WATCH: Chris Marve introductory interview
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – To Chris Marve, playing linebacker isn’t all that different than solving a math problem.
Presented with a challenge, students must analyze it, determine the best way to solve it and then produce an end result.
And, when it’s over, the answer is either right or wrong.
“That’s what I love about math,” said Marve, Florida State’s new linebackers coach. “All those other subjects, there’s room for interpretation.”
Marve would know a thing or two about it. Because, if he has two areas of expertise, it’s linebacker play and math.
He excelled in the former as a standout at Vanderbilt during the most prosperous time in that program’s history. And he honed his skills in the latter during the two years he spent as a seventh-grade math teacher at the LEAD Academy in Nashville.
“I fundamentally believe coaching is teaching,” Marve said. “It’s the same from that standpoint of you have material that you need to deliver, you have prepared a lesson plan to teach.
“You have objectives that you want to get across and you want to make sure that they understand what you’re teaching so that they can go and apply it.”
Marve will get plenty of opportunity to coach and teach as he rebuilds Florida State’s linebacker corps under the direction of head coach Mike Norvell and defensive coordinator Adam Fuller.
And he’ll do it with a perspective not afforded to many in his profession.
After racking up 398 career tackles, a team-high 121 stops in 2009, and All-SEC honors in each of his four seasons, Marve could have followed the obvious path to professional football.
But Marve lives a faith-centered life and, by the end of his time as college football player, couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being led in a different direction.
At first, Marve wasn’t quite sure where that would be. He’d applied and been accepted to both law school and business school at Vanderbilt, and although he might have excelled in either of them, neither felt like a satisfying option.
After some prayer and introspection, as well as some conversations with his girlfriend Lauren (now his wife), Marve remembered the Teach For America exhibits that often popped up on Vanderbilt’s campus.
Founded in 1989, Teach For America’s stated directive is to find, develop and support “a diverse network of leaders, working together to end educational inequity”.
The nonprofit organization often recruits teachers from college campuses and requires a two-year commitment to serve at a low-income public school.
The more he thought about it, the more Marve, who had just completed a double-major in sociology and human and social development, knew where he was supposed to be.
“I wanted to impact people and I wanted to change lives in a positive way,” he said. “At that point in time, it was to go teach.”
His mind made up, Marve headed south to the Mississippi Delta for an intensive, six-week course that he described as “boot camp” for new teachers.
And he did so not knowing if he would ever step on to a football field ever again.
“I had no idea,” he said. “At that point in time, I was told, or I felt that (God) was telling me to go and serve the community in the best way I can.
“And for me, there’s no better to way to serve a community than to teach and develop young people.”
Marve’s first day in a strange, new place came with at least one familiar feeling.
Walking into the classroom at a school in Mississippi, Marve flashed back to the first time he ran out of the locker room and onto the field as a freshman at Vanderbilt.
“Heart pounding, excited,” he said. “But really thankful for the opportunity. You don’t realize how much of an impact a teacher can have, probably, until you become one and you see those eyes looking at you, waiting for guidance and direction.”
“At that point in time, it sets in the magnitude and the opportunity that you have. And it makes you work even harder. And it makes you want to do that much more to make sure that those kids learn and have the opportunities that they want.”
From there, Marve headed back to Nashville and the LEAD Academy Middle School, a public charter school of about 400 students, most of them from minority and underprivileged backgrounds.
When she first saw the new seventh-grade math teacher, with his football player’s physique and sharp wardrobe, Rebekah Bolston, then a physical education teacher at LEAD Academy, wasn’t quite sure what to make of him.
After all, Marve was just 23 years old, had excelled in football just across town at Vanderbilt, and had hardly come from a typical teaching background.
“I didn’t know how to take him at first,” Bolston said. “Not really sure if he was serious or if he was cool. … Then once I personally got to meet him, one-on-one, I was like, ‘O-M-G, he’s the coolest ever.’”
Marve’s students, however, might have told a different story. At least at first.
Because despite his youth and inexperience, Mr. Marve turned out to be a tough customer in the classroom.
Every time she walked past his room, Bolston marveled at the silence from within. And the way that every single student was locked in on either Marve’s instruction or their day’s assignments.
So much so that, on some occasions, she’d tease Marve with a military-style march past his door.
“Very strict with his kids,” Bolston recalled. “Very disciplined. Plays no games.”
Along the way, Marve gained an appreciation for all the teachers he’d had throughout his life, as well as a few skills that would come in handy down the road.
For one thing, he discovered that putting together a lesson plan is far more difficult than it looks.
And that an effective method for teaching one student might not work so well for another.
But, with the work ethic he honed on the football field, Marve devoted himself to the ins and outs of algebra, geometry and anything else a seventh-grade math student might need to know.
It didn’t take long before he found a receptive audience in the classroom.
“As an athlete, I think he already had the mindset of being disciplined,” Bolston said. “And coming from that inner-city background, I think he was able to relate. And being a young African-American man, those students were able to relate to him. And they were able to see someone who comes from their same background be able to do something with themselves.”
He didn’t know it at the time, but what might have been the most important day of Marve’s professional life came early in his second year at LEAD Academy.
It was late afternoon and Marve was making his way to the school’s parking lot when he heard an unusual commotion from within the gym.
Thinking something might be up, Marve poked his head inside and saw something that caught him by surprise: Basketball try-outs.
There were dozens of boys scrambled across the court, but only one coach available to lead them.
Marve had never so much as played organized basketball – “In fact, I got cut when I went out for the basketball team in middle school,” he remembered with a laugh – but, sensing a need, he stepped in and volunteered to serve as an assistant coach.
For the first time, Mr. Marve had become Coach Marve.
Marve loved teaching at LEAD Academy and, up to that point, had never given much thought to working in athletics.
But after only his second practice with the basketball team, Marve once again had that feeling that he just couldn’t shake.
“I knew at that point in time – I said, ‘You know what? I want to be a coach,” Marve said. “The only thing I’m missing, I need to have some cleats on.
“I need to be on grass.”
Marve’s epiphany came at a good time. He was nearing the end of his two-year commitment when he started reaching out to coaches and mentors from his playing days.
And, when a strong lead came through, Marve didn’t have to go far to chase it.
He began as a defensive quality control assistant at Vanderbilt in the fall of 2014, just three years after playing his last game for the Commodores.
Turns out that former All-SEC linebackers with the brains for law school make for hot coaching prospects.
Before he could return to his alma mater, though, Marve first had to say one more goodbye to the place that had helped shape his early adult life.
And that didn’t come easily.
“It was hard to leave,” Marve said, “from the standpoint of leaving the kids and lives and parents who I had formed relationships with. That was difficult, to step away.”
But he also left behind a proud community of teachers and students at the LEAD Academy.
“He was always a leader,” Bolston said. “It didn’t matter if it was with the students or with us teachers. … You just didn’t expect anything else.”
In the five years since, Marve’s career has taken off the way that everyone at LEAD Academy though it would.
By 2016, he’d earned his first full-time gig coaching Vanderbilt’s inside linebackers and, a few years later, was off to a promising start at Mississippi State when Norvell called from Florida State.
When he was announced as FSU’s linebackers coach and defensive run game coordinator on Christmas Eve a few weeks ago, Marve had officially earned his third Power-5 coaching job before his 31st birthday.
“Chris is one of the top up-and-coming coaches in all of college football,” Norvell said. “He has a brilliant defensive mind and a tremendous work ethic.”
For Marve, coaching with the Seminoles is the perfect marriage of two loves: football and teaching.
He of course wants fast, physical players lining up in the heart of FSU’s defense, but he also said that his linebackers must be “extremely cerebral” in their approach.
“(Linebackers) are the closest you can get to being the quarterback of the defense,” Marve said. “The linebacker position is literally the middle of the defense.”
FSU’s linebackers, then, will be in for a challenge once spring practice starts in March. The Seminoles have some returning experience and production at the position, but, for some linebackers, Marve will be their third position coach in four years.
And when they hit the practice fields, they’ll be learning yet another new defensive scheme – their third in as many seasons.
It may be a tall order, but Marve has a proven ability to convey information in a clear and accessible way.
After two years of learning and refining it in a seventh-grade classroom, Mr. Marve is ready to bring those abilities to the first day of class at Florida State.
“That opportunity, it engendered a lot of different skills that I use now as a coach, as a teacher,” Marve said. “I’m really thankful for it. …
“I’m am very intense. I am very energetic. But I love my kids. I love ‘em, man.”