Every time Marshall running back Darius Marshall steps onto the field, he thinks of his 2-year-old son, Christian.
Christian lives in Georgia with his mother, so Marshall doesn't get to see him often, but he no longer takes any time he spends with him for granted.
An arrest last spring nearly separated Marshall from his family and derailed his career -- not to mention the Thundering Herd's hopes for their first winning season in six years. His charge: possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver.
"I had seen on the news that I was suspended from the team indefinitely and it seemed like everything had come crumbling downhill," said Marshall, the Herd's leading rusher. "If I was to be locked up for what time they said they were going to give me, I wouldn't have been able to see [Christian] until he was like seven."
The incident occured after midnight on May 2, when Huntington, W.Va., was starting to shut down. Marshall and Thundering Herd defensive back DeQuan Bembry, also known as DeQuan Starling, sparked up a joint while sitting in a car.
Two deputies, out patrolling for underage drinkers, saw the double-parked car and pulled up alongside. Marshall and Bembry quickly extinguished and hid the joint, but they couldn't hide the smell.
Both were pulled out of the car and handcuffed while the car was searched. Police found four individually wrapped bags of marijuana and took both Bembry and Marshall to jail.
"I can say it was a stupid mistake on my part because I shouldn't have been there from the beginning," said Marshall.
Marshall was taken to Western Regional Jail and held on a $20,000 bond. The felony charges against him were later reduced after it was determined that the officers had made a mistake about the amount of drugs in the car. He was ultimately charged with misdemeanor possession for having less than 15 grams of marijuana.
Marshall was the 16th football player arrested from the university since Marshall University head coach Mark Snyder took over in 2005 and ninth in the past two seasons (not all were committed by Snyder's recruits), according to reports in the Charleston Daily Mail.
Snyder, who owns a 16-31 record at Marshall, was not happy about potentially losing his best player.
"It was a young kid making a stupid mistake," said Snyder. "To get back, there was a pact between me and him and some things he needed to make sure he got done. He paid his dues, trust me."
As part of his punishment, the nation's No. 2 leading rusher wasn't allowed to work out or be near the team. Marshall went to class, went home and waited for word about his football future.
"I just really think that he thought he was untouchable," running back coach Jared Smith said. "Now he realizes that he can be replaced."
Marshall said it was a hard lesson.
"At first, I thought football was supposed to be there," Marshall said. "Like, it was a thing that was going to be there no matter what. Now I know that it can't be taken for granted."
For Marshall, football is a means to provide a better life for his son. Marshall's hometown of Milledgeville, Ga., was a tough place to grow up; he'd been around drugs and had seen friends and loved ones killed. He didn't want his son to grow up in that environment because of a mistake he made when he was 20.
After his career hung in the balance for months, Snyder called him in August and told him he was conditionally on the team, but suspended for the season opener.
"I have three daughters, so I'm not a very forgiving man," Snyder said. "All through preseason camp, me and him, we did not speak. We didn't speak much at all. Preparing for the first game, I made him come down to the scout team with me and I think he was humbled by it."
Marshall was thankful for the second chance. He apologized to the team and committed himself to being a better person on and off the field. He spent all of his time in the gym, in the classroom or at home. When he has some off time, he heads south to Georgia to hang out with Christian.
"One day I'm going to have to tell him what I did because eventually someone is going to bring it up in front of him," said Marshall. "I'm not looking forward to that, but I'm glad I was given another chance."
On Sept. 19, Marshall busted through the Bowling Green defense and scampered for an 80-yard touchdown run. For his celebration, he pointed toward Christian, who was sitting in the stands with his Marshall gear on.
"He's my inspiration," Marshall said. "I think about him all day every day. I just want to do right for him."
Marshall rushed for 186 yards in the game, his fourth 100-yard rushing game of the season, and has been the Thundering Herd's most potent offensive weapon this season. In six games this year, Marshall has 136 carries for 819 yards and nine touchdowns. His 136.5 yards per game ranks second in the nation. Earlier this month, Marshall was added to the Maxwell Award watch list, which is given to the nation's most outstanding player.
Snyder likened Marshall to former Thundering Herd running back Ahmad Bradshaw, who's now with the New York Giants.
"I'm hearing about Ahmad Bradshaw doing some really good things with the Giants and I see Darius Marshall doing the same growth pattern as Ahmad did," Snyder said. "I didn't have Ahmad as a freshman, but I got to coach against him when I was at Ohio State. Then I got to see his maturation process my first three years here and I'm seeing the same thing out of Darius. Darius is not Ahmad yet, but I think by next year, he will be Ahmad."
Marshall isn't ready to think about the NFL just yet. The business major, who wants to open a five-star hotel one day, has no plans to leave school early because he promised his mother he'd get his degree. For now, he's focused on school and helping Marshall University (4-3) to its first winning season since 2003 and its first Conference USA East title. Currently, the Thundering Herd is second in the C-USA East standings behind East Carolina .
But most importantly, Marshall is focused on being a better person.
"It's been a lot of determination in the offseason," he said. "Do I want to be that guy who's the troublemaker or the guy who makes the difference in the community and the team and every situation that he's in? I was able to pick the second choice that led me to a brighter future."
Graham Watson joined ESPN.com in 2008 after four seasons covering the Missouri Tigers and the Big 12 Conference for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She also covered college football recruiting for the Dallas Morning News.