Marlon Walters didn’t make it as a professional footballer.
One of the so many who grow up sharing a common dream, only to see it drift agonisingly away after years of hard work and dedication.
After seven years in the Wolves Academy and one professional contract, he was released.
He had captained the Under-17, Under-19 and the reserves, and had travelled with the first team.
But such are the fine lines of football, the sometimes negligible gap between triumph and disaster in such an ultra-competitive environment, that the news delivered by manager Dave Jones at the end of his contract saw Walters back to square one when it came to choosing a career.
Spend a few minutes listening to Marlon Walters’ story however, and him not making it as a professional footballer at Wolves is the very last thing that you take away.
Because he has had to deal with so much more in life than just missing out on making a name for himself at Molineux.
Concerns about violence growing up in Bartley Green in Birmingham, prompted Walters to take up martial arts.
Racism, both in his home community, as a player and, more recently, a coach, has never been too far away.
And, most devastatingly of all, the sudden loss of his young son Marnell, at just three-and-a-half months old back in 2009, has left him with a pain and sorrow which will never disappear.
That crushing and heart-breaking tragedy would prompt a change in philosophy and approach that has shaped Walters’ path ever since, as he now dovetails providing vital mentoring and support to young people across the Midlands with his footballing role as an assistant manager with Worcester City.
From such tragedy, such desolation, came growth.
Walters picked himself up off the canvas, and set about creating a new chapter of his life, in tribute to Marnell.
“When I was released by Wolves at the age of 20, I was gutted, I really thought it was the end of the world,” he recalls.
“I had only ever seen myself playing football, and the only professional shirt I had worn since coming out of school was that of Wolves.
“When Dave Jones called me into his office to break the news I was close to tears, struggling to hold it in.
“I had gone from being on the front of the programme and having posters done to being told ‘no, you’re not for me’.
“It was one of the worst times ever but the end of the world? No, that was still to come.
“Marnell just fell asleep and didn’t wake up and there is nothing that will ever compare to losing a child.
“I went on a bit of a rampage for ten months after that, I didn’t work, I travelled, had some alone time and re-evaluated the direction I wanted to go in life.
“At the time I was working as a team leader for the AA in a call centre – I had worked my way up – but I decided it was no longer about money, it was about doing something where I would get some spiritual and emotional fulfilment.
“Money can only bring an element of joy and happiness, it puts food on the table and provides clothes for your children, but I believe real and proper happiness comes from within.
“I realised I got that happiness from working with people, the interaction, and I needed to do something new.
“If I didn’t, I would have just ended up going over and over everything in my head, digging myself a massive hole.
“My Mum and Dad had sat me down after Marnell passed and had said to me: ‘Do whatever you need to do, we have got you, we will support you’.
“And while I’m not sure my Dad was really in favour of me giving up a good job to set up on my own, I took the plunge and launched MW Fitness and Community Care, named after my son, Marnell.”
The new business was borne out of Walters’ desire to work to improve the lives of young people and help them deal with the growing number of issues which society can throw at them.
Having initially headed into schools on a voluntary and unpaid basis, speaking to pupils and providing mentoring support, he soon realised that he had the capabilities to make a difference.
With the support of a football contact, Andrew Penny, who has become a big brother or mentor type figure for Walters, the new project was off and running.
The methods of MW Fitness are varied, from DJ workshops to ‘Let’s Talk’ assemblies, music master classes to offering family support, but all are shaped around the CIC’s overall aims of improving health and wellbeing.
“We try to create positive pathways for kids who are having difficulties in whatever they are doing,” Walters explains.
“Whether it’s gang culture, drugs, physical or mental abuse, self-harming, feeling suicidal, dealing with bullying, obesity issues, family problems, social media, we make sure we are a support mechanism for the young people.
“There is so much pressure these days, especially with social media, with people being so much more image conscious as well as gang culture increasing and a lot of single parent households.
“It is about showing the kids that whatever has happened to them or whatever they are involved in, however bad they feel, there is a way out and a light at the end of the tunnel.
“If you can believe in it, and have people around that can help and educate you, then you can get through it.
“I think I am a reflection of that, and I still remember standing at a bus stop experiencing racism as a young boy, and I have also lost close people around me due to gang culture.
“Some of my friends and people I grew up with ended up with hefty jail sentences, and that is why I brought in Josh Thompson – known as Gadget – to MW.
“Josh is a former notorious Birmingham gang member who turned his life around and is now a successful business owner, and he gives insight and works with groups of kids to educate them and advise them to steer clear of that lifestyle.
“It is so important to have groups and organisations out there engaging with young people, and showing them that they can have self-confidence and live a good life.
“I started MW Fitness off myself, but because it all went so well, I was able to build things up and at one point there were 12 of us working together.
“There is a lot of fulfilment in what we do, and my team always make sure that when there is an opportunity to impact people – to spread positive energy – then we take it.”
The results have been startling, but worthwhile.
Take for example the young person who felt compelled enough to turn over a new leaf that they decided to reveal the location of where they had stashed a gun.
Or others who brought knives into school to give them up, or the girls whom – pushed into a life of ‘carrying’ for gangs – were able to come clean with parents to take a huge step forward.
It is life-changing work, incredibly important work, and feels more a labour of love for Walters who will never regret departing from the mainstream existence of 9-5 to follow his instincts in memory of his boy.
And, as he also points out, it isn’t just keeping Marnell’s memory alive that has shaped his life choices and desire to help.
Rewinding back to the start of the Walters story, there is another key factor behind making him the person that he is today: A much-cherished upbringing in Wolves’ Academy.
There are so many reasons why Walters remains so hugely appreciative of spending his formative years in the youth ranks at Molineux.
So many strong friendships were forged which are unbroken to this day with a close circle of friends including Ashley Vincent, Nathan Talbot, Leon Clarke and Carl Ikeme.
So much valuable advice and guidance was received from the likes of more senior players such as Matt Murray, George Ndah, Carl Robinson, Nathan Blake and Dean Sturridge.
And the input received from many of the club’s coaches helped shape not only his attitude towards people but some of the philosophies now underpinning his own burgeoning coaching career.
Walters had only really started playing at the age of 11, with his upbringing centred more around pursuing various martial arts as a form of self-protection against the racism he experienced as a youngster.
A year in the school team at Bartley Green and in the Sunday League with Moor Green (now Solihull Moors) under Malcolm Booth followed, and he was then scouted by Chris Conway to join the Academy at the age of 12.
From there, the coaches took over.
Mike Smith, described by Walters as “the loveliest guy who gave me so much confidence”.
John Perkins, “an absolute legend who made you feel ten foot tall”.
Terry Connor, “a first class coach who was so driven and motivated every single day who taught me all about mental toughness”.
But perhaps the one influence who made his mark on this dynamic and energetic box-to-box midfielder more than most was a figure who also knew a bit about putting himself about in the Wolves engine room.
The former Wolves midfielder was coaching in the Academy at the start of a career which has since taken in the England youth set-up and currently Bristol City, and Walters reaped the rewards.
“Because of my athletic build and combative nature I would often be playing above my age group, and when I went full-time with the scholarship Keith was my coach,” Walters explains.
“He was brilliant – he would work with me in the mornings, afternoons, evenings, he was never too busy to work on the things I needed to do to improve my game.
“He’d have me working on my crossing, on my left foot, my temperament, and would teach me what it took to be a leader.
“If he had worked with me in the evening he’d actually give me a lift home rather than leave me to catch the train, and that is when he would be mentoring me.
“He knew the area I was from, and wanted to make sure I got home instead of getting mixed up with anything which might have affected my football.
“We would talk about lots of things such as steering clear of drugs and other temptations, about how because I was tall I would stand out and needed to avoid getting involved in any silliness, and he’d tell me to listen to my parents who he knew were good people.
“He’d tell me not to get all big time and try and go too fast too soon.
“I’d travel in with Joleon Lescott quite a bit who was certainly never ever big-time but was a couple of years older than me and already established and so Keith would tell me not to get carried away and think I was already like they were and had made it.
“It was just really good advice and the conversations that I needed to have at that time in my life.
“I feel eternally grateful that I had the opportunity to work with him.”
As with any young footballer, it wasn’t always plain sailing.
There was the time his moody reaction to being asked by Perkins to step up to be involved with the Under-19s rather than Under-17s – Walters preferred to stay where he would play and be captain rather than risk being on the bench higher up – earned him a stern dressing down from the experienced coach who was astute enough to offer him a second chance a few weeks later.
Not to mention the first team training session when he stood up physically to a verbal challenge from Paul Ince which while earning him the respect of other senior players, was viewed as a lack of respect from some within the club’s hierarchy.
It was always about learning, and even though he was ultimately released, the memories are nothing but positive, especially with the people met and experiences tucked away for future use.
“I had a wonderful time at Wolves,” Walters enthuses.
“Even away from the football, there were opportunities which were so important for me.
“I had a lot of problems reading at school, and wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia until I was 27, but (Academy Manager) Chris Evans arranged a private tutor for me and Glyn Harding worked so hard to help me get some qualifications.
“Wolves was a family, and I met people there who have become my best friends, my brothers, ever since.
“Ashley is the godfather to my children, I used to travel in to training from Birmingham with Carl, all of us have stayed in close touch.
“We all came from different backgrounds and sometimes difficult backgrounds with obstacles to overcome but we helped each other grow and stay focused because we knew the opportunities that we had.
“We have shed tears together as well, when I lost my son, and I remember once Ashley coming to see me straight from playing for Colchester, sitting against a wall with me for three hours just talking, and then doing the three hour trip back to Colchester straight after.
“Those are the sort of things which you can never forget.”
Having been released by Wolves, Walters spent three months with Sheffield Wednesday but was unable to land a deal, and decided against offers from Exeter and Kidderminster to go abroad and play in America with Baltimore Blasts and South Carolina.
He then returned, combining working in a call centre at Severn Trent where he progressed before moving to the AA, and started playing non-league.
As a result, Walters CV now boasts some of the leading clubs on the Midlands scene including – amongst others – Hednesford, Chasetown, Rushall Olympic, Bromsgrove Rovers, Halesowen Town and Redditch United, captaining many of them to a spate of promotions, trophies and Player of the Year awards.
That has led to the next step and the move from pitch to dugout as assistant to Vincent, an exciting opportunity at a Worcester City side which has been able to ‘return home’ to play in the city for the first time in seven years this season.
And that footballing influence is never too far away from MW Fitness either.
Many of Walters’ contacts, including Ikeme, have supported the work by giving talks in local schools, as well as Walters’ nephew – Leicester’s highly-rated England Under-21 winger Demarai Gray.
Walters has always been delighted, pre-pandemic, to watch Gray in action when Wolves take on the Foxes, and still receives a very warm welcome at Molineux, especially from club historian Graham Hughes, known to so many players of yesteryear as ‘Muff’ or ‘Muffer’!
“Having people like Demarai going in and speaking to the kids is fantastic as it shows them just what can be achieved with hard work and determination,” Walters mentions.
At 36, Walters feels he has much to be thankful for.
Family is everything to him with partner Stacie – an award-winning beauty therapist who is about to open her own salon – step-son Lee, 15, and daughters Faith – a promising rapper already at the age of just nine and Cherish, 6, and son Reign, aged two.
Continuing to improve MW Fitness and create a legacy to his son is a key priority, progressing his coaching career with Worcester is another.
Schools are continuing to call on Walters’ services, and the problems faced by young people during the traumas of a global pandemic are undoubtedly going to provide plenty of challenges for the future.
Facing up to those challenges is what continues to drive Walters on.
“I was distraught when I had to leave Wolves, but looking back now, in truth I wouldn’t have changed it,” he says.
“I think this was more what God’s plan was for me, and I can make more of a difference doing what I am doing now.
“I don’t think I was ready for football, but I took away some absolutely wonderful memories from Wolves and am so grateful for the experience.
“I sometimes then wonder if I would have taken this path if Marnell hadn’t passed away, and I am not sure I would.
“It is life isn’t it? You end up getting stuck into to a job and just get on with it, without thinking about taking a risk to try something else that you really enjoy.
“Losing my boy left me with so much mental trauma and I wouldn’t say I have recovered completely and maybe I never will.
“But the way to recover was to do something positive, and now I feel I know what it takes to help people bounce back.
“What our team of people do is impact people’s lives positively, from the heart, installing the skills and characteristics to help them prepare for obstacles in the future.
“The coaching with Ash is another journey, another education, very different to playing.
“When I think back to Mike Smith, John Perkins, Terry Connor, Keith Downing – I have taken bits from all of those and how they worked and dealt with people and used that in what I do.
“I think I am living proof that if you can develop a mentality, and have a group of people behind you and supporting you, then you can come through anything and try and make it into a positive.
“It’s all about keeping moving forward, and being grateful for everything that you have.”
He didn’t make it as a professional footballer but it’s fair to say Marlon Walters did make it as a human being. And has helped – and is continuing to help – so many others to make it as well.