COLUMBIA –"T! E! A! M! Win! Win! Win!" Ninety-six pad-clad young men, freshly stretched, complete a jumping jack per syllable and roar into a huddle.
No. 43 has "RIP" shaved in the hair of the left side of his head. "TRE" is shaved on the other. No. 43 goes by Z.
What: High school Football Jamboree featuring Battle, Hickman and Rock Bridge
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Battle High School
Fee: $2 for adults, $1 for students. The Spartans will also collect donations for the new Ronald McDonald House.
"Z" is Zeontrez Marshall, 14, a freshman middle linebacker on Battle High School's new varsity football team. Marshall speaks quietly, unhurried, and wears a white T-shirt with his cousin's face on the front. Until this summer, the two lived in the same house. Marshall would have to crawl onto the roof and into his cousin's locked bedroom through the window to wake up the heavy sleeper every day.
"Basically, we hung out like all the time. From when school ends 'til the time we go to sleep," Marshall said.
July 14 started out no differently. Marshall climbed in the window and woke his cousin up. The two hung out. That night, however, Tre'Veon Marshall was shot and killed in McKee Street Park.
"Earlier that day, he dropped me off before he went to the park, and that was the last time I saw him," Marshall said.
He had to take some time off from Battle's summer football program, but he came back a few days after the family buried Tre'Veon.
"The only thing that really takes my mind off it is football," he said. His best moment since the slaying was at a celebration for Tre'Veon's birthday on July 31. Family gathered, "cheering him (Tre'Veon) on, since he's gone," Marshall said.
Football has been part of Zeontrez Marshall's life since his flag football years, when he ran for 98 yards on a bootleg option pass in elementary school. When he's not playing, he's training for the next season.
Head coach Justin Conyers, toting 10 years of experience as the assistant coach at Rock Bridge High School, calls football a "healthy outlet" for the players.
"They can free their mind not only from the school day but from home life," he said.
Football is especially important in a culture where violence invades the lives of teens.
"They have no concept that dead's forever," Conyers said.
On top of his family tragedy, Marshall is starting his first year in high school — an intimidating experience for many students. He said he starts out the morning feeling nothing. Anxiety builds on the bus: What challenges will today bring? But when he gets to the stripe-free grass practice fields or the bright new turf behind the school, he puts all that aside.
"On the football field, it's like I have no worries about what's going on in my life," he said.