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Support system

From grandmothers and his parents to his friend's family, USF's Marquel Blackwell had help becoming a star QB.

[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
Clockwise from left, grandmas Valeria Williams, Connie Shorey, dad Mark Blackwell, mom Kaysandra Williams helped raise Marquel Blackwell. The 1980 newspaper article is about Mark Blackwell playing football while working, going to school and being a parent.

By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 23, 2002

Mark Blackwell was 16 in 1979 when his son, Marquel, was born. A standout football player at Lakewood High, Blackwell did what he had to. He quit sports and got a job.

In his senior year, with one final chance to play ball before embarking on early adulthood, Blackwell rejoined the team. A local newspaper told his story: a star player juggling fatherhood, work, school and football. He was 17.

Blackwell has kept the article for 22 years. The final sentence is his favorite.

After all, in a few years, it (will) make a great story to tell Marquel.

Actually, it was just the beginning. Mark Blackwell and Kaysandra Williams were childhood sweethearts. They met at age 8; he the athlete, she the cheerleader.

They became parents after their sophomore year.

"Everything was new and hard," Blackwell said. "I was happy (to have a son), but I was 16 and didn't know anything about raising a kid. It was on-the-job training."

They quickly had a second child, daughter Kayonte. So Blackwell had two children cheering him on that fall of 1980, when he led the Spartans in interceptions.

"Mark had a car, and he'd pick me up," Williams said. "We'd take the kids to my grandmother's then go to school. Then he'd take me back after school. Then he'd go to practice. We were busy young people."

Blackwell bypassed college football offers to stay home and support his children. The young couple graduated from Lakewood, but they came from modest means and endured tough times. There never was a shortage of love and support, however, and there never would be.

The twin pillars of the family, grandmothers Connie Shorey (Kaysandra's mother) and Valeria Williams, always have made sure of that.

"The love is just there. It's there for all of them," Shorey said. "We have a pretty close-knit family, and we've always supported each other."

"The love never deteriorated," Kaysandra Williams said. "It was always there."

Mark and Kaysandra had a third child, Michelle, and Kaysandra took care of the children while Mark worked at the St. Petersburg Times as a pressman.

The relationship strained under the burden. Mark and Kaysandra never married, and they split after a few years. The children, barely in elementary school, stayed with Kaysandra and her mother at first.

"We emphasized that there shouldn't be any anger or animosity. We're all here for the kids," said Shorey, who works in the registrar's office at St. Petersburg College. "We always had help, from his family and our family."

Kaysandra and the children lived in hardscrabble areas of St. Petersburg, awash in bad influences.

"It was very easy to get detoured," said Brian Stapf, Marquel's longtime friend. "There were plenty of people who did. Each year, fewer and fewer moved on. I think about guys on our AAU (basketball) team who were as good or better than us but just fell by the wayside."

An incident when they lived in Jordan Park shook everyone up.

"That was the projects," said Kaysandra, a teacher's aide at Gibbs High. "One day when the kids were out on the porch, there was a shooting. We moved to another area, Bethel Heights, but it wasn't much better. Marquel would slip away with the wrong guys. He started messing around in school. I started to see the little changes.

"We got him out of there in the nick of time."

At one point, Mark took the children with him to California, where he took a job in insurance with his father in the bay area. But he returned in a few months.

Despite the bouncing around, the old standbys made sure the children stayed on track.

"The grandmothers, they're the backbones of both sides of my family," Marquel said. "With them, I didn't have a choice but to walk a straight line."

Said Stapf: "Those are the two people in the world he respects the most."

Sports always kept Marquel occupied, and by the eighth grade, he was a burgeoning football and basketball star. That also is about the time when a friend from third and fourth grade reemerged. "I was coaching one of Marquel's basketball teams," Mark said. "We needed another guard. Marquel pointed at Brian. He said, "Dad, take the white kid right there."'

Brian and Marquel became inseparable and still are best friends. Brian's parents joined the support network.

"Julie and George Stapf have been such a big influence," Kaysandra said. "They have taken him to Puerto Rico with them. They've just done so much. We're all one big family."

When Mark Blackwell moved out of the Lakewood zone, his mother took Marquel in. She lived in the Dixie Hollins zone.

Marquel developed into a superstar quarterback at Dixie and was recruited by some of the best programs in the country.

But his academics were lacking. He had "goofed off," according to his mother, during his freshman year and fell behind.

His father and Shorey, among others, hounded him.

"I told him, "You will be educated. You will be your own leader,"' Shorey said. "I was on top of him. I'm still on top of him."

The summer after his junior year, Marquel attended classes at Dixie during the day and Lakewood at night in a frantic effort to qualify to play Division I football.

"He realized the one thing he wanted in life might not happen," Brian Stapf said. "His dream flashed before his eyes. Plus all those people kicking him in the behind. When you have a support system," Valeria Williams said, "you can see things a little better."

It took an extra semester, but Marquel was accepted as a full qualifier at South Florida. He has lifted the emerging program onto his shoulders and, entering his senior season, is considered one of the nation's best quarterbacks and a consummate team leader.

More important, he graduated this summer with a degree in speech communication. He is the first on his mother's side of the family to earn a bachelor's degree.

"It brings chills over me, of joy and happiness, to see him get this," Shorey said. "It wasn't an easy road for him. It's been a struggle. But behind every struggle, there is progress. That's from Frederick Douglass. I always tell Marquel that."

Many more than have been mentioned here have shaped and influenced the life of Marquel Blackwell -- nurturing great-grandmothers, encouraging uncles, tough-love coaches, etc.

"I used to tell him, "The hill always seems too high, but you've got to keep taking that next step,"' Valeria Williams said. "I said to him at graduation, "Marquel, now you're coming down the hill, and you're gradually sliding right into place."'

Blackwell has transformed his family's cradle of love into a personal success story.

"A lot of people that haven't done well or been productive in their lives probably didn't have positive influences, whereas I had that," he said. "My grandmothers always told me to dream for the stars, dream high, dream.

"I've been blessed."

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