VENICE, Calif. — Gabe Marks already knows what you’re thinking, so let him just answer the question straight away.
No, he does not have anything funny to say. He did not plan anything funny to say. That’s not how it works, Marks says, and he’s tired of people who think he’ll just tell jokes on command. Yes, while at Washington State, when he wasn’t breaking the Pac-12 record for receptions (312) and starring in Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, Marks became a bit of a caricature. Marks has spent his entire football career hearing how he’s too small and too slow. But no one could ever accuse him of having too little personality.
“It’s not a persona, though, you know,” he says. “Like maybe I really was the most interesting person in college football. I can’t, like, fake that.”
The 5' 11", 189-pound receiver is a former All-Pac-12 player and pro prospect expected to be selected on the third day of next week’s NFL draft. Wherever he goes, Marks is sure to become a hit with the local media, much like he was in Pullman. Each Monday, Marks took the podium and answered questions—or just went on random tangents. “Oh my God, Gabe is hilarious,” says Marks’s mother, Jordanna Gersh. “The stuff Gabe says, it’s just off the top of his head. He doesn’t even pause long enough to think up something clever, which is crazy.”
Gersh swears that the Gabe Marks who steps in front of the mic is not the Gabe Marks she sees when he’s hanging out at home. In front of the media, it’s “like an alter ego,” she says, albeit one she finds endlessly entertaining. A sampling of some of his greatest hits:
• His reaction to UCLA warming up on Washington State’s side of the field after the Cougars’ 27–21 win in Pullman: “I'm not coming back next year, to be able to play them again, but I don't know what their deal is. They kind of come off as bad guys when they do things like that. I don't know if they do that to everybody, but it's just kinda douchey, you know?” Marks then turned to a team spokesman and asked, “Is that O.K. to say?” Then, after a second-long pause he added, “I mean, don’t cut that. Let’s be honest.”
• On if there’d been a change in WSU’s team mentality: “We don’t go into games thinking we’re going to lose. That’s 2012 stuff.”
• His take on the Cougars’ offense: “The distribution of the ball this year, it’s been more of a socialist state.”
• On quarterback Luke Falk’s running ability: “I think he believes more in his feet than he should, because it’s really bad looking when he takes off. It’s almost like a limp.”
One week, a reporter commented on a tweet from Marks in which he shared a video that had gone viral, a Planet Earth clip of an iguana scurrying around trying to escape from predators. Marks had a lot of thoughts.
“That dude is out of control. It’s less about the iguana and more about the camera guy. The camera guy’s angles in the video are amazing. He’s, like, panning around the whole battle, and the iguana is just running and there are snakes everywhere. It’s like a scene from 300 or something. This guy is just fighting for his life.”
Leach, with the understatement of the 2017 draft season, says of Marks, “He definitely livened things up in the locker room.”
And yet, despite all Marks’s zany answers and questions—he once implored a terrified student reporter who had been sitting silently for three weeks of press conferences to please ask a question, any question—Marks did not entertain anything out of the ordinary at the NFL combine.
“I think they tried to keep me off guard by not asking weird questions because they know that’s my specialty, is answering those kind of questions with little hesitation,” he says. “I think they tried to throw me off guard by asking me football questions … because I do, in fact, play football.”
Plays it very well, in fact. And some people would probably like Marks to do that and only that. Much like his quirky coach, Marks does not get enough credit for how smart he is; people focus on his randomness, not his depth of knowledge on a wide range of topics. (The day before SI.com sat down with Marks, he had binge-watched a seven-hour documentary series on ancient Egypt with his girlfriend, and recently finished The Lost Symbol, a sequel to the highly popular religious thriller The Da Vinci Code. He’s since moved onto the Emerald Tablet, an ancient philosophical text.)
Marks is aware of the current political climate throughout the country and knows some fans push back when athletes talk about anything other than X’s and O’s. The most recent, and well publicized, example of this came during the 2016 season, when Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem in what he said was a protest for how minority races are treated in the United States. Despite his status as the backup quarterback, Kaepernick quickly became one of the most polarizing sports figures in American sports. And in the aftermath of his actions, some teams have allegedly wavered on signing the free agent for fear of the hoopla that might come with him. Marks calls it “the dilemma of the professional athlete right now” and acknowledges that speaking up, and its potential consequences, have been on his mind since returning home to Venice to train for the draft.
“You can’t be yourself because if what you are is not what they want you to be, then you could not have a job,” Marks says. “A lot of athletes come from not the best situations, and it just doesn’t seem very worth it. It’s a conundrum … I think it’s more now than ever (before), because there’s just so much money involved and there’s so much on the line that it’s becoming really scary to say what you mean, and rightfully so.”
Leach, of course, has thoughts on this too—some of which he’s shared with Marks.
“Individual thought is pretty sacred, and I think our country has totally lost sight of that,” Leach says. “I think there’s temptation in this country right now to restrict thought based on how somebody arbitrarily decides to get their feelings hurt or be offended. I do think there’s a time, place and manner for that type of thing … But I think having people around [the locker room] that add dimension and personality to your team are very important, as long as everybody knows when it’s time to work, and work extremely hard.”
Marks has opinions on just about everything. He has issues with the higher education system in America, saying, “If I’m going to sell my life to an institution, you shouldn’t have to go digging and ask a guy, ‘Hey, is this a good class?’ Every class at an institution of higher learning should be, like, wow, this class blew my mind … they should be good at everything.” He pushes back on the archaic stereotype that athletes are all a bunch of dumb jocks only interested in sports. He believes specialization in sports is often the result of pushy fathers who wind up having strained relationships with their grown sons. His favorite class at Washington State was Philosophy of Religion, and he has plans in the coming years to read every major religious text in its entirety, including the Bible, the Quran, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and the Vedas.
“I like to read,” he says with a shrug. “I like to learn about things.”
In the immediate future though, he’s anxious to learn a new playbook. (He also rejects the notion that he’s a “system receiver.”) And he’s conscious of one of professional sports’s simplest truths: If you’re good enough, you can ask a lot of questions and say whatever you want. If not, you’ll be asked to exit out the back door. “That’s capitalism,” he says. “Supply and demand.”
Leach said that while he of course wants Marks to have a long and successful career in the NFL, he’s most anxious to see what happens when Marks steps off the football field for good. Naturally, Marks already has a plan. He thinks he’d make an excellent talk show host.
Leach agrees, before adding, “Well, it would probably need to be on cable.”