Photo 1 : Curt Marsh with youth and volunteers from the Neutral Zone. (Photo by C.E. Chambers 2000. See more photos below.)
Curt Marsh, a former Oakland Raiders football player and 1983 Super Bowl champion, likes to share this anecdote when speaking to audiences. “When I married my wife 20 years ago, I weighed 290 lbs., had seven percent body fat, and had just earned a six-figure signing bonus. Now I’m overweight and in my 40s and every night I take off my leg, shake the stump at her and say, ‘Goodnight, honey.’ ”
Curt is an award-winning motivational speaker. The 6’5” former starting offensive guard, who became an amputee in 1994, recently replaced Debra Cox as the Executive Director of the Neutral Zone, an activities center for youth in Mountlake Terrace, Washington. (It’s moving to Scriber Lake School in Lynnwood in June.) His presence there speaks volumes about his transformation from a survivor to what he calls a “thriver” – and he has no qualms about taking off his black, high-tech prosthesis in front of curious kids.
The Neutral Zone’s late night program is open Friday and Saturday nights from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. and is staffed by volunteers and an off-duty police officer. Diverse youth and young adults from ages 12 to 20 are served a hot meal and participate in various activities: air hockey, pool, video games, computers, arts & crafts, even a food and clothing bank. The overwhelming majority are boys who sometimes travel from as far away as Auburn, Tacoma, and Marysville to take advantage of the six-hoop basketball court.
Curt is also a Director of AmeriCorps, a federal outreach to communities created by the Clinton Administration. AmeriCorps “members” can be seen assisting the volunteers at the Neutral Zone.
So how did Curt Marsh, one of the few men to ever possess a hallowed, Super Bowl ring (the knock-your-socks-off diamonds are enclosed within three football-shaped settings) make the transition from jock hero to youth hero? It came with a cost.
Curt, raised in Snohomish, Washington, was named one of the Best 100 Football Players in the University of Washington’s sports history. In 1981 he was a first-round draft pick of the Oakland Raiders and voted to the NFL All-Rookie Team. Throughout his career he was rated as one of the top players in the league at his position. His NFL career was cut short in 1987, however, due to a severe, reoccurring ankle injury. Seven years later his right leg was amputated eight inches below the knee.
“Sometimes life severely sucks,” shares Curt, a still-formidable figure. “Being an athlete was my passion. I was good at dealing with physical pain but had always run from emotional pain. It took a year to work through this.” He continues, “My understanding of people has been so enhanced. The physical shell we live in is not important. We can lose all of our limbs – but it won’t change who we are inside.”
During that early transition from football player to motivational speaker and youth advocate, and while his foot was still in a cast, Curt received a copy of Sports Illustrated in the mail. Lawrence Taylor, an outside linebacker with the New York Giants, was on the cover. He’d been arrested for cocaine possession.
“I got really upset,” glowers Curt. “He was a hero to my three-year-old son, Chris, who, at age two, could already pronounce all the team members’ names. What about all the guys who’ve never touched drugs – why don’t they appear on magazine covers?”
Curt, who was living in California at the time, vented his frustrations on this subject to his wife, Palm whom he calls his “best friend.” (They have three children: Jake, 17, Chris, 15 and Jillian, 10.)
“Why don’t you get off your behind and do something,” she responded.
With that blunt encouragement, he called up El Segundo High School and told them he was concerned about the lack of public role models for children. He became a volunteer speaker: One-thousand kids turned out for his first appearance at the school.
The community relations department of the Oakland Raiders kept him busy with other engagements as a speaker. In 1988, he and his family moved back to Washington where he owned and managed a successful vending business in Seattle. He volunteered to become a motivational speaker to schools in the Pacific Northwest. Within 1½ years, he had spoken to 25,000 youth.
“I knew that I wanted to do this kind of work full-time but I couldn’t find a way to get past selling cards and pop,” he remembers. “In 1990, I sold ProVend and started working for $8 an hour for the City of Everett. Six months later, I became the Youth Programs Coordinator.” He also became the state spokesperson for the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association’s drug and alcohol prevention program (link to WIAA).
Curt – who had already experienced a broken arm and hand, two lower back surgeries and a hip replacement – became an amputee while working for the City of Everett. He made up his mind, though, that he wasn’t going to give in to the disability and immersed himself in one year of intense training.
“Weight lifting got me out of it,” explains the goateed Curt. “In 1995 I went to Boston and won a Gold Medal in power lifting in the Wheelchair and Amputees National Championships. I also met people who were bilateral amputees. I realized I had spent too much time worrying about what I looked like, and challenged myself to start looking beyond other people’s exteriors.”
He continued to work for the city until 1999 when he retired as the Superintendent of Recreation. Readers won’t be surprised to learn that Curt and his team won local and national honors for their outstanding service to youth.
Curt’s story has gone around the world through CNN, ESPN, and ABC’s “Nightline,” and appeared in national publications such as Sports Illustrated. His impact is now being felt at the Neutral Zone and a recent Saturday night visit there proved its popularity. Thirty minutes before it opened, three kids were already waiting outside. At 9:00 p.m., a large group had gathered and they patiently waited to be patted down by Officer Burkett, an off-duty policeman, and a female volunteer, Glenda. (Officer Kevin Pickard is the Senior Coordinator on weekend nights.) By midnight, 93 youths had filled the facility.
Contrary to people’s assumptions regarding the graffiti-painted Zone, as the kids call it, the environment is structured and the rules are strictly adhered to. They’re posted – in large letters – by the front door. “No flying flags or colors” is one, and “No bagging or sagging” of pants is another. There are also restrictions regarding “language” and touching.” Although altercations are rare, the police and volunteers all carry phones and can communicate to one another while in the various rooms.
Rose Sloan, the Volunteer Coordinator, has been with the Zone since its inception in June 1992. (Glenda, Bobbie, and Rey-the-waffle-maker, among others, are longtime helpers.) Currently located at Terrace Park School, she shares that it was a community-generated response to the unexpected and pervasive gang activity in the area. Funded entirely by donations and grants, the initial 12-week program proved so successful – within one month up to 200 kids per night were showing up – that it became a permanent fixture.
The heavy gang activity that was prevalent ten years ago in Mountlake Terrace is gone, and the youth that frequent the Zone aren’t referred to any more as “high-risk.” They’re usually “regulars” who live in the community or boys pouring in from all cities who vigorously compete on the basketball court. Some police officers believe, however, that the Zone is indispensable in maintaining a “decline in activity.”
Why do the youth who congregate at the Zone come here? The self-described Goths, Rockers, and Rappers respond with “Just to chill” and “to socialize.” Another simply says, “It’s safe.”
Carlonna, a 15-year-old aspiring writer and prolific poet, is a regular, as is a teenager who calls himself “the guy in the red hat” and a boy who calls himself “freak.” Kevin and Brian were introduced to the Zone through the school lunch program. Brian, a tall 16-year-old with possibly the largest ankh necklace this side of Egypt, is a four-year participant who knows some of the “old Zone people” who contributed to a heartfelt collection of poems in 1995.
“I never knew some of them felt like that,” he shares, surprised by some of the poignant revelations in Lost Through the Cracks.
Curt Marsh, whose new book Dare to Dream (True Colors Publishers) will be released June 2000, has insight into those revelations. Unlike others, he has some answers. (See the online “Incredible People Magazine.”)
(Written by C.E. Chambers and published by “The Journal Newspapers” on June 6, 2000. The original title was “At The Neutral Zone: Ex-Football Player Wins Over New Youthful Fans.” All photos were taken by C.E. Chambers in 2000.)
Photo 2 (above): Curt Marsh with youth at the Neutral Zone in 2000.
Photo 3 (above): Pool and other games at the Neutral Zone.
Photo 4 (above): Curt Marsh, still a formidable figure in 2000.