31 Oct

The Many Sides of Arkansas Sports Legend Marcus Monk: An Exclusive

It’s a weekday morning in early September. Why is Razorback legend Marcus Monk driving to a place in southwest Arkansas that translates to “skull crusher”?

No, the 28-year-old Monk isn’t trying to resurrect his football career by challenging All-Pro NFL defensive end J.J. Watt to a “Hunger Games”-style wrestling match. Nor is he heading to Cossatot River High School to raft the equally dangerous whitewaters nearby that inspired the French to call it “cassé-tête.”

Instead Monk, Arkansas’ all-time leader in touchdown catches, is traveling Interstate 49 to help with a camp his former high school basketball coach organized. The coach, Kevin Kyzer, coached Monk more than a decade ago at East Poinsett County High School in Lepanto, Ark. Monk was one of the most decorated athletes the area has ever produced, a top-100 prep basketball player heading into a senior year in which he averaged 20.8 points, 16.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 3.8 blocks and 2.5 steals a game while leading EPC to a 35-1 record along with its first Class AAA state title.

Monk lives in Fayetteville, where he starred for the Hogs as a wide receiver 2004-07, but firmly believes he owes time and support to the people he knew growing up in northeast Arkansas. Most every year since he graduated college, he’s organized benefit games or camps to help raise funds for school supplies for elementary schools in Poinsett County. “Education is really important. It can change lives,” says Monk, an EPC valedictorian. “I do it to try to show my appreciation and try to give back.”

This mindset – whether applying to community, team or family – isn’t new. In 2004, he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: “The first thing I’m going to do if I go pro in either football or basketball is to make sure my mother and Malik [his 6-year-old brother] are taken care of. I’m going to pay her back for all she’s done for me and give this town someone to be proud of.”

Since 2012, all three Monks have moved from northeast to northwest Arkansas for better job and education opportunities.  Whether they will remain there two years from now is something millions of college basketball fans around the nation want to know.

                                                                                      ***

Heading into summer of 2007, the storybook ending seemed so close: The millions of dollars, the endorsement deals, the wonderful new home mom always deserved. Monk been been a dual sport athlete as a freshman, playing spare minutes in basketball but announcing himself as a star in football. He had a junior season for the ages, helping Arkansas soar to 7-1 conference mark and the SEC title game while tallying 50 catches, 962 yards and a school-record 11 touchdowns. At 6-6, and 220 pounds, Monk was plenty physically imposing. Mix in his uncanny field awareness, high IQ and soft hands, and he had the makings of a top NFL prospect.

Then, during an August practice, Monk suffered a knee injury that required two surgeries and knocked him out of the first seven games. He returned to finish his senior season, but was never the same on the football field. The Chicago Bears drafted Monk in the seventh round of the 2008 NFL Draft, but he didn’t make the team. Stints with the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers also didn’t pan out. “I did get cut from the game I love, but I knew that I had my education and I could pretty much do whatever I wanted to as long as I put my mind to it,” he says. “I’ve always known that you can’t play forever. One advantage I did have was I stayed on top of my schoolwork.”

Indeed, Monk graduated college with a business degree in three and a half years. He came back in the late 2008 to take graduate courses in real estate and finance, and to give basketball another shot – this time primarily to keep in shape for NFL tryouts. Nearly four years after he’d last played, Monk rejoined the Hog basketball program. While taking graduate courses in real estate and finance, Monk averaged 4.5 points and 3.1 rebounds in the 2008-09 season. He helped the Razorbacks knock off No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 7 Texas at home.

Behind the scenes, he was a valuable leader for a young squad that included six freshmen and was at one point down to 10 scholarship players. “He brought that kind of calm, cool and collected mindset and attitude and you could tell he was the most mature one out there,” recalls Nick Mason, one of the six freshmen. “He was talking to guys in the locker room, making sure everybody had their grades straight – or whatever problems they had. I can remember him talking to guys – especially the freshmen – about girls, if they were having girl problems.”

Monk also developed respect for then-Razorback head coach John Pelphrey that developed into friendship. He said Pelphrey has been “a mentor,” checking in with him while he was playing professional basketball in Germany in 2010-2012. They remained friends when Monk briefly moved back to northeast Arkansas, and started helping train his friend, former Razorback and NBA player Ronnie Brewer, Jr. John Pelphrey is now a University of Florida assistant coach. When he calls now, it’s to check up on Monk as well as his younger brother Malik.

The Monks near their northeast Arkansas home.

The Monks near their northeast Arkansas home. Courtesy Marcus Monk

Malik Monk, a 16-year old junior at Bentonville High School, is one of the nation’s most highly recruited basketball players. Almost every major program, including Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina and Indiana, has offered him a scholarship. Pelphrey, who met Malik when he was a boy tagging behind Marcus Monk at Bud Walton Arena, now recruits him.

The bigger star Malik becomes, the more Marcus is known as Malik’s older brother as opposed to Marcus’ younger brother. This kind of perception change doesn’t disorient Marcus in the least. In his eyes, his role is crystal clear: Help protect Malik’s time, ensure he maintains his grades, allow him to be as much of a kid as possible. This means it’s often Marcus, or his mother, who take calls from college coaches and media on behalf of Malik.

While Marcus is a Razorback in so many ways, he doesn’t intend to sway Malik toward his own alma mater. The Monks monksare weighing which programs best suited to provide Malik both with the start of a good college education as well as what Malik hopes is a one-year preparation for a successful NBA career. Marcus is able to provide Malik – along with Malik’s summer league teammates – with advice borne of his own experience of being a highly recruited student-athlete. “I get a chance to spend time with my brother, but I also have 12 other guys that I’m responsible for and I’m a big brother to them as well.”

Last basketball season, Marcus helped mentor some of the current Razorback basketball players. He was finishing a Master’s of Business Administration degree at the University of Arkansas and volunteer assisted with the team, helping in various ways such as cutting film and devising scouting reports. The experience was valuable for any possible future college coaching. It also allowed him to spend more time with his cousin, Rashad “Ky” Madden, also a Lepanto, Ark. native.

Madden, a senior guard, is the team’s leading scorer and its most experienced player. Between Malik and Marcus in age, he is essentially like a middle brother. All three frequently talk with each other. “That’s like my little brother,” Marcus says of Madden. “I love him. I’ve been knowing him a long, long time. We’re from the same place, the same neighborhood … It’s more personal between me and Ky.”

Just as Malik prepares for a transition into the world of college basketball, and Ky prepares for a potential pro basketball career, Marcus too finds himself at a crossroads. In May, he graduated with an MBA and stays connected to his classmates for potential job leads. He spent much of this summer on the road with Malik and his summer travel team, and in September was working on the launch of his brother’s Web site. He says he doesn’t yet know if he will stay in northwest Arkansas for the next year or two, although he does want to be around Malik as he finishes high school.

Some see Marcus settling into a full-time job in northwest Arkansas as a sign that Malik would be a Razorback. Marcus says just as he and Malik haven’t yet settled on an eventual college destination, nor has he decided what career path he’ll venture down next.

“I’m in a transition stage,” he says. Whether a job in training, coaching, business or something else, “if something appears that is hard for me to turn down, then I definitely have to consider it.” But, he adds, “as far as priorities, my family is first come.”

Marcus Monk is no longer the spectacular receiver who seemingly could catch anything thrown his way. Instead, these days, Marcus Monk the giver pursues something much higher.

The above article originally published in the October/November issue of 2njoy magazine.