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Paramus Catholic grad Marquis Spence goes from overcoming obstacles to finding gridiron success at Merrimack College

While growing up in Englewood, New Jersey, Marquis Spence played basketball and football.  All it took was one day for Spence to realize how talented he was on the gridiron. His coaches, Coach Evans (Pee-Wee) and Coach Hoyle (A-Team) tried him out at practically every position.

“They had me play quarterback, throwing the football, QB sneaks and bootlegs and reading progressions. On the defensive side at linebacker where I had a pick. Then at wide receiver where I caught two or three TD’s. The next game I caught a one-handed pass and everyone said this is your dominant position. My Mom told me when I was younger all I did was run around and into stuff. Now grown up and running around, getting back up and doing it all over again.”

Limited in choices for high school, Spence attended Paramus Catholic High School. While the catches and yards may have been minimal, Spence relished in the opportunity to learn from the best in Jabril Peppers, Dejon Harrison, Tyrone Washington and Najee Clayton. In Spence’s junior year, the Paladins won a sectional title, defeating St. Peter’s Prep 13-6 at Met Life Stadium.

“My junior year I’m hearing things in the media this team is not going to be good anymore but we had Rashan Gary, Najee Clayton and people didn’t know the other names in Ahmad Thomas, Abdul Neblet, Donald Stewart, Willy Hansen and Alijah Jackson. We all came together, balled out and had a breakout season. Najee doing that Ray Lewis entrance dance and we were ready no matter who we were facing and played 60 minutes of football. One of the best teams I played for and everybody was a family and brotherhood and made us look at football in an entirely different way.”

With Head Coach Chris Partridge and Associate Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator Gregg Russo playing pivotal roles in the Paladins success on the field, Spence said Partridge was one of the best things that happened to him. “A guy who is a family person and told me so many stories when he was younger and just one of us but a coach and we fed off his hype. He had us do different team activities. Putting the receivers with the offensive lineman and defensive lineman with a quarterback.”

“The summer camps were very intense and no matter what the weather was in July we practiced with pads on. We were asking about rules, Coach Partridge said what rules and we really got after it in the summer workouts. He got us prepared for college and further in life.”

Once again Spence faced a similar scenario when it came to choosing a college. Thankfully Spence caught the attention of Merrimack College quarterbacks coach/passing game/recruiting coordinator Andrew Dresner who ended up recruiting Spence.

“When he showed Coach (Dan) Curran my film on the day I visited and he said you are a special player and just watched the film a couple of days ago and glad Coach Dresner brought you to this school. I said thank you for the opportunity and believing in me. Ever since then me and him clicked. A father figure more than a coach and he looked at the team as his family more than players and helped us develop to be where wanted to be as a team.”

“When I first stepped on campus there were players coming up to me and saying man you look like a football player and I said that I’m lost and they said just follow us. Kids all over from New Jersey and knowing they knew where I was from uplifted my energy and happiness. Some guys from Don Bosco and St. Joe’s and talked about the rivalries and no hatred and all love at the end of the day. It’s more than football but about family and community with people from California, Maryland, New York and New Jersey. Different ethnicities and nationalities chasing the same dream.”

Appearing in 10 games in his freshman year in 2015, Spence hauled in 26 catches for 307 yards and scored two touchdowns including a season high nine receptions for 75 yards on Senior Day. However, all the good vibes would quickly dissipate as Spence would end up ruled academically ineligible his sophomore season.

“Coming in freshman year I was one of the top receivers in my class and into college at 17 was nerve wracking and so young,” Spence said. “I had to get used to a whole different schedule and speed of the game. I was late for meetings, lifting and missed a practice once in a while. Coach Curran called me one day and said I know you are going through rough times but you got to always believe why you are here. I have that written on my wall, said that I shouldn’t be in bed but at practice watching film and lifting and helped me get back on track.”

“Being a student-athlete is very hard, school is from 8 to 3 then practice from 4 to 7 and some days study hall. After my ineligible season they said if I wanted to play football you have to do the school work. My teachers’ would help me out every day after class.”

Returning the following season, Spence appeared in eight games, reeling in 16 receptions for 133 yards. In 2018 Luke Bakanowsky became the new wide receivers coach and immediately Spence’s numbers on the field skyrocketed. Spence caught 49 catches for 634 yards and seven touchdowns while named to NE 10 All-Conference Third Team on Offense.

“Coach Bakanowsky (2015 Merrimack Graduate) knew Coach Curran and I started listening to this guy and respecting him and he played in this offense and knew this scheme. It just clicked that summer. He actually stayed around and worked with the wide receivers. We would come out during the summer workouts and do different drills with us and on footwork. Having him as a wide receivers coach and showing us all the speed drills and what the offensive does and blockers need to be.”

Heading into his senior season in 2019 Spence wanted to be at the top of his game so he trained more vigorously. He worked out with former Paramus Catholic quarterback Willy Hansen and at TNT Training in Paramus, New Jersey. “Willy and I worked on routes and catching passes. He threw the ball like it was old times,” said Spence. “Coach (Mike) Nunziato, my strength and conditioning coach from high school helped develop my game. I would come in at 11 o’clock every day for an hour or two. On Mondays it would be arms and a little of speed, Tuesday’s leg days, recovery on Wednesday’s, back at it with arms and speed on Thursday’s and on Friday’s straight speed. Not lowering my standards and just to get through it but I really pushed to be that top guy. My coaches and teammates said I grew up and picked me as the captain to make the plays when we need it.”

With Merrimack having moved into Duane Stadium in 2017, the 2019 season presented another tremendous opportunity in playing at the Division I level. The Warriors finished with a 6-5 record and 4-1 at home. Spence flourished on the field snagging a career high 73 catches for 760 yards and nine touchdowns including including a season high 16 catches for 175 yards against Lehigh, one that marked third highest total in the FCS and NEC Offensive Player of the Week recognition. Furthermore Spence caught a career high three touchdowns against Central Connecticut.

“Having Devin O’Reilly, the captain of our team for two years and around for my sophomore and junior year, Frankie Dunn and Jere Brown. They brought me in as a younger brother and taught me on how to run routes, speed and watch extra film. Very blessed and thankful for the FCS record because it were not for my quarterback Christian Carter No. 8 and he is something with his throwing ability and me and him just have that 1-2 punch.”

Not only did he earn 3rd Team NE All-Conference honors, Spence did it on special teams with named to the 2nd Team. He led the league in punt return yardage at 13.60 yards. “Special teams’ is a big accomplishment and there are three aspects that are important in offense, defense and special teams,” said Spence. “Having more field advantage and as a kick and punt returner and being able to freelance back there and giving me the ability to play my game and do what I do and break tackles and make people miss on kick returns. Having those blockers be out there and dialed into the game and ready to dominate.”

Heading into his senior season Spence realized how young the team was with the majority of the roster consisting of freshman, redshirt sophomores, juniors, eight seniors and two graduate students. The goal for him was to take more of active role with the younger wide receivers.

“Coach Bakanowksy talked to me in the meetings and asked if I had anything to say and I was the only redshirt senior in the group. He helped me become more of a vocal person and say what’s on my mind. After every practice I would make every receiver catch at least 10 balls with no gloves including me. Teaching the younger guys on releases when playing outside and pressing corners and schemes.”

“Helping younger players, leaving that mark and showing them it doesn’t matter what level you are at and where you play as long as you are out there working and out-working your opponent and you can make it any level and just have to live up to it. As being that mentor and leader helped build chemistry with my teammates.”

Majoring in physical therapy, Spence finished up early by graduating in December while discovering how he could utilize some of the techniques he learned and apply to football. “I took up the physical therapy major because I wanted to learn about certain muscles that get sore and fix it by myself without going to a doctor and trainer. Massage it out so I don’t get tendonitis and have that mindset sometimes you have to do things on your own.”

Now Spence is aiming for even higher goals and that is to earn a spot with a team in the National Football League. Already Spence has played in two football showcases, the FCS Bowl in Daytona Beach, Florida and CGS Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas. “There were 32 NFL teams in Ft. Worth,” Spence said. “Now I’m in Mobile Alabama practice twice and getting ready for a game. I’m going to decide where to train for the pro-day training whether it’s Massachusetts or Florida.”

Most important and dear to Spence’s heart is his mom and sister. “They were the only ones in my life and it was very hard for my Mom raising two kids that are five to six years apart and thank my Mom because she has been there since day one,” Spence said. “A team Mom for Englewood Junior Raiders and Paramus Catholic Paladins and Merrimack College”.

“Having my sister as well, she is 27 and I’m 22 and been like a mother figure. A straight A student through elementary, middle, high school and college and always the brains in my family and I was the athlete. It really uplifted me, these two females battling and accomplishing their goals and doing the best they can for me so that I can become a man.”

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Sunil Sunder Raj

Since July of 2014 Sunil Sunder Raj has been with In The Zone. Sunil has experience covering minor league baseball, high school and college sports. A beat writer for the Rockland Boulders for six years, Ramapo College men’s basketball for four years, NJIT men’s basketball and Seton Hall women’s basketball. Now focusing on feature articles about athletes, coaches and sports media professionals. A graduate of Ramapo College of New Jersey with a bachelor of arts degree in journalism.
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