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From Compton to Utah: Alphonso Marsh’s unfinished journey
College football » After shooting, family issues, U. cornerback recruit hopes to land on the roster.

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Dominguez varsity coach Keith Donerson watched Marsh play on the jayvee team in 10th grade and thought Marsh had the talent to work his way into a more stable life. But Marsh wasn’t easily convinced.

"He was walking the fence," Donerson says. "He wasn’t on the football side, he wasn’t on the gang side. But with us, you have to make a choice."

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Marsh’s star rose in 7-on-7 camps before his junior season, Donerson says, and when his older teammates began to boast about their official visits, he bought in. He tore his ACL, MCL and PCL the summer before his senior season, but he’d made enough of an impression that a handful of Pac-12 schools were still interested.

His grandmother — "She was more like another mother, because she raised him, too," his mom says — suffered from chronic lupus and demanded reassurances from Donerson throughout Marsh’s recruitment. Will they feed Alphonso? Will they house Alphonso? Will they help Alphonso graduate?

"She wanted to make sure he was taken care of," Donerson says. "I think she knew she was going to die."

SLC or bust » The Curley Rachals cried tears of joy when Marsh left for Utah with North Long Beach wide receiver and childhood Pop Warner rival Delshawn McClellon, and that’s where the fairy tale ends.

Just days before fall camp, Marsh was playing Electronic Arts’ NCAA ’13 with McClellon and fellow freshman corner Justin Thomas when he got sick to his stomach.

"I was throwing up, throwing up, throwing up," he says. His teammates joked that it was the cafeteria food, but Marsh was scared enough to ask junior defensive back Keith McGill for a ride to the hospital. McGill "kind of knew what was wrong with me," Marsh says, "but he didn’t want to tell me."

His appendix had burst. Gone were any hopes of playing as a true freshman. It took Marsh a month to recover, and when he looked in the mirror he saw that the extra muscle mass he’d spent the summer building had vanished.

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Back home, his mother had been laid off and was struggling to find work. He called her almost every day. Above all, it seems, Marsh was just plain lonely in Salt Lake City.

"That was a culture shock for Alphonso," Donerson says. "A lot of these kids, I know it’s a bad environment here, but it’s still home. When they get outside that environment and they go through adversity, they come home."

Donerson tried to reach out but Marsh didn’t want to hear it. He went back to Compton the week Utah played UCLA at the Rose Bowl, and he asked the team for his release.

Whittingham says most inner-city athletes have positive experiences at the U. and that breakups like Marsh’s are due largely to bad luck. "The players that come out of there, a lot of them are looking for a change," he said. "It’s a big responsibility and one that we embrace as a staff."

Marsh’s exploits at Utah were limited to his practices after the appendectomy. On one play, he says he broke off a blitz to intercept a quick out to senior DeVonte Christopher. At parties, he says teammates would introduce him to fans and say, "This is going to be the future of the Utes." "Everybody was like, he’s really a big-time [player]," Marsh says.

Back to Cali » One day during Marsh’s junior year of high school, he was walking to the house of his cousin, Eastern Washington cornerback Diamonte Wiggins, when a car pulled up next to him. A gang member demanded to know where he was from — code for "who are you with?"

Marsh said he wasn’t in a gang. They told him to pull down his hood, he did, and the mood vastly improved.

"They were like ‘Oh, you Alphonso, huh? You’re that football player. Just put on for the city. I’m proud of you.’"

But his reputation took a big hit when he came back from Salt Lake City. Everyone was suddenly an expert on why he didn’t cut it at Utah, and everyone suddenly knew all along it would be so.

He also didn’t have a home. His first three months back he stayed with a former teammate from park league basketball, Dorrell Slaughter, who lent him some clothes when he saw that all Marsh had were sweat pants and a couple pairs of jeans .

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