Leonard Marshall loves the sport that’s destroyed him.
The former New York Giants defensive great spent 12 seasons in the NFL, winning two Super Bowls, making two Pro Bowls and earning millions of dollars. He watches games constantly, passionately debates the biggest league moves and the upstairs mancave in his airy Passaic County condo is festooned with memorabilia.
He says he has no regrets about his years on the field, even though he now suffers from headaches, depression, mood swings and memory loss associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the brain disease caused by repetitive blows to the head.
Marshall, 57, loves football so much that of course he wants it to love him back — which is why his exclusion from a certain accolade burns so much. The Giants have not inducted Marshall into the team’s Ring of Honor, even as he and others say they’ve recognized players with lesser statistics and accomplishments.
“It bothers the daylights out of me,” Marshall says, as he lounges on the brown leather couch in his condo earlier this month.
Some close to Marshall believe it’s because he frequently speaks out about CTE, a role he took on in 2013 after becoming one of the first living former NFL players to be diagnosed with signs of the disease. Marshall hated who he was becoming after football, overtaken by erratic behavior and volcanic fits of rage. So, he became one of the biggest voices to warn the world about what can await players who forge a life in the NFL trenches.
“In my mind, the reason he’s not in, he’s on the forefront of the concussion topic,” says Steve Vanacore, a friend of Marshall’s and a former Giants season-tickets holder. “It’s a shame I have to think that way. But I can’t think of any other reason.”
Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation and a leading voice in the field, calls Marshall “an incredible and important spokesman for this issue.”
“Having a player of his caliber talking about how serious concussions and CTE are has been enormously beneficial to getting people to take it seriously,” Nowinski says.
For his part, Marshall stops short of making the same claim that his outspokenness has hurt his chances, saying, “I would hope not.”
But as he waits and wonders if he will ever be tapped, he notes: “There’s a disconnect somewhere.”
His statistics would certainly seem to justify inclusion: Marshall is third on the Giants all-time list in career sacks, behind only Hall of Famers and Ring of Honor inductees Lawrence Taylor and Michael Strahan.
He has 19 more sacks and 207 more tackles with the Giants than Justin Tuck, another defensive end who was inducted in 2016. And he tallied 284 more tackles and four-and-a-half more sacks than 2015 inductee Osi Umenyiora, also a defensive end.
In an email, Pat Hanlon, the Giants’ senior vice president of communications, calls Marshall “an outstanding player” and adds that he’s “one of several players … who have been discussed as worthy candidates for the Ring of Honor.”
Hanlon did not respond to questions about whether Marshall’s association with concussion and CTE awareness has impacted his Ring of Honor candidacy. But he writes that “we respect his advocacy on behalf of former players.”
That’s cold comfort for Marshall. In his condo earlier this month, his gravelly voice rises with conviction when he talks about the accolade. He shakes his head softly.
“I gave those people everything I had,” he says. “I gave that organization everything.”
Marshall grew up in Franklin, La., a speck of a city in the bayou where more than a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the latest census. He emerged from the destitution as a football star, earning a scholarship to LSU and getting selected by the Giants in the second round of the 1983 NFL draft.
Marshall joined the Giants as Bill Parcells was taking over as head coach and two years before Bill Belichick became defensive coordinator. The defense, led by Marshall, Taylor, Harry Carson and Carl Banks, was so formidable it was known as the “Big Blue Wrecking Crew.”
Taylor, perhaps the greatest defensive player of all-time, often overshadowed all his teammates. But Marshall had plenty of big moments. He sacked Broncos quarterback John Elway twice to help the Giants capture the franchise’s first Super Bowl in 1986, and he authored perhaps the greatest defensive play in team history when he sacked San Francisco’s Joe Montana in the third quarter of the 1990 NFC Championship game.
“He was so underrated because he was paired alongside Lawrence Taylor,” Banks says. “He was in his own right a very dynamic player.”
Marshall also emerged during an era when the NFL famously had little understanding of the dangers of concussions or repetitive blows to the head. Marshall says it was commonplace to get dazed or “knocked a little unconscious,” yet he never recalled being diagnosed with a concussion.
“You got dinged, you got knocked silly, they popped an ammonia cap and put your ass back in the game,” Marshall says.
Once, he says, he was even knocked out cold when Saints running back George Rogers launched his helmet directly into Marshall’s facemask.
“All I remember is asking Lawrence, ‘Just pick me up, man. I don’t know where I’m at. Just walk me off the field,’” Marshall says.
Marshall also has been pointed about the punishment he absorbed in Giants practices during the Parcells and Belichick era. In an essay on the Players Tribune website in 2015, he wrote that “all those two-a-day practices spent banging [my] head like an animal” may have given him pause had he known what life would be like later.
He describes his Giants practices bluntly: “It was like watching poetry in motion knocking the [expletive] out of each other for an hour and 45 minutes a day.”
The symptoms started terrifying him in 2005 — a decade after he retired from the NFL. That’s when Marshall’s headaches, memory lapses and light sensitivity intensified. Even more frightening were his mood swings — the way his anger could explode in an instant. His mind and body were falling apart, but the toll on his personal life was just as significant, leading to a fractured relationship with his daughter and then-wife, who Marshall says he separated from in 2009 and divorced two years later.
One day in 2007, while living in South Florida, Marshall said he drove to the grocery store and his mind went blank. Standing in the aisles, he didn’t know where he was or why he was there. His heart started thumping, and he was overtaken by a panic attack.
“That’s when I realized something was wrong,” he says. “That’s when I realized, ‘I need help.’”
Two years later, Marshall met his fiancé, Lisa Norcia, at a steakhouse in Newark. Still, his symptoms festered, and he started learning more about concussions. In 2011, he became one of the biggest names added to a landmark lawsuit against the NFL claiming the league had willfully misled its players over the long-term impact of head injuries.
Then in 2013, Marshall took part in a groundbreaking brain study at UCLA, along with former NFL players Tony Dorsett, Joe DeLamielleure and Mark Duper. Marshall says doctors put him through a battery of tests and scans before concluding he showed strong signs of CTE — the first time it was detected in living former players.
After the diagnoses, Marshall and Norcia vowed to tackle the disease together. It meant connecting Marshall with the best neurologists and doctors and making sure he has access to support groups.
Even so, Norcia says, each day is “like a rollercoaster.”
Dealing with brain disease also injected Marshall was a new mission: To start speaking out about concussions and the dangers of playing football. He did interviews on national television and radio, toured the country speaking and pledged to donate his brain to researchers at the famed Concussion Legacy Foundation in Boston.
Recently, Marshall became a spokesman and brand ambassador for a pair of cannabidiol (CBD) companies, which he says helps with symptoms associated with CTE.
“I don’t go a step away from my house without a form of CBD in my pocket,” Marshall says.
Still, he never can tell when a bout of crippling depression will envelope him, or when he might forget something important — like the fact that the daughter of his close friend, Vanacore, was married.
Marshall struggles most trying to figure out where his normal brain capacity ends and the damage he absorbed begins. For instance, when he makes a bad decision regarding a business venture, gets into a spat with Norcia or can’t find the words to articulate his thoughts, he starts questioning himself.
Is that just him, or the brain injuries?
“When I get out of balance, when a question mark goes over my head — that’s when I’m not Leonard,” he says. “That’s when I’m lost in translation.”
The Giants created their Ring of Honor in 2010 as a way to acknowledge remarkable former players, while also serving as an alternative to retiring numbers. The first class included 30 people, and the Giants added two more groups in 2015 and 2016, bringing the total to 42 former players and team personnel.
According to the team’s website, the Ring of Honor “commemorates some of the most prominent and influential figures in Giants history.”
To the surprise of many, Marshall still didn’t make the cut, even as Tuck and Umenyiora were inducted despite playing the same position and putting up lesser statistics.
Marshall’s snub was so noteworthy that two online petitions were created seeking to get him in. One has 1,194 signatures.
Carson, who is in the Ring of Honor, says Marshall “certainly deserves to be in,” and Banks, another honoree, adds, “Two words: He’s worthy.”
Hanlon says the Giants have not scheduled their next Ring of Honor induction. But, he adds, “my sense is [Marshall] will once again receive strong consideration when the next class is selected.”
Vanacore says he wrote two letters to Giants owner John Mara criticizing the organization for not inducting Marshall. He maintains Marshall hasn’t been inducted “because he’s on the forefront of the concussion lawsuit.”
“You can’t sit there and tell me based on what he did on the field he doesn’t deserve to be in there,” Vanacore says.
Nowinski says it wouldn’t surprise him if Marshall’s involvement in concussion awareness hurts his chances because “players who become advocates risk losing their relationship with the teams.”
“That’s why we have zero active NFL players talk about CTE publicly as a serious issue,” Nowinski says.
Carson, meanwhile, also has been outspoken about concussions and works for the Giants as a co-host for various shows. One difference between he and Marshall is Carson did not join the lawsuit suing the NFL, nor has Carson ever claimed to have CTE.
“I don’t know if the Giants are holding anything against Leonard,” Carson says. “But what Leonard is doing, I applaud.”
Over a three-hour visit in his condo in a gated community, the damage Marshall carries from his playing days is obvious. He forgets dates and specifics. He rattles off an endless list of daily medication he swallows. And, from time to time, he closes his eyes unexpectedly for several seconds, drawing
s deep, heavy breaths, almost looking asleep.
Norcia rubs his back, asks if he’s okay, and his eyes snap open.
“No, I’m just listening,” Marshall says.
Toward the end of the visit, Marshall lifts his body from the couch, his joints crackling like fireworks. Twenty-four years after his playing days, he still is a hulking man with huge, broad shoulders and a barrel chest forged from a lifetime in the weight room.
Marshall turns and ambles up the stairs to a loft filled with Giants memorabilia. He proudly shows off his two Super Bowl trophies, his old shoulder pads and helmet, framed team photos and a variety of pictures from his playing days.
The Ring of Honor isn’t just a gold watch marking decades of service. It’s about being immortalized by the franchise to which Marshall sacrificed his mind and body. It means having his name in bold letters atop the stadium, along with the other Giants legends, for the rest of time.
“It matters to me because of what I put into being a member of the Giants,” Marshall says. “For me, the Ring of Honor represents the pinnacle.”
Vanacore says he hopes the Giants recognize Marshall before it’s too late.
“They need to honor him while he’s alive,” Vanacore says. “I don’t want to see them wake up after he’s gone.”
Marshall takes one last look at his awards.
He sighs, then slowly heads back downstairs.
The wait continues.