Some kids are good at puzzles. Some learn to read early. Mozart
wrote a symphony when he was eight, and now and then you hear
about some Doogie Howser-type who, at 15, is chairman of the math
department at Cal Tech.
Marcus Houston is a different kind of prodigy--a kid with a
preternatural understanding of leverage. When he was in
kindergarten in Aurora, Colo., his teacher gave all the kids a
mock $1 bill and asked them to finish the sentence, "If I had
$100 I would buy...." Marcus crossed out the word buy and wrote
in "go to a colich." Another time, the little boy went shopping
with his father, Herman, at a Cub Foods store near their home.
Staring at the long aisles packed with food, Marcus asked, "How
much does one of these cost?"--meaning, the store. Herman said, "I
have no idea. A million dollars?" Marcus thought about it and
said, "I'm going to get me one. I could feed a lot of people."
Leverage is an empowering concept; a little push here produces a
big result there, and before you know it, you think you can move
mountains. When Marcus was a junior at Denver's Thomas Jefferson
High and on his way to the first of two all-state selections as a
running back, 12 freshman footballers were flunking two or more
classes after the first six weeks of school and lost their
eligibility. Disturbed by their failure and looking for an avenue
of action, Houston created a program called Just Say Know in
which he delivered a talk and showed a football video at six
middle schools, using his credibility as a star athlete to
motivate the younger kids academically.
He then funded an eighth-grade essay contest at each of those
schools with money he had earned mowing lawns and shoveling snow.
"Win $50!" read the flyer. "Write an essay letting us know what
success means to you and what you are doing to make sure you are
successful." To encourage involvement by the kids who didn't
write well, he added, "If 75 percent of the class enters, your
class will be given a free pizza party!" The essays poured in,
and the middle school teachers raved about Marcus's skill as a
motivational speaker. Just Say Know is now a nonprofit
corporation, and Houston, at 19, is a budding Arthur Ashe,
soliciting corporate donations and making plans to go national.
October 8, 2000
It is his skill at leveraging his athletic talent, not his
selection as the nation's best high school running back last
year, that makes Houston the most celebrated freshman athlete
ever at the University of Colorado. "Marcus has the longest
freshman bio in the history of the athletic department," says
Colorado sports information director David Plati.
At a civic event in Denver two summers ago, Houston was
introduced to a visiting princess from the village of Matsekopi
in Ghana, who invited him to attend Ghana's Emancipation and
Panafest celebrations later that summer. Before Houston returned
home from the eight-day trip, the village appointed him its
development chief, in effect asking him to take the lead in
helping it secure goods and services from America and other
countries. Houston has since shipped donated farm tools and books
back to the village, and he plans to seek monies to help fund a
technological school located there.
Then you have Marcus Houston, civil rights activist. Three years
ago he was one of the plaintiffs in a police-brutality case
brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, alleging that
Denver police used excessive force to break up a fight at a
chaperoned dance Marcus attended with his dad and two older
brothers. One year later the human rights group Amnesty
International invited Marcus to the Netherlands for an 18-day
speaking tour, during which he gave a presentation at the Holland
Police Academy in Zevenaar and a keynote address to a convention
of human rights delegates in Amsterdam. He also spoke to members
of the ministry of foreign affairs in The Hague and appeared on
the BBC and other European media outlets. "It gave me an
opportunity to speak out about what I had witnessed [with the
Denver police]," Marcus says.
Houston gets his idealism from his parents. Herman and Patricia
met in the late '60s at Washington; he was a running back and
440-yard sprinter majoring in business administration, and she
was working toward a master's in public administration. For the
past five years they've run the Youth Education Institute, a
nonprofit organization that conducts betterment programs for
young people in Denver. Herman is also an artist, a cartoonist
and the author of a self-published book of observations called As
I See It. "We taught our children that if you have blessings, you
have a responsibility to share those gifts," says Pat.
The Houstons also encouraged their children (Marcus has a
younger sister in addition to his two brothers) to develop more
than their athletic skills, entering them in oratorical contests
and requiring them to run for class offices. "The kids would
stand on the fireplace to practice their speeches," says Herman,
pointing at the hearth in the Houston's book-lined family room.
Pat leaves the room and comes back with an example of the kids'
resourcefulness, a papier-mache slave ship that Marcus built in
middle school. The sails are made of sheets and the lines are
made of yarn; the masts are sunflower stems from the backyard.
"You want your kids to have a sense of personal wealth," Herman
says--his point being that poverty is sometimes a spiritual
condition rather than a lack of assets.
The Houston children are walking advertisements for their
parents' approach. Polica, a redshirt junior wideout at Northern
Colorado, is an English major who plans to go into elementary
education and administration. Lovell was a free safety and kick
returner at UCLA before transferring to Colorado this fall as a
junior to pursue a political science degree. Then there's Nicole,
a senior who has played basketball and run track and
cross-country at Jefferson High. She has her own weekly interview
program, The Nicole Houston Show, on Denver public-access channel
58. ("I call her Little Oprah," says Marcus.) Colorado's football
coach, Gary Barnett, looks at the job Herman and Pat have done
and says, "If I had any more kids, I'd give 'em to them to
When Marcus went to Washington, D.C., in May to receive one of
Prudential's Spirit of Community awards, a nonprofit organization
called K.I.D.S. gave him $25,000 worth of sports-logoed coats to
distribute to needy kids in Denver. "Marcus was ecstatic about
that," says his mom. "That's what makes him tick, making a
difference for others."
Marcus has also shown how celebrity, a warm smile and a way with
words can work magic with middle schoolers. His Just Say Know
literature is strewn with Houstonisms like "Sometimes success
comes down to whether you reach for the opportunities or reach
for the excuses" and "Is your character rich enough so that
people will want to invest in your dreams?" Standing in front of
an eighth-grade class at Gove Middle School in January 1998, he
worked the audience like a seasoned motivational speaker. "I can
tell just by looking which of you are not going to be successful
in life," he said, and then walked around the classroom studying
faces. Kids who were slouched at their desks discreetly
straighten up, sliding up their chair backs in slow motion. "Aw,
I'm just kidding," Marcus said with a grin. "But didn't you feel
your heart stop? That's because you want to be successful."
The essay contests, with their fifty-buck payoffs, reflect
Houston's belief that it takes more than a lecture to get kids to
establish goals and priorities. "Our schools pay attention to the
problem kids and provide incentives for them to achieve," he
says. "But you also need incentives for the good students to keep
on achieving." Some of the winners of the second Just Say Know
essay contest got not only cash prizes but also a
stretch-limousine ride to the 1999 Jefferson High homecoming
game, paid for by Houston. Revealing a flair for showmanship,
Marcus ripped off a 60-yard touchdown run on the first play of
the game--something your average foundation head can't do. "I
think eighth grade is critical," Marcus says. "It's when kids
develop their own vision and decide what crowd they'll hang out
Interestingly enough, it was when Marcus was an eighth-grader
that he went to the dance that transformed him into a civil
rights activist. At the end of the dance, which was sponsored by
Brotha 2 Brotha, an African-American community service
organization, a fight broke out between a couple of youngsters in
the parking lot, and the police responded by pouring some 60
uniformed officers into the fray. "I couldn't believe what I saw
that night," Marcus recalls. "There were racial slurs [being
thrown around], people getting maced, people getting hit with
According to Marcus the officers weren't anything like the nice
policemen from the D.A.R.E. program who had visited his middle
school to hand out football trading cards and anti-drug
pamphlets. "It was like night and day," he says. "To label a
police department for the actions of a few bad officers would be
wrong, but what I witnessed was also wrong." With the help of his
father and other adults who had witnessed the melee, Marcus
joined his brothers, four other students, an adult and Brotha 2
Brotha as plaintiffs, hooked up with the ACLU, and took the city
of Denver to court. The police dispute the allegations, and five
years later the case is still under review by the federal
district court in Denver. The litigants, however, are on the
verge of reaching an out-of-court settlement. Marcus is no longer
one of the plaintiffs because he wasn't one of those allegedly
harmed by the police.
When Amnesty International called in '98, Marcus faced a
difficult choice. The trip to Holland conflicted with two
football games, one of them against archrival Montbello High. His
coach and teammates wanted him to stay and play, but Marcus
decided that the conference in Amsterdam and the chance to speak
at The Hague were more important. "He left the U.S. as a
17-year-old kid," Herman says. "When he came back, he wasn't a
kid at all."
Houston's football skills haven't suffered from the distraction
of human rights advocacy. Last year he ran for 1,743 yards and
scored 23 touchdowns for Jefferson High. He also was named the
nation's top running back by Parade and SuperPrep magazines. Four
games into his college career he has gained 332 yards as a
tailback and is one of the few bright spots on an 0-4 Colorado
Against USC on Sept. 9, Houston gained 150 yards on 25 carries,
including a run of 32 yards, and added a 27-yard pass reception
and run that left Trojan defenders sprawled in his wake. "He's
every bit as good as advertised, if not better," says Barnett,
who didn't play Houston in last week's game against Kansas State
because of an injured hip but expects to have him back this week
against Texas A&M. "His vision is great, he runs with
leverage"--that word again--"he hits the holes, he runs outside, he
catches the ball, he blocks. He's almost too good to be true."
The real miracle is that the 6'2", 205-pound Houston is so
approachable and unassuming. He answers all the mail he gets from
Europe and Ghana; he talks on the phone with kids who want to
discuss a problem or get a pat on the back for a good report
card; he even smiles at strangers. When he scored his first
college touchdown, on a five-yard run against Colorado State in
the season opener, he didn't grandstand in the end zone; he just
grinned and handed the ball to the ref.
Ask Houston to finish the sentence, "If I had a multimillion
dollar NFL contract, I'd buy....", and he'll still cross out
"buy" and insert some noble alternative like "rebuild
Matsekopi." "Football complements me," he explains, "but it
doesn't define me."
His proud parents have only one worry: that their leveraging son
may try to save the world all by himself and wind up
disillusioned. "When you start dealing with humanity, you will
always be in over your head," his father warns. "You will be
loved, but you will also be hurt, and there will be times when
you cannot make a difference."
True enough. But Herman and Pat have clearly convinced their son
of this corollary truth: Sometimes you can.
"We taught our kids that if you have blessings, you have a
responsibility to share those gifts," says Pat.
Four games into his college career, Houston is one of the few
bright spots on an 0-4 Colorado team.