You’d think a guy whose nickname is “polar bear” would be happiest with one of the NFL’s northernmost teams.
Not so for defensive end Cassius Marsh, who spent most of the 2017 regular season with the Super Bowl-bound New England Patriots before being released Nov. 21.
“It’s a different place. I’ll just say that. It’s a different place,” Marsh said of the team that traded two draft picks to acquire him from Seattle in September, then waived him 80 days later. “It didn’t fit for me.”
Marsh quickly was snapped up by the 49ers and the connection was instantaneous. Most newcomers in NFL locker rooms wait weeks to play as they adjust to teammates and learn a new playbook. Marsh was claimed by San Francisco and was in uniform four days later. He appeared in every contest from that point forth, often playing ahead of defensive ends who had been on the roster all year.
Over the last six games, Marsh added badly needed pressure from the edge and also was a stalwart on specials teams. From Week 12 onward, only Dekoda Watson played more special teams than Marsh, 131 snaps to 117. Marsh, however, also was on the field for 189 defensive snaps in that span versus two for Watson.
All of which suggests Marsh, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on March 14, has a good shot at returning. He certainly hopes so.
“From the moment I got here I felt at home,” he said last month. “And I was coming from something that, for the first time, really felt like I was away from home and turned the game I love into true work.”
Stories about Marsh, 25, invariably describe him as colorful, and perhaps there’s no better adjective.
A tangle of tattoos – stars, moons, a king crab, lotus blooms – begin at his wrists and riot like tropical vines over his chest and across his back. He began getting them as an 18-year-old at UCLA and admits that some of his first – “I didn’t have any money back then,” he said – are a bit rough.
With more change in his pocket in recent years, he’s found a top-end artist, Boise, Idaho-based Tony Adamson, who’s been sharpening Marsh’s oldest tattoos, creating new ones and otherwise making the defensive end’s torso his canvas.
His favorite is a big one on the center of his back – a polar bear wearing a Native American headdress. It refers to the nickname Marsh’s father, former NFL receiver Curtis Marsh, gave him as a child.
Most Americans would categorize Curtis Marsh as black. In fact, he has a mixed background, including a Caucasian father. Cassius’ mother, meanwhile, is Creole with Native American, European and black heritage.
The result is that Cassius – fair haired and light skinned – at first blush appears white, but doesn’t identify as solely white.
“When I came out he just called me ‘polar bear,’ ” Cassius said of his father. “And the reason is that polar bears have white fur – clearly, obviously. But their skin is actually black.”
His older brother, former NFL cornerback Curtis Marsh Jr., explained further: “He’s part black, but no one really could tell just by looking at his face. So the analogy is that polar bears, if you shave off their white fur, they’re brown bears. Their skin is brown just like the other bears. So my dad would always tell Cassius that he’s like a polar bear – black on the inside, white on the outside.”
“There’s not many people that have to deal with that,” Curtis Jr. continued. “Most of Cassius’ family is black. He grew up in that culture. But you run into people and that’s just not their initial thought, no matter what you say to them. You have to really get to know Cassius to understand who he really is.”
Cassius Marsh said there have been times when he’s been around white friends and has been appalled by what he’s heard.
“Saying racist (stuff) not knowing that someone right in front of them is black,” he said. “I’ve experienced that throughout my entire life and it’s presented me with a very weird perspective because to me it doesn’t make any sense, especially in this day and age. Because nobody’s really pure anything anymore. So it’s hard for me. And I don’t like to voice too much about it because people are so hateful with their responses and I’m just a very low-key individual.”
Low key? On the field, Marsh is anything but.
His behavior red lined at times when he was at UCLA, including when he swung his fist at a Cal offensive lineman and was ejected from the game. UCLA coach Jim Mora noted then that Marsh can be “kind of a wild-horse rider” at times.
His current defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh, described him as “relentless.” “He does not stop,” Saleh said. “He’s the definition of ‘all gas no brakes.’ ”
Marsh may have felt that spirit and individuality were squelched inside the Patriots buttoned-down, businesslike locker room. The young 49ers and their 38-year-old head coach, Kyle Shanahan, have a looser atmosphere, one in which hip-hop music is blasted during practice and in the locker room during the week. Even before games, the team’s in-house DJ – yes, the 49ers have one of those – walks down the tunnel alongside players with an oversized boom box on his shoulder that pumps out tunes and pumps up the players.
Marsh’s assignment in New England also was an odd fit. He was asked to set a hard edge in the running game, a tough task for someone who’s a linear 6-foot-4 and listed as 245 pounds.
The 49ers, meanwhile, want dogged, always-attacking players at their so-called “Leo” defensive end spot, which also is where Marsh lined up when he was with the Seahawks. That’s why he had instant cohesion in Santa Clara – he felt like he’d been here before.
Marsh was drafted by Seattle in 2014 when that defense was at the height of its dominance. He said the 49ers had a very similar feel but were obviously in a much earlier stage of their development.
“I think it’s something that can be surpassed,” he said of what the Seahawks have accomplished. “And that’s with all due respect. They’ve got a lot of great players over there. But there’s no reason why this team can’t be better. I see so much potential in every player here. (The roster) is super young and everyone’s trying to get better. The coaches, the players – I don’t know, it just feels good to be here.”