"He's definitely made his mistakes. But he's always been a leader," he says.

"My dad is someone who came from the bottom — truly the bottom — and to me, he's a successful man 'cause he didn't have a lot of positive people around him."

I mention some incidents from documents I found about his childhood — the day his parents fought in the front seat and his father hit his mother.

"You're not going to get my opinion on it," Marshall says.

What do you recall? "You're not going to get my opinion on it."

How did it influence you? "You're not going to get my opinion on it."

He turns to look at me.

"What time's your flight leave, 4:30?"

'That rubbed me the wrong way'

I'm convinced our visit ended on an awkward, uncomfortable note. But two weeks later, Marshall surprises me with an invitation, via his assistant, to a Boys and Girls Club near Chicago. "How you been, bro?" he says, grinning and leaning in for a handshake.

Marshall swings through the gym doors, surprising dozens of squealing kids, then spends two hours playing games and making funny faces while posing for photos. This public forum is where his charisma comes alive, like when he works a room at a fundraiser or charms waitresses at the Waffle House.

In the parking lot afterward, he invites me to a steakhouse for dinner. During the meal, Marshall assures me certain members of his family will speak to me — people he says "know" him. People like Aunt Ronnie. He says he won't stand in the way.

But phone calls to these relatives aren't returned. And a few days later, he emails to say no one wants to talk. He begins to ignore my emails.

As I continue my research, his assistant contacts my editors with a proposal: publish a column Marshall wrote about mental illness in light of Junior Seau's suicide. The Tribune declines, citing our ongoing reporting. Three days later the column runs in the Chicago Sun-Times.

When Marshall finally calls again, it is to tell me he is finished participating; he won't agree to a final interview to go over everything I've found and ask more questions. "I think it's kind of a scumbag story, excuse my language."

A few minutes later my phone rings again. It's Marshall. He says another "thing that rubbed me the wrong way" was the interview request came after the Tribune decided not to publish his column. We haven't spoken since.

Perhaps at some point Marshall will open up to his new fans in Chicago, where an athlete's transgressions often are secondary to winning. Will he be like Dennis Rodman, an outrageous and troubled character who was embraced because he contributed to championships? Or might he be another Milton Bradley, talented yet unable to conquer his temper? A team quarterbacked by his buddy and managed by supportive coaches can provide only so much stability in a media-intense, sports-crazy town where Sunday scores set the mood for Monday.

I never expected a controversial celebrity-athlete such as Marshall would reveal himself entirely. And in Georgia, the family members he remains close to — ones still getting his financial support — offer limited insight.

"Brandon's a smart kid. ... I raised him from when he was 13," his stepmother, Geraldine "Deena" Marshall, says in the driveway to the secluded, gated home she shares with Freddie. She says Freddie is out of town on business. My attempts to reach him are unsuccessful.

Marshall's brother, Fred, is a rapper living in Marshall's downtown Atlanta condo. London and Diane, his sister and mother, live in a five-bedroom, five-bathroom house Marshall purchased in an upscale subdivision about 40 miles from Atlanta. They all say they need Marshall's approval to be interviewed.