At close of testing 2015, Colorado Rapids' Marlon Hairston reflects on long climb from Mississippi to MLS

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – For Colorado Rapids second-year player Marlon Hairston, soccer is many things: a career, a calling and a family affair.

Like many kids back in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, Hairston, who’s the cousin of NBA power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, could be found on the basketball court growing up. But from an early age, Marlon and his older brother Marcus quickly learned that their talents were best suited for another type of roundball.

“Soccer was never number one,” Hairston recalls. “But the more we stayed with it, the better we got and continued to get more exposure.”

The Hairston brothers blew through the competition playing for the local youth team coached by their father, and quickly parlayed that success into bigger and better opportunities. Older brother Marcus went on to play in Mississippi’s Olympic Development Program before earning college offers at Cincinnati and Florida International.

“I owe it all to him,” Marlon said of his brother. “The main thing he taught me was to carry the torch for the inner-city kids where I grew up. He wanted to be as motivated as I could and to try to be a role model. There are a lot who didn’t get the opportunity in Jackson, Mississippi.”

The younger Hairston would eventually find himself playing NCAA Division I soccer at Louisville. After seeing his brother’s soccer opportunity cut short by a career-ending ACL injury, Marlon Hairston was presented with added motivation for a new goal: He wanted to turn pro.

“Playing professional soccer was always a dream of his,” Marlon explained. “Seeing Marcus put that on hold motivated me to push harder.”

The hard work eventually paid off with Hairston’s selection by the Rapids as the 12th overall pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft. Yet for the 21-year-old the journey has just begun, and it has already been filled with its own triumphs and tribulations.

He began his rookie campaign with 22 appearances and nine starts in the Rapids’ midfield. But a 14-game winless streak at the end of the 2014 season led to wholesale changes to Colorado’s roster, leaving Hairston as an odd man out in the midfield and taking on a position change to right back at the start of 2015.

Veteran James Riley eventually won the job. Nevertheless, Hairston still remained on the radar, having received call-ups to the US U-23 and U-20 national teams in late 2014 and early 2015. But he once again hit snags, this time with injuries of his own.

“At the beginning of the year I dislocated my shoulder. For the other one, I had a hamstring injury, so it was tough,” Hairston explained. “During the offseason, I’ll just stay true to the grind and hopefully I’ll get another call up.”

He cites teammate and friend Dillon Serna, who has also shuffled between fullback and midfield during his split time with the U-23s and the Rapids, as a blueprint.

“We talk a lot,” Hairston said. “He’s done well with his opportunities here, and with the national team.”

And like Serna, Hairston believes adding a defensive skillset will favor him in his long-term development as a player.

“[Right back] is definitely a great position to have in my locker,” he said. “It helps me to become versatile and play wherever the coaches deem necessary. I’ve grown more as a right back and try to take in as much information as I can from the coaches.”

The nuances of the fullback position aren’t the only things he’s taken in regarding his profession.

 “It’s different from college; it’s year-round,” he explained. “You’ve got to be a total 24-hour athlete off the field. Eating, getting rest and doing extra things in the gym after practice. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned so far.”

After a return to health – and a loan spell at the Rapids’ USL affiliate in Charlotte – opportunity returned for Hairston. The Rapids coaching staff gave him the nod with three consecutive starts to end the season.

That small taste of what it feels like to be a regular starter on the team has provided him with even more ambition to fight for a spot in Colorado’s lineup in 2016.

“I’m going to work with my old coach and my brother back home to work on some things and try to get back healthy 100 percent,” said Hairston. “Coming into the offseason, it will be about recharging the batteries and getting back to the drawing board.”