Salute to a hero; Merrimack celebrates life of John Marshall

By JASON ORFAO
Staff Writer

MERRIMACK – One standing ovation simply wasn’t enough.

Before John Marshall enlisted in the Army and became a sergeant in the 116th Military Company, he developed leadership qualities as a captain of the Merrimack High School wrestling team.

He lived an impactful life that ended far too soon.

Marshall died at the age of 31 in March of 2016, and left behind his wife, two young children and countless friends and family after a two-year battle with cancer. He fought until the end, both physically and against the Department of Veterans Affairs, which denied his claims that his cancer was caused while serving his country in Iraq and working in close proximity to burn pits. His perseverance through the dispute made national headlines.

Saturday, however, was a celebration of his life – and the legacy he left with the Tomahawks.

The 15-minute ceremony began with some opening comments from Merrimack co-coach Tim McMahon. Although Marshall’s wife – who is also a veteran – and children live in Arizona and could not attend, the team broadcast the presentation on Facebook Live so they could tune in.

"We decided that this year we would honor John and his family by renaming this event the John Marshall Memorial Duals," McMahon said, pausing to hold back the emotion.

Mary Pelrine, whose son was a freshman on the team while Marshall was captain, put together a touching video tribute. It began with Marshall participating in the "Ice Bucket Challenge" and transitioned into a photo montage with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s "Simple Man" serving as background music.

It continued with one photograph at time, captioned individually: Brother, uncle, husband, father, teammate, captain, friend, Hall of Famer.

Other slides included quotes from former coaches: "John is the heart and soul of this team. Although he is an appointed captain his leadership skills are second to none. John leads by his hard work. – Coach (Sean) Cullinane."

Another read: "Fearless leader, John has no fear, and has an inner drive like no other. – Coach Mike Bolduc."

After reviewing some of his accomplishments on the mat, and reliving some memories off of it, the video, which was projected onto the gymnasium wall, ended with: "John Marshall is our hero, our champion."

Its conclusion drew a 45-second standing ovation from the packed gymnasium.

Marshall’s mother, sister and baby niece were among those in attendance.

His mother, Danita, shared her appreciation for the Merrimack wrestling community following the video tribute. McMahon gave her a plaque with a picture of Marshall about to pin an opponent. It also had an inscription quoting the song "Simple Man" which had bellowed through the gymnasium moments earlier during the video: "Oh, take your time, don’t live too fast; Troubles will come and they will pass; You’ll find a woman and you’ll find love; And don’t forget, son, there is someone up above."

Danita Marshall, with her daughter and John’s former teammates by her side, addressed the crowd.

"Excuse me if I cry, but this is tough," Danita said. "This is the first time I’ve been back for a while."

She felt compelled to express her love, though.

"But I have to thank the coaches," she said. "John wanted to come to school because John wanted to wrestle. …

"And thank you to all of these guys that showed up. This is a wonderful family. I spent seven years in it and I absolutely loved it."

Danita presented McMahon with a $500 check to the program and said, "Get whatever the boys need – girls, too."

The ceremony drew to a close with another standing ovation – accompanied by hugs, tears and nothing but fond memories of an honorable man.