Soft. It’s something no athlete wants to be labeled, but in Marcus Sales’ case, it’s an apt descriptor: soft-spoken in a sport characterized by bravado and at a position distinguished by braggadocio; soft hands that pluck sizzling passes out of midair. Hell, according to his high school coach, even his footsteps are soft.
Joe Casamento, the longtime football coach at powerhouse Christian Brothers Academy, remembers when a scout from the University of Virginia asked to listen to Sales run.
“What do you mean ‘listen to him run’?” asked Casamento.
But then he saw, or rather, heard what the scout was talking about. Sales was on the basketball court with his CBA teammates, and while they were obviously straining to run flat out as fast as they could, Marcus was cool, calm and collected.
And quiet. He was faster than all of them.
“I’m not used to guys like that,” said Casamento. “I’m used to guys, when they run that fast, they’re going as hard as they can to run that fast. He’s very smooth, so it looks effortless.”
He earned the nickname “Saturday Sales” from the coaches at Syracuse; the player who might not seem to give it his all in practice, but who always came to play at game time. And while Casamento believes it’s a result of Marcus’ natural ability, his father thinks it has just as much to do with his laid-back personality.
“You put a ball in his hand, he’s Superman,” said Michael Sales. “You take that ball out of his hands, he’s Underdog. You may not get everything you want in practice, but when the lights come on, he’s all in. That’s always been him ... all he needs you to do is egg him on.”
He recalled a CBA basketball game against Chittenango. Marcus had played an unselfish game, involving his teammates and making sure they got their shots, but he hadn’t scored much himself.
Then the chants started: “Over-rated.”
Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap.
It fired Marcus up, got his blood boiling. As Michael remembers it, Marcus dropped a few three-pointers in a row, then turned to the crowd with his index finger to his mouth, letting them all know they could kindly sit down and shut up.
It’s fair to say that things have sometimes come too easily for Sales, at least on the playing field. He’s always been a step faster or a shake shiftier than his competitors. But it’s in the face of adversity, encountered throughout his career at Syracuse, that Sales displayed his best. Now he faces his toughest test yet as he tries to prove himself worthy of a selection in next month’s NFL Draft.
The Sales family’s Syracuse roots run deep. Michael worked 21 years for the Syracuse Police Department before retiring. Marcus’ mother, Rosalee, a county technician and cashier for the Department of Veterans Affairs, is a native. They raised Marcus, 24, and his two brothers, Dion and Michael Jr., on the South Side.
Marcus met his wife in Syracuse, too, and he’s hoping to provide for her and two young sons, both born here. He first began to show an unusual aptitude for athletics when he was their age.
“He wanted to be like his brothers,” said Michael. “His brothers were out chasing the ball, so he’d chase the ball. But Marcus is one of those kids who, even when it’s 95 degrees out, he’s still out chasing the ball.”
Marcus emerged as a star on the Pop Warner football field and joined then 14-year-old Michael Jr.’s Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball team when he was only 10.
He attended CBA after his parents agreed to pay the $750 monthly tuition if Marcus agreed to work hard in the classroom. He lived up to his end of the bargain, and it’s a decision that his parents don’t regret.
“That’s a wonderful community,” said Michael. “That’s the best money we ever spent.”
But it was also at CBA that Marcus first had to work to get on the field. He was faced with athletes who had similar God-given abilities, were more physically developed and had established better technique and practice habits. “I thought he was a raw talent,” said Casamento, “great body awareness, but didn’t really know how to run routes. He had just always used his athleticism as a young kid.”
The fact that he wasn’t handed playing time served him well.
“There were players in front of him like Bruce (Williams) and Lavar (Lobdell), guys that kind of served as role models to show what it would take and what he had to do,” said Casamento. “He was never the top dog while those guys were there. They were older and further along, so it was good because he always had somebody to chase.”
Williams and Lobell became mentors to him, and Marcus earned a place on the varsity team his sophomore year.
Marcus decided to focus on football after he started receiving letters of interest from programs around the country. He became a sought-after prospect, receiving a four-star rating (out of five) from recruiting websites Scout.com and Rivals.com. He was named a high school All-American. Scholarship offers came in from places like North Carolina and Pittsburgh, as well as Syracuse.
And while many parents want to see their kids stay close to home, Michael urged him to leave, fearing the pressure placed on a hometown hero by a fanatical college fan base.
“I wanted him to go away, because I felt that the people in Syracuse were just too unfair to local kids,” he said. “He should get as far away from Syracuse as he possibly can.”
But Marcus leaned heavily on the advice of Williams and Lobdell, both of whom had signed with Syracuse after high profile recruitments of their own.
“We told Marcus to take all the visits, everywhere,” said Williams. “Get all five visits in, and really weigh the pros and cons before making his decision. Do what you want to do, and make that decision for yourself, no one else.”
He chose the Orange despite his father’s warnings.
“He always wanted me to go somewhere down south like Florida, North Carolina, something like that,” said Marcus. “But me? I just wanted to stay home because I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to help turn the program around. It was kind of an easy choice for me with Bruce and Lavar there.”
He became the jewel of Syracuse coach Greg Robinson’s 2008 recruiting class and was expected to contribute early. As a freshman, he saw limited action, playing in 11 games and catching 14 passes, including a touchdown against Penn State.
But the turnaround in the program didn’t happen quickly enough for Robinson, and he was fired after the 2008 season. Doug Marrone took over as head coach, and Sales was forced to start over.
“When a new coach comes in, you don’t know what to expect,” he said. “You don’t know if you’re going to be playing or if he’s going bring in recruits ready to come in front of you.”
Marcus and his teammates had to justify their places on the team to a new coach who had no allegiance to them.
“All the players had to prove themselves to coach Marrone when he first came in,” said Williams. “Those guys who were here who were not part of the recruiting classes from coach Marrone felt like it was a new start, and with a new start you have to prove yourself.”
Sales struggled for consistency. After expecting to be a major contributor his sophomore year, he finished with only 28 receptions and three touchdowns in 12 games. Things seemed even worse after the spring practices his junior year, when many observers expected him to start.
“I remember there was this really surprising moment where the post-spring depth chart came out,” said Sean Keeley, founder of Syracuse sports blog Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician. “At the time, we went into the season thinking Marcus Sales was the number one receiver, and he wasn’t even on the depth chart. It’s not that he was second or third. He wasn’t even on it.”
Word began to leak out that the coaching staff was unhappy with his practice habits.
“It came out that basically that was his punishment for what was perceived as a lack of trying in practice, and the coaches felt like he wasn’t playing up to his potential,” said Keeley. “He had to work his way out of that hole pretty much all season.”“You put a ball in his hand, he’s Superman”
Casamento could relate to Marrone’s situation and thought he knew what was going on, reflecting on his experience with Marcus.
“It doesn’t look like he’s working, which always upset me, but he is,” said Casamento. “I think sometimes we get an idea of what we expect to see, and we think that’s the way it is, but there’s more than one way to do it.”
Whether or not the criticism was warranted, Marcus understood that he had to change, but his confidence remained intact.
“I always knew I had the talent to play,” he said. “It wasn’t that I wasn’t making plays, it was just me being consistent with it, me changing my mindset. But I always knew I could make plays.”
The work he put in seemed to pay off on December 30, 2010. At the end of Sales’ junior season, Syracuse had earned a place in the inaugural Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium, the Orange’s first bowl bid since 2004. They prepared to play the Kansas State Wildcats in the aftermath of a blizzard that buried New York City. On the sidelines before the game, Williams, then a graduate assistant with the team, told Marcus he expected him to score three touchdowns in the game.
was a lofty goal, but Marcus didn’t disappoint him, catching five
passes for 172 yards and three scores in a breakout performance.
Supporters and critics were flabbergasted.
“This is the guy we always expected him to become,” said Keeley. “Where was this guy all season? Because if that guy was around all season, this is a record-breaking wide receiver. He could leave Syracuse as one of the greats.”
It seemed things were finally set up for Marcus to realize his tremendous potential, but that’s when it nearly fell apart. On July 29, 2011, Marcus and Michael Jr. were pulled over after running a red light on the South Side. Searching the car, police found marijuana, pills, an open container of alcohol and drug paraphernalia. Both were arrested on felony drug charges. Marcus was suspended indefinitely from the football team. Many assumed it was the end of his time at SU.
“Doug Marrone had this reputation for throwing guys off the team for missing a meeting,” said Keeley, “So it was like, ‘Alright, he’s done. What a waste.’ At that point, I think everybody was convinced his Syracuse career was over.”
The family still doesn’t like to talk about it. When asked, they don’t elaborate.
“That was horrible,” added Rosalee, slowly shaking her head. Then silence.
Marcus had to sit out what would have been his senior season. In October 2011, the charges against Marcus were dropped due to lack of evidence after Michael Jr. took the rap for the drugs. Michael Jr. eventually pled guilty to possession with intent to sell and was sentenced to five years’ probation.
Outsiders speculated that he’d been given preferential treatment because of his status as an SU athlete and his father’s history with the Syracuse police. Anonymous online commenters called him a criminal and lamented his squandered opportunities, speculating that he’d still never play for the Orange again.
But there were some who were willing to give Marcus the benefit of the doubt, including his community at CBA. He worked with the football team during his suspension, helping coach younger players and working out on his own and with former teammates. His steadfastness and positive attitude made an impression on those around him.
“One of the things I loved was that he never gave up,” said Casamento. “He kept trusting in the fact that things would come out, that he’d be allowed to come back to school, and he kept trusting in the fact that if he worked while he was out, that when he got back he’d have the ability ... to get back out there.”
“Without anybody to push him, without anybody to train him, without anybody to coach him up, he continued to work at it and make sure that he was ready to go when he got his shot,” he added. “I’m very proud of what he did.”
He wasn’t working only for himself. Married in the summer of 2010, Marcus knew he had to be a provider for his wife and oldest son.
“He matured faster than I thought he would,” said Michael. “He just stepped right up to the plate and started being the father, the husband and the ballplayer all in one motion.”
In March 2012, the newly matured Sales was welcomed back to the university and the football program with one year of eligibility remaining. And as the 2012 season opener approached, there were still plenty of question marks: How would he play after a season off? Could he finally shake the stigma of a wasted ability?
His stat line against Northwestern spoke for itself: 12 catches, 129 yards and a touchdown. Through the first three games of the season, he was on pace to break school records for receptions, yards and touchdowns. His coaches talked about consistency in practice carrying over into big efforts on the field, and while his production slowed after the return of fellow receiver Alec Lemon, he ended the season with the best numbers of his career by far: 64 receptions for 882 yards and eight touchdowns.
He was a key cog in a team that shared the Big East title and went to its second Pinstripe Bowl.
So with his Syracuse career complete, what is his legacy?
“The first word that pops in to my head is redemption,” said Keeley. “When that arrest happened I was like, ‘All right, well that’s it. One way or another, his career is over.’ For him to come back and play again, it was surprising, to say the least, and impressive. But I think for myself and a lot of Syracuse fans, we’ve kind of forgotten about that whole thing ... He definitely redeemed himself in the eyes of Syracuse fans and proved he was not the same guy he was two years earlier. This was obviously a guy who was trying hard and trying to separate himself, and I think he did a great job.”
Looking back on the whole experience, Michael can’t help but feel proud.
“I felt that he should go away so he could grow,” he said, “but that kid grew well beyond my expectations in his time up on that hill.”
There’s still a lot of work to do. Sales projects as a fringe draft prospect, not fast enough to warrant a place among the top receivers in this year’s class, even if he out-produced most of them last season. He’s been working on his speed at Total Athletic Performance, in Naples, Fla., and though he wasn’t invited to take part in the NFL Scouting Combine in February, he hopes he proved enough at Syracuse’s Pro Day to earn a place on a team’s draft board.
“My guess is he’s not going to hear his name called on draft day,” said Keeley, “But I have no doubt he’ll be in camp with somebody. He’ll get invited, and at that point, anything goes.”
“He got a chance for an education, he got his bachelor’s degree out of it, getting a chance to play the game that he loves,” said Michael. “I have no expectations. I just hope he’s happy and able to take care of him and his family.”
For Sales’ part, the lessons learned in his time at SU served to give him perspective on the whole process, and whether things come easily or not, he remains steadfastly dedicated to making a name for himself and providing for his family.
“If I don’t get drafted, it’s not the end of the world,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll be picked up as a free agent. With everything that I’ve gone through playing at SU and being suspended, nothing can knock me down. It’s never over. As long as I have a chance, I feel like I’ll be able to prove myself.” o