaper reporters wanted interviews. At school, everyone was talking about the new kid.

The next big game was Serra. The same Serra that sends players to USC year after year. The same Serra that had won two state titles in three years and was looking to make that three in four. The Wolverines knew they could win that game. They were just waiting to prove it.

But first they had to beat Palisades High at homecoming, a game they knew they would win as well. It was homecoming, after all. The team you schedule for homecoming is a team you know you can beat.

All game long, Marshal couldn’t take his eyes off of the Ferris wheel in the end zone. There were carnival games everywhere and senior girls. He had plans to go to a party afterwards, maybe see one of those senior girls.

Yet, early in the fourth quarter, Marshal looked at the scoreboard after a Pali touchdown. It was 31-11, and they were losing. When the quarter ended, it read 45-18.

He had let himself get distracted. He'd let his team get distracted. He failed, he says, as a as a leader. He failed himself.

As the Ferris wheel taunted him in the end zone, and the senior girls looked on, Marshal hung his head with the shock and weight of failure. He did not go to any parties that night.

The next Friday, the Serra game was, in every respect, a disaster. The Wolverines lost 63-7. The cockiness was gone. The swagger was history. They were once a team on the rise, but now they had no direction.

“We were so confident,” Marshal remembers. “And I think that’s part of why we lost to Pali. We were thinking, ‘Oh Pali, we’re just gonna beat them.’ And then Serra, once we lost to Pali, it was like, ‘We just gotta get through the Serra game.'”

The next week, against St. Paul, Marshal was standing on the sideline about to go in. He remembers feeling very ready, ready to shake the stigma of only being an athlete and become a real high school quarterback. He had worked for this moment, by himself in the weight room and on the field with quarterback coaches, ever since he made two kids miss in Pop Warner. He was going to make a step in this game, one step closer to college.

He jogged on the field, and bungled the snap.

He got it under control and started running in the open field. He made a cut, and his knee tightened and the pain began.

That’s when he heard it the first time. A bite into a carrot. Dead in his tracks, he looked around.

“What was that sound?” he thought to himself, scanning the field for a defender. “Did I just get tackled?”

Nobody had touched him. On the sideline, he thought to himself, “Worst-case scenario.” He knew it was torn.

Marshal discounts his junior season. He understood the game better mentally, but he was lost physically. All summer he worked on rehabbing his knee so that he could play. He wasn’t trying to get back to where he was as a sophomore, he was just trying to get well enough.

He missed that season’s Loyola game still nursing the torn ACL, and his team lost without him. When he came back in week two, he was clearly not the same player he once was, and his Wolverines lost in the first round of the playoffs.

“This is the first time I can say that I truly put in 110 percent this summer,” Marshal says, looking out over the field that was the backdrop for his high school career. He had already rehabbed his knee.

Now it was time to strengthen it, to get it back to where it once was and then better than it ever had been. He needed his knee for his senior season. He needed his knee to play himself into a college scholarship offer.

He lifted with the team and without the team. He stayed late after practice working on throws. He was quicker than ever, stronger than ever, better than ever. In the weight room, he finally was squatting the same weight he had as a sophomore, but he wasn’t happy. He wanted to squat another five pounds more, so come the season opener against Loyola, he could shock everybody again.

When Marshal woke up the morning of this year’s Loyola game, he wasn’t excited. He wasn’t nervous either. He was ready. Ready to show everyone what he’d been working so hard towards.

Ready to show himself that all the work was worth it. Ready to prove that his sophomore year wasn’t a fluke. Ready to earn a Division-I offer.

“They haven’t beaten us when I’ve played,” he would tell people. It was a joke, but he was right.

About three hours before kick-off, the team gathered in the weight room to focus and relax. They were doing breathing exercises. Marshal sat there, in the same room where he had fought his own body. In the same room where Marshal became Marshal again. In the same room where he caught a ghost.

Inhale, exhale.

“All I have to do is be myself,” he thought.

Inhale, exhale.

“You’re gonna kill it.”

Inhale, exhale.

“You’re gonna tear your ACL again.”

He pushed it out of his mind as quickly as it came.

“Get out the negative thoughts. You’re ready. You deserve this. That would be crazy. That would be the worst.”

Inhale, exhale.

It wasn’t long before it was time to play.

Marshal threw an interception on the first drive. He was trying to force a play, he says, trying to make something out of nothing. He didn’t let the game come to him.

When he got off the field, he expected his coach to yell at him, like he always did when Marshal threw an interception. But instead, his coach took him aside and explained what he did wrong, without popping any veins in his forehead.

Marshal didn’t need to be yelled at anymore. He knew he had messed up, and he knew how to recover. He wasn’t just an athlete anymore. He was a quarterback.

He was at school when his mom called him with the news a week after the injury.

“Doctor says it’s torn,” she said over the phone. “I’m so sorry.”

Whenever people would come up to him at school and ask him if it was his ACL again, he would tell them he hadn’t gotten his MRI results back. He didn’t want anyone to know it was over. He didn’t want anyone to believe it was over. He wanted to preserve the same hope that, a week before, drove he and his coach to talk about him making a return by the end of the season, putting on the black and red one more time.

But those dreams were dead now. He texted his coach the news.

“I’m sorry,” Coach texted back. “Now we have to figure out the next step.”

The week after the season opener and the week after the last high school football game he will ever play, Marshal Cohen stands in the middle of practice, fenced in by boys in pads ramming at full speed, reckless and alive.

Cohen is in shorts and T-shirt, and under those shorts you can see a neoprene knee brace there to help him stand.

He watches his team warm up, and he watches somebody else lead the pre-practice chant, and then he watches a freshman take his place behind center in shotgun.

Cheetah west! Cheetah west! Monday-Monday-Monday! Down, set…hut!

A whistle blows, and the team runs off in every direction to get water, to prepare for another play and then another and then another.

An old teammate heads for Marshal. “How’s the knee, man?”

“It’s okay.”

“Hey, I’m real sorry you have to go through all this again. That sucks,” and the teammate is staring at the brace around Marshal’s knee, not even pretending to look his old quarterback in the eyes.

“It sucks,” Marshal says, and the players are done with their water break and heading straight for him now. He is standing where the next drill is about to begin, and he is just another obstacle in their way. “It really, really sucks.”

He makes his way to his coach and asks if he could get some exercise on the stationary bike. He talked to some Division III coaches earlier, and they said they were still interested. He has to get healthy. He has to play football again.

So, as receivers and defensive backs gab at one another, and linemen and linebackers hurl their bodies at one another, Marshal Cohen heads past the locker rooms to an empty workout room. He climbs on a stationary bike and starts pedaling.

Editor’s Note: This article was first published Oct. 22 in Harvard-Westlake's student-produced Big Red Magazine.
Watch Marshal Cohen's debut as a Wolverine in 2014. Credit: HWTV

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