A raucous Philly crowd greeted the I Am Athlete podcast on the latest stop on its live tour this week. City Winery, which has several locations around the country, is primarily a music venue best suited to adoring couples and folks whose favorite bands either have yet to get big enough to book theaters or arenas or can no longer do so. It’s generally a sedate night out, but not so when former NFL players turned podcasters, Brandon Marshall, Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones, and special guests DeSean Jackson and Darius “Big Play” Slay show up to play to the Eagles-fan-heavy crowd.
The I Am Athlete podcast started in 2020 when Marshall, a six-time Pro Bowl wide receiver who played 13 years in the NFL for seven different teams, created the podcast during the pandemic. Though still an NFL television analyst, Marshall enlisted fellow former NFL brethren Ocho Cinco, Channing Crowder, and Fred Taylor, the former star running back for the Jacksonville Jaguars as his co-hosts for the YouTube-based show.
Whether it was due to limited entertainment options during the pandemic, the chemistry between the co-stars or the increasing popularity of Black male podcasters from Joe Budden to All The Smoke with Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson to the behemoth Drink Champs hosted by Noreaga, I Am Athlete blew up.
And that’s when the problems began. A NASCAR series purportedly initiated by Marshall to bring in revenue alienated fans more used to filter-free conversations with former and current athletes like Stefon Diggs, Justin Jefferson, Darelle Revis, Asante Samuel, Dez Bryant, and others. It also reportedly caused friction within the core group of original co-hosts and eventually, a messy public breakup with Crowder and Taylor.
They then formed their own podcast, The Pivot with another former NFL star and analyst, Ryan Clark. In subsequent interviews Crowder talked about disrespect, Taylor shared that the business wasn’t right and Marshall tried to stay above the fray with relatively vague answers about the split until spilling more details on IAA in August.
I Am Athlete also pivoted, cycling through a few co-hosts seems until they found a new nucleus with Jones and Lesean “Shady” McCoy along with journalist Omar Kelly, a semi-regular co-host in the earlier incarnation. McCoy, now also a co-host on Speak, the Fox reboot of Speak for Yourself, was unavailable for the Philly show due to his Fox commitments.
This sets the stage for the I Am Live podcast live event, touring a similar itinerary of cities the guys once traveled through to play ball. The Philly crowd is loud and proud on the eve of the as-yet undefeated Eagles’ showdown with the hated rival Dallas Cowboys. When Tish Jones, Pacman’s wife, announces the group, she asks for a show of cell phone lights to set the atmosphere. Half of the room ignores her, which is when Marshall takes the stage, showcasing his star power up front.
“This is for the ‘gram,” he entreats the crowd with a smile. “So can y’all get these phones up so the entrance looks good?”
Once said entrance is heightened the show begins. The guys take their places on long gray couches and Pacman openly lights an L, which will remain in his hand most of the night. Jackson, the former Eagles standout, gets his just due when announced with thunderous applause. When surprise guest Slay comes to the couch, he too is applauded, though it appears he’s at least somewhat out of his element when faced by a group of Philly fans without a uniform and stadium security as a barrier.
It is also always jarring to see just how differently-sized NFL players are. Jones, Jackson, and Slay are all slight, surprising given their on-field exploits. But Marshall, in a black quilted Mao jacket and black leather pants as well as shaded glasses, is a large man on TV and in person, at his listed height and weight of 6’5, 232 pounds. At 38, he looks like he could still compete at an NFL level. His expertise is applied at his House of Athlete training facility in Florida, which prepares young men and women for elite athletic competition with mental, physical, and nutritional training.
With that resume, it’s likely he never expected to be upstaged at his live show. Enter South Philly’s own and now urban legend Salim Gary. A short, brown-skinned man with a rotund belly that looks as though its had intimate knowledge of more than a few good Philly cheesesteaks, Gary, attending with his wife and father, first seemed to be a heckler. He inserted himself into the show from the beginning, yelling various comments at Marshall and the IAA group that basically said, “hurry this along to the good part” and “I’m from South Philly, this is my town and I’m bogarting this show.”
Though Marshall, Jones, Jackson, and Slay did manage to get in some compelling stories and answer fan questions, Gary was the breakout star of the night. Marshall quickly realized that it would be more of a challenge to contain him than to simply add him to the night’s offering, to the point that by the conclusion, Gary was onstage, dapping up the stars, and live streaming the moment he made it to the couch to a group of friends somewhere near Tasker Ave., the heart of South Philly.
And that’s kind of what made the night great. Yes, Marshall talked about his relationship with former Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and why he’s still friends with the guy, who many believe isn’t as equally enthused about the relationship. He explained that Cutler once covered a six-figured gambling marker for him and that targeting him as much as he did in Chicago ultimately helped Marshall’s career.
A hyped-up Jackson revealed he wasn’t planning to retire and hoped either the Eagles or Ravens, among two other teams, might pick him up. He also shared the in-the-moment POV of his 2015 punt return against the Giants, saying the whole thing felt surreal.
Slay talked about the teamwork among the 2022 Eagles squad and the leadership skills of quarterback Jalen Hurts, who he says is winning over the locker room with his willingness to ask for help.
Jones unleashed a passionate critique of Lamar Jackson’s agent-less contract negotiations, because he doesn’t believe the Ravens quarterback is acting in his best self-interest. In the context of the recent Draymond Green/Jordan Poole dustup, Jones also talked about how sparring with Kellen Winslow (now in prison as a convicted sex offender) in a college game set off his college and pro career.
Pittsburgh native Marshall shared the advice his OG father (who he admitted was part of the ‘alternate economy’ when he was growing up) gave him when he was once sucker punched by a teammate, which was to wait and plan when he would retaliate. Marshall said that happened three months afterward when he returned the favor after seeing the guy out on the town.
The unscripted night was a fairly unusual one in today’s cancel culture where live events are tightly choreographed and comedy shows no longer allow cell phone usage should a stray comment be taken out of context. A pre-slap live appearance in Philly by Will Smith to promote his 2021 memoir “Will” was so predictable and rehearsed that it could never have strayed so far off-topic or be taken over by an attendee.
Marshall read the room correctly, accepted Gary as part of the show, and kept it all moving with the same ability to react quickly in the moment that once made him an elite receiver. And after being publicly deemed “sexy AF” by an auntie-aged fan celebrating her birthday, Marshall stayed long past the end to pose for pics with her and others.
I Am Athlete has had its growing pains and the new co-host mix is still gelling. But it was a rare night where unabashed masculinity, spontaneity, and chutzpah ruled. Marshall did get Gary’s information; we’ll see if he shows up on an IAA broadcast in the future. But it was that willingness to stick and move ebb and flow, and mostly, allow for the night to unfold as it was going to, that made for a rare and unusually entertaining experience.