Closer to home, former Alabama fullback Mike Marrow ready to make impact at Eastern Michigan
When Vince Marrow's cell phone buzzed 15 minutes after he had spoken with his son, Mike, he knew the Alabama redshirt freshman fullback reached his breaking point.
Now, his grandfather was gone, just nine months after being diagnosed with melanoma. In one succinct text message to his father, Mike Marrow delivered the news his father feared was coming.
"I gotta get out of here," the message read. "I've got to come home now."
Last week, Marrow walked into Nick Saban's office and told his coach of his intention to leave Alabama. Immediately, the 6-foot-2, 235-pound highly touted fullback searched for a school that would allow him to move closer to home.
There was plenty of interest, including from Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin, programs that offered Marrow scholarships when he was the second-rated high school fullback in the nation by ESPNU and was ranked in the top 15 by Rivals and Scout.com.
As attractive as playing at a Big Ten school was, there was something about Eastern Michigan's program that appealed to Marrow.
"It feels a lot better being this close," Marrow said of Eastern Michigan on Thursday. "I'm just trying to do what's best for me. For me, it's not always about winning and being on the best team. I would like to come in and help change things around and make good things happen.
"I just want to help this program out, and I believe I can."
How quickly he will be able to step in remains unknown. Eastern Michigan filed a hardship waiver with the NCAA, appealing the transfer rule that would force Marrow to sit out a year. Marrow practiced this week with the Eagles (0-2, 0-1 in the Mid-American Conference), hoping to become eligible as soon as next week when Eastern travels to Ohio State. There is, however, no timetable for a decision from the NCAA.
Marrow chose Eastern Michigan, partly based on existing relationships his father had with Eagles' offensive coordinator Ken Karcher and running backs coach Doug Downing. Both worked on Toledo's staff along with Vince Marrow, who played for the Rockets under Saban in the 1980s.
Marrow left Alabama realizing he may miss a season. But considering everything he had been through since he arrived in Tuscaloosa, being separated from his family was no longer an option.
Weeks before he began camp with the Crimson Tide last summer, his grandmother passed away, beginning a string of heart break.
Vince Marrow spent eight years as a tight end in the NFL, making two Super Bowl appearances with Buffalo. He told his son that as tough as his grandmother's death was to handle, playing at Alabama could set him on a course toward professional football.
What Vince didn't realize, though, was just how difficult being so far away from his family would be for his son.
"I knew the hard part was that there was no support down there," he said Thursday. "The thing was Michael really didn't express that he was going through any of that, but he would tell his mother things and he would tell his girlfriend things and after a while, I thought, maybe this is something I need to to look at."
Not long after his grandmother passed, Mike lost his great-grandmother. But in the midst of being a freshman fighting for the starting fullback role at Alabama during camp, he couldn't allow family matters 14 hours away to bother him.
But it did. Mike missed his family more than he thought. The family losses took a toll, leading Saban to redshirt him. Despite not being on Alabama's active roster, being so far away was an issue for Marrow, who, along with Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram was one of the few players from the north.
Marrow struggled with the idea of not being able to get home as much as he liked. He traveled back to Toledo at Christmas, taking advantage of a short break Alabama had before playing in the BCS title game. In between, he missed birthdays and other family events involving his two younger sisters.
Still, he went back to Alabama for a second year, believing he was in the right place. His grandfather had told him in January that he was looking forward to making the trip to Tuscaloosa when the Crimson Tide faced Penn State in the second game of the season.
But two weeks before his death, Marrow's grandfather developed a blood clot in his head. He went into a coma before dying Aug. 12, just two weeks before Alabama's season opener. In the weeks following, Marrow wasn't the same in practice. Saban, who had coached Vince Marrow 20 years ago at Toledo and recruited his brothers at Michigan State, noticed Mike was keeping to himself while displaying more of an edgy aggressiveness in practice.
Vince knew something had to change. "We were either going to have to move down there or we were going to have to got him back," he said. "Emotionally, he was going through a lot of stuff and it's tough. I played in the NFL all those years and being away from home as a grown man was tough. I think (for Mike) it was just too much."
Mike left Alabama last week, traveling to Toledo where he would begin the transfer process. He gave careful thought to both of Michigan's Big Ten programs, but chose Eastern Michigan based on how he fit into the offense and on its proximity to his family.
"It's a lot better feeling," Marrow said. "I had a lot of friends (at Alabama) and at times, it was comfortable, but it wasn't the same as having your family. So now, knowing I am 45 minutes from home and that I can get there anytime I want, that's a good feeling."
Marrow spent this week learning Eastern's pro-style offense that until now, has lacked a backfield presence of any size. Karcher realizes it will take time for Marrow to fully integrate himself into Eastern's system. In time, he sees Marrow adding a different dimension that can help an offense that has made strides from last season when Eastern scored just 16 points a game.
"Michael could have gone a lot of different places, so obviously, this means a lot for us," Eastern Michigan coach Ron English said Thursday. "I've got to see more of him, but this is a BCS kid and so what you're seeing is a little more burst, a little more power, and so I think that helps you. I think he's going to be a good fit."
Jeff Arnold covers sports for AnnArbor.com and can be reached at (734) 623-2554 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeffreyparnold.