He was a freshman, which was reason enough for Rohan Marley to keep his mouth shut. That he was a bench jockey and, at 5'8", demonstrably too small to play linebacker were two more good reasons for him to remain respectfully silent. Yet there he was: a Jamaican-born, green-card-carrying Rastafarian linebacker for Miami who had never heard of Bear Bryant—or Anita Bryant, for that matter—but was about to play Alabama in the Sugar Bowl last Jan. 1 for the national championship and his American right to say, "Me nomba one, mon!"
Because of football, he had no dreadlocks on his head (his helmet wouldn't fit over them) and no dread of anything in his heart. Days before the game against Alabama, Marley faced a group of reporters, called the Crimson Tide's running game "one-dimensional" and all but promised that the Hurricane defense would shut it down.
"Naughty boy," said Crimson Tide running back Derrick Lassie. "I love Bob Marley's music, but too bad I don't love his son." Lassie wasn't the only one.
"They say I was talking trash, but the reporters asked me what we came to do, and I said, 'We came to kick ass,' " says Rohan, who is indeed a son of the late reggae star Bob Marley. "It wasn't really a prediction. It was something that was supposed to happen." But didn't happen. The 'Canes were crushed 34-13 by the Tide, an outcome that might have been expected to make Marley more circumspect. "Look out this year," he says evenly. "I'm going to decapitate some people."
He is the Rasta of Disasta, meting out punishment to a world that has twice taken away what was most important in his life and left him with only football. Nine years removed from Jamaica, where he was as likely to see a bobsled run as an American football game, and 68 inches removed from the ground, Marley recorded 59 tackles last season while backing up senior Jessie Armstead at outside linebacker. He had seven tackles and caused a fumble in Miami's 17-14 victory at Penn State. Though he weighed only 200 pounds, Marley was the Hurricanes' most ferocious tackier, a swirling low-pressure area flying up from the Caribbean. This season he is one of three Miami linebackers who are starting for the first time as the Hurricanes rebuild the heart of their defense.
If that heart speeds up a beat, it will be Marley's doing. "You don't stand around the pile when Rohan is in the game," says Miami linebacker coach Tommy Tuberville, "because he'll come flying over the top. He likes to hit." After the opening play of Miami's game with West Virginia last season, Marley strode up to the Mountaineers' 6'1", 270-pound center, Dan Harless, and punched him in the face mask. Harless turned and walked away. Marley had a game-high 15 tackles and was named Miami's most-valuable defensive player.
But then the mango never falls far from the tree. Before he became an international music icon and a blissed-out Rastafarian prophet, Bob Marley was a street fighter so feared in the Trench Town slum of Kingston, Jamaica, that he was known as Tuff Gong. Like his father before him, Rohan learned to take care of himself at the knee of Cedella Marley Booker. "If they hit you, you hit them back," advised Cedella, Bob's mother. "Let them hit you first. But don't take it, because when you take it, they take you for a beating stick."
The first to try Rohan out as beating stick was his older stepbrother Ziggy. "All Bob children strong and tough," says Cedella. "None of them puny-puny." Next came Rohan's Miami teammates, also not puny-puny, who teased him about his father's ganja smoking and about the alleged looting of Bob's estate by members of his family.
"Sometimes people think you're different when you're not," Rohan says. "I didn't come in as a superstar's son, I came in as a football player. The players don't say, 'Here comes Bob Marley's son' anymore. I'm just Rat. No different." Rat was the name Rohan's teammates finally gave him as a measure of respect for the menacing way he scurried around the field making tackles.
The slurs that most offend Marley's enormous dignity are references to his less-than-enormous height. You would not want to sing Bob Marley's reggae standard Get Up, Stand Up in Rohan's presence, only to discover he was already standing up. Rohan had to play better than taller players to earn a linebacking position. During his redshirt season, Miami's coaches tried to turn him into a cornerback, but he was too eager for contact to spend his life backpedaling.
"Too small, too small, they always said I was too small to play that position," Marley says of linebacking. "But I showed them." Now he says he is determined to win the Butkus Award and the Heisman Trophy and then play in the NFL.
Meanwhile, the Americanization of Marley continues at so dizzying a pace that he calculates his performance in the strange sports math of percentage overflow. He has even refined this American science by using a series of coefficients for height and weight and a separate corollary for speed, which have the effect of turning each tackle into 'Cane geometry. "I always go 120 percent," Marley postulates. "If I only go 100 percent and I hit some guy 6'6", 250 pounds, who's going 90 percent, he's going to hurt me."
So far, Marley has never been stopped for going 100% in a 120% zone. "The thing about Rohan is that for him it's pure want," says senior cornerback Paul White. "He doesn't need to be here the way a lot of the rest of us do. He probably could have had some job in the music world, but he didn't want to be just another face in the background. His only motivation to play football is that he wants something from it. I think he's looking for an identity of his own."
Rohan was born in Kingston in 1972, the year his father recorded the album Catch a Fire, which would begin his transformation into a celebrity, then a legend and finally a myth. Rohan is one of the 11 children Bob Marley acknowledged fathering by eight different women (there are said to be 22 children in all), and he is one of the seven heirs who are 18 years or older and thus legally entitled to share in the millions generated by music royalties since Bob died of cancer in 1981.
Rohan spent time living in his father's sprawling home on Hope Road in Kingston, a place described in Timothy White's 1983 biography of Bob, Catch a Fire, as "a religious hippie commune, with an abundance of food, herb, children, music and casual sex." Later Rohan would be shifted between the homes of his stepmother, Rita Marley, and his biological mother, Janet Hunt, with whom he has maintained a casual relationship. "She's like my sister, or a friend," he says.
"Back in Jamaica I was wild, real wild," Rohan says. "I was on my own a lot, had no one to really supervise me. My mother was always working, my father was usually away." When the boy got too far out of control, his father would whisper to him, "If you don't behave, Rohan, I'm going to send you away."
In the end, of course, this prophecy came true. After Bob's death, Rohan stopped going to school. In 1984, Rita and Janet agreed that the best thing for him would be to live with his paternal grandmother in Miami. There he was awakened at 6 a.m. almost every day by his uncle Richard Booker and made to lift weights and do push-ups. Richard also introduced Rohan to football. "My uncle used to force me to play," Rohan recalls. "He'd throw the ball at me at 50 miles an hour, and if I dropped it, I'd get yelled at."
This June, Marley celebrated turning 21 with a pilgrimage to Africa, the ancestral homeland to which his father had urged a mass exodus by black people. The trip was not a mystical rite of passage, however. The president of Gabon, whose daughter had been a good friend of Bob Marley's, invited Cedella, "and she took me along," Rohan says. "But I don't think I'd go back, because all they spoke was French, so for a week I didn't understand anybody. And the charter flight was too long."
Rohan's wife, Geraldine, is five months pregnant with their first baby, but it is Rohan who often seems the child. "I saw a tiger in Africa," he says, his face brightening. "I was trying to get a chimpanzee to bring back home, like Michael Jackson's. But they told me I couldn't because of the shots." The presence on the flight over of Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, produced a heady frisson of Afrocentrism, but Marley remained spiritually steadfast. "I'm a Rasta from creation," he says. "I will always be a Rasta."
He has, however, given up smoking the scatback-sized spliffs that Rastafarians believe help them along the path to higher knowledge. Would Marley like to toke up on the sacred herb before going out to face Florida State on Oct. 9? "It's not the time and place for that," he says, giggling. "I know it's part of being a Rasta, but I don't want to get in trouble."
He has seen trouble, slept with it in his house and then watched it blow a hole through his life. Three years ago his uncle Anthony Booker—Richard's younger brother and Bob's stepbrother, but only two years older than Rohan—returned from a trip to Jamaica complaining of headaches and a powerful fear that people were trying to kill his mother. Cedella reassured her youngest son that this was not true, but he told her, "Momma, I know that you're a strong woman, but I can see more than you're telling me now."
Anthony locked himself in the music room of the Booker house on Vista Lane, playing what the family calls "Bob-music" and emerging only to remove all the furniture but an old piano from the room. Then he began reading aloud from the Book of Revelation. "He prayed and he cried, he hollered and he cried, talkin' to Jah Rastafari," Cedella says. Rohan, who was 17, was bewildered as his grandmother took up her Bible and began to read from it through the door to Anthony.
The 15th chapter of Revelation speaks of "a sea of glass mingled with fire" and a temple that "no one could enter...until the seven plagues of the seven angels were ended." Anthony vacuumed obsessively in the music room, purifying, preparing himself to catch a fire.
One Saturday he ranted from behind the locked door, then blew out a window with a blast from a 12-gauge shotgun. When he finally emerged from the room the next day, he was dressed all in white, including a bulletproof vest. As Anthony stormed out of the house, he said, "All I can see is greed, hate and jealousy."
In the driveway he demanded a set of car keys from Rohan. "He had a shotgun, and he wasn't going to back down," Rohan says. What could Rohan do?
An hour later Anthony was dead. After threatening shoppers at a nearby mall, he had fired at one policeman and was then killed by another with a bullet that lodged just above the bulletproof vest.
"Everything was pressure," Cedella says. "People have me in court about the estate, everything is goin' crazy, and the child is bearin' more than I'm bearin' myself. I believe Anthony took my death. But what Jah has done is well done. I had three sons, and they were God's gift to me. But it pleases Jah to take the first and the last. I am satisfied the way Anthony has gone from this world. It's not Anthony that kill anybody, somebody kill him."
"I think about him all the time," Rohan says. "I used to dream about him almost every night. I'd say, 'Why you left us, man? When you comin' back?' But I question nothing that Jah Rastafari does. Anthony did what he had to do, and he left. My father did what he had to do, and he left. It's preordained what's going to happen to me, but I can't sit back and wait for it to come. I have to work hard every day."
"I think he wants Anthony to be proud of him," Cedella says. Now Rohan must uphold the legacies not only of his uncle and his father but also of the great Miami linebackers who have gone before him. Get up, stand up. "I still haven't learned to hit like I want to hit," Rohan says. "I still lunge." But already he tackles so well that last year he coached Micheal Barrow, the Big East defensive player of the year. "I'm 6'2" and 235 pounds—and Rohan was hitting people harder," Barrow told The Miami Herald. "Finally I said, 'What do you do when you hit?' He said, 'I stay lower than them and keep my feet moving.' "
Moving is not a problem. "I'm never at a standstill," Marley says. "Pa-pa-pa-pow! I've got enough energy to last me two days straight." Singing, however, is a problem. "They say if you can talk, you can sing," Cedella says. "For Bob, singin' just a him-born thing. Rohan sings in his own way, but he don't have the singin' voice."
He is just beginning to find his true voice. "My father never played football, so I'm starting my own trend," Rohan says. "This is me. This is mine."