“He’s always had a farming background,” Marshall said.
It turns out the Marshalls have always had a sporting background too.
His dad and uncles were prominent in rugby union circles in Taranaki, a region on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island, where Marshall was born.
Marshall’s cousin Rhys Marshall made his super rugby debut for the Chiefs in 2013 as a hooker before making his way to Ireland to play for Munster in the Pro14 competition.
Another cousin Callum Gibbins played super rugby for the Hurricanes before heading to Scotland to play for the Glasgow Warriors, a team he captains, in the Pro14 and European club championships.
But circumstances meant Marshall was drawn towards football after his family crossed the ditch when he was still a toddler and settled in Victoria.
“If there had been rugby around the area I dare say I would have been playing that as a kid rather than playing football,” Marshall said.
But football it was and the skinny kid with the Luna Park grin played for the love of it until scouts noticed him during his second last year of school and he was invited to train with the Great Western Victoria Rebels.
Making the squad meant Marshall was busy as he combined year 12 at Portland’s Bayview College and football in Ballarat.
On the day he trained in Ballarat, Marshall’s dad would somehow wrangle time off work to pick his son up from school at lunchtime – two free periods conveniently being part of his timetable – and drop him off at Warrnambool, where he would catch a bus to training with his new teammates.
The three-hour process would happen in reverse at the end of training and Marshall’s head would hit the pillow hard at 11pm.
He played seven games that year before moving to Ballarat to play in the TAC Cup as an 18-year-old, where he excelled, playing in the national championships, attending the national combine and sitting down ahead of the draft to be interviewed by 10 clubs.
But the 2014 national and rookie drafts passed quickly without his name being mentioned.
Thankfully for the Saints, a recruiter took the time to ring Marshall afterwards and tell him the only reason he had missed out was because he was too skinny. The message to the the gangly, 84- kilogram tall was to stick at it.
“That gave me the motivation going forward,” Marshall said.
Such a spur was important too, because he could have easily wandered away.
Opportunities in the VFL with North Ballarat were limited as they were aligned with North Melbourne and then-Kangaroo back-up ruckman Brayden Preuss (now with Melbourne) played every week.
Marshall found himself on a VFL list but playing for local club Sebastopol, working part-time in an industrial laundromat and studying business and sports administration at university.
Sebastopol only won one game, their first for three years. His back was sore from folding pillow cases and sheets at work and a highlight at university was travelling to the Gold Coast to play football in the Australian University Games.
But the positive, laid-back big man doesn’t think one minute of it was a waste of his time.
“I loved it,” Marshall said.
He won Sebastopol’s best and fairest and still chuckles when recalling the day they defeated Melton South to post their solitary victory for the season.
“That night at the club was pretty special and something I will never forget,” Marshall said.
Another season was spent in the VFL before the Saints decided they had one final spot on their rookie list for the now-21-year-old ruckman.
All of a sudden he was a full-time footballer in Seaford, a world away from Portland and Ballarat, playing in the VFL for Sandringham. He relished it and his coach at the Zebras, Lindsay Gilbee, declared late in the season he was too good to play at that level for long.
One AFL game in 2017 led to 12 in 2018 and a breakout year in 2019 when he played 20 games and finished second in the Saints’ best and fairest. He was the game’s most improved player and at 24 has emerged as a potential next challenger to the AFL’s premier big men, Melbourne’s Max Gawn, 28 and Collingwood’s Brodie Grundy, 26.
With his body weighing in at 106 kilograms, Marshall was able to physically match more mature ruckman. His competitiveness shone through.
“You either come off the ground with a win or a loss against your opponent and I really enjoyed that aspect of it,” Marshall said.
The Saints knew they had a good player but they also recognised he would need support and suggested he work in combination with former Essendon and Port Adelaide big man Patrick Ryder. Marshall was open to the idea and said it would work well.
“I was all for it,” Marshall said.
“One of the areas I struggled with last year was centre bounce and that is one of his strengths. I have been picking his brains pre-season and learning different tricks off him at a centre bounce.”
Those tricks might be on display soon as the AFL gears up for a resumption and Marshall, a man unafraid of hard work, can’t wait.
“The ones that are self-motivated and driven are going to succeed,” Marshall said.
“It feels like a VFL environment at the moment because you are not at the club every day.”
Peter Ryan is a sports reporter with The Age covering AFL, horse racing and other sports.