Long Beach Poly’s Iman “Biggie” Marshall on top of the world
Iman Marshall is on top of the world. The high school senior, better known by his nickname “Biggie,” is master of all that he sees. After a 17-year long climb to the top, there’s nothing and no one above him but the clear blue sky and a seemingly limitless future.
Marshall is the top high school cornerback in America, and has already helped to lead Long Beach Poly to a CIF championship during his sophomore year. He’s sitting on scholarship offers from virtually every major college program in the nation, and his offers fill three rows on the recruiting board in the Jackrabbits’ football office. Among the school icons is a Pac-12 logo, there to signify that he has an offer from every school in the conference.
He’s earned comparison among some of the greats to come out of Poly. But the road to the top of the hill wasn’t quick, or easy.
At 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, Marshall is not a physical freak, but he may be the hardest working player at his position in the country. He’s part of a new breed of physical, technically skilled defensive backs who look a lot like those serving as the new frontlines of NFL defense.
For that reason, Poly coach Antonio Pierce said he hasn’t been showing Marshall film of high school receivers or corners, but rather clips of Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson, physical NFL corners who also have the athleticism to avoid drawing penalty flags.
“His football IQ is incredible,” says Pierce. “You only have to show him something once and he can mimic it immediately.”
Marshall began playing football at age 9, and says his first few practices ‑ at offensive tackle and defensive end because he was so big ‑ are the last time he can remember feeling in over his head on a football field. Shortly thereafter, he moved to running back and broke off a pair of 80-yard touchdowns in his first game. He and his father started playing Madden together when he was 7, and while playing he’d answer questions about what coverages the secondary was in, giving him hours and hours of “simulator time” off the field before he ever strapped on a helmet.
He started working out with elite high school players while still in sixth grade, and with his dad as an alumnus, he was fated to attend Poly. As a part of the best school in the country at producing top-level defensive backs talent (with nearly 20 NFL alums at corner or safety), Marshall is always competing against history.
Poly All-American Darrell Rideaux said he’d already put Marshall on the Mount Rushmore of Poly DBs, along with himself, Marquez Pope, and Mark Carrier, who won the Thorpe Award in college and was an NFL Rookie of the Year. There’s nothing left for Marshall to achieve on an individual basis. What he’s looking for now is legacy:
“I want to go down in history and be a legend at Poly. The only way to do that is to win a state championship.”
What is a father to do?
Is it better to stand back and let a son grow and mature by himself, making the inevitable mistakes that come with independence at a young age? Or, having seen a path twisted by those mistakes, is it better to be a constant presence at workouts and on the sidelines, guiding each step?
Tony Marshall made that decision eight years ago, during Iman’s first season playing Pop Warner.
“He broke for a long touchdown in practice his first day at running back,” remembers Tony. “The defensive coordinator stopped practice and was yelling, ‘What happened?’ And Iman just broke it down. He said, ‘The center blocked down, the guard pulled and got the linebacker, so I cut off the guard and broke it.’
“He was able to see it, replay it, and recall exactly how it happened as it was happening. Right there I knew, to be able to do that at 9, that’s pretty special.”
The last eight years have been a long journey, with Tony driving his son all over Southern California for camps and workouts, and helping to structure exercise and training plans. When Iman turned 10, the two of them sat down and came up with a seven-year plan.
Tony was aware of outside criticism, with other parents telling him he was going overboard, and it wasn’t right to push his son so hard. He didn’t waver.
When Tony played for Jerry Jaso at Poly in the early 1990s, Jaso told him that his career would be better on the defensive side of the ball. It took Tony four years to listen to him, not making the switch until his second year at LBCC, as part of the 1995 national championship team. He earned a scholarship offer to Texas Tech, but didn’t qualify academically. Those are the kinds of mistakes he hopes his son learns from.
“I didn’t have my dad there,” says Tony. “That’s the reason I make sure I’m there for mine. I know what it feels like to have that void ‑ I never wanted him to have that feeling of waiting for his pops to call him or to be there. That’s the gift I could give him, to be in his life every day, to help give him the tools to be successful.”
Iman, for his part, has no qualms about the number of hours he’s put in to become the best.
“When I was younger I didn’t understand what it was all about, but now I’m so grateful,” he says. “That’s why I’m here.”
Asked to imagine a life like Tony’s, growing up without a relationship with his father, Iman pauses for a long time, concentrating, and then says, “I can’t. I can’t even imagine my life without him. He’s always been there for me.”
“I share my flaws and weaknesses with him, to make sure they don’t become his flaws,” says Tony.
As Iman has grown up, Tony has had to learn to step away more, something he says has been hard, especially with all the increased attention around high school football players. Iman finally started his own Twitter account last year, after growing tired of reporting the fake accounts other people had set up.
“I understand the shift, rationally,” Tony says. “My son doesn’t just belong to me anymore, he belongs to the community ‑ to Long Beach. He’s bigger than just me, and what I want. And I trust him.”
Marshall won’t announce his college choice until February’s Signing Day, but local schools USC and UCLA are still considered frontrunners for his talents. In college he plans to study business with an eye toward real estate.
In addition to being a gifted football player he’s a bright student, earning major interest from Stanford. Marshall’s favorite subject is math, and he’s enrolled in AP Calculus for his senior year.
“Math is about routine and patterns, and that’s what I like about it,” he says. “You’re seeing a rhythm and a pattern, and then it all fits together.”
“That’s what life is,” Tony chimes in.
Fathers and sons have their own calculus, and the stresses and dynamics of that relationship can be difficult to solve ‑ but Iman and his dad seem to have found a way to put the puzzle together. Whatever lies ahead this season, Iman Marshall has already conquered Friday nights and the world of high school football. He’ll play on Saturdays next year, and quite possibly Sundays in the future. For now, he stands atop the hill ‑ by himself, but with his father behind him, never alone.