A special teams drill is being run during a June OTA practice, and Brandon Marshall is standing on the sidelines of a practice field in back of Halas Hall. Most players on the sidelines are watching the action or talking with one another. A few are getting water or tending to equipment. One works on a technique.
Marshall is staring straight ahead, alone in a crowd. His view is fixed on the 50-yard marker across the field, and he will not look away. He is silent. He is practicing a meditation technique called gazing, or Trataka. The Bears wide receiver sometimes even will gaze on game day during television timeouts. He will fix his eyes on a person in the crowd, and try to see nothing else. Marshall finds it helps with concentration, focus and staying calm.
He learned how to gaze at a candle's flame when he was a young player with the Broncos and the team practiced "football yoga." But he didn't really understand it, and how it could benefit him, until he started to mature. Now, meditation is a means for Marshall to survive and thrive and stay on top of his game at a point in his career when the aging process can be menacing.
Women, they say, have a biological clock that starts to tick loudly around the age of 30. Athletes may not often be open about it, but they have the same kind of clock. It reminds them that time is not on their side. When Marshall turned 30 in March, his clock was ticking loudly.
Life is not as simple for Marshall as it was when he was a young player. In addition to his day job, he spends a lot of time raising awareness for mental health through the Brandon Marshall Foundation. He owns Fit Speed, a training facility in Weston, Fla. He leads offseason workouts with teammates. He enrolls in continuing education programs, such as one at the Harvard Business School this offseason. He runs a football camp. He has a television deal.
Keeping all of it in perspective and remaining one of the best wide receivers in the NFL can be a challenge for Marshall, who has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and had a number of off-field missteps earlier in his career. "One of the things I learned about myself when I took neurological tests at McLean Hospital is that I need to be very regimented and schedule-oriented and not have too many things on my plate," he said.
The meditation, two to three times a week away from football and frequently on the field, is his medicine. And that is is just one of the ways Marshall is dealing with the transition to the back half of his career. Peace of mind also came in the form of a three-year contract extension Marshall signed in May that included $22.3 million in guaranteed money. Having that guaranteed money was important to Marshall, so much so that he apparently was willing to accept less in total value.
He had been lobbying Bears general manager Phil Emery for a new deal with guaranteed money for more than a year even though he was signed through the 2014 season. "I don't believe any player should play without guaranteed money," he said. "Our sport is a volatile, violent game. You have guaranteed contracts in other sports. In our sport you don't. Once your guaranteed money is over I believe you should be back at the table as far as security and stability, to ease your mind. Then, you can go out there and just play."
Marshall's objective is to play until he is 36, and he said he may even steal two more years after that. He knows elite wide receivers have a history of playing at a high level well into their 30s. So his goal is realistic, especially if he can maintain balance emotionally, mentally and physically.
Every athlete has financial windows of opportunity to be mindful of. For athletes on the wrong side of 30, those windows take on more significance. His current contract will cover him until he is 33. Barring something unforeseen, he should get another deal. How lucrative that contract will be is difficult to predict at this time.
"When you look solely at the business part of it, you have to understand how much leverage you have, when you have leverage, and take advantage of it," said Marshall, who is thankful the Bears took care of him even though his leverage was not optimal this offseason.
Marshall was forced to play last season without guaranteed money. His football income could have been gone forever with one tendon snap. He acknowledges it was somewhat personal to him when former teammate Henry Melton went down with a torn ACL in September. Melton was playing on a one-year franchise tag agreement. "That will be in the back of your mind," he said.
Marshall has had his physical issues as well. Last offseason he had his third hip surgery in four years, each one a reminder that his body, like yours and mine, eventually will prevent him from doing what he always has done. For now though, it is complying remarkably well.
At a team outing this week, Marshall bowled a team high and personal best 224, which wasn't really as significant as it was symbolic. Marshall is in a good place. With more miles on his body and more knowledge in his head, he is doing some things differently these days.
A couple of years ago, Marshall contracted a chef to deliver several days worth of meals at a time. This offseason, he hired a chef to prepare each of his meals fresh in his house. He is planning on trying a version of the Paleo diet.
Marshall also is trying to get more sleep, between eight and nine hours a night. He previously averaged about six, but after meeting with a sleep therapist brought in by the Bears and reading a few sleep studies, Marshall came to the conclusion he was not getting enough.
He also has continued to try to work out smarter and harder. Marshall, who is not a speed receiver, even hit 24 miles per hour for a couple of seconds on a treadmill. "Working out I think I really nailed it this year," he said. "I really feel I had the right blueprint as far as what my body needs. If you can dominate working out, nutrition and sleep as an athlete, you're good."
Subsequently, the five-time Pro Bowler said he believes he can have his best season yet in 2014. In eight NFL seasons, Marshall has matured remarkably. But he is well aware the maturation process is far from over. And that is exactly why he has a chance to age with grace.