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In 2003, Grand Valley State won its second consecutive Division II football championship.

And the 2004 team was considered by some to be even more talented, even thought it didn't win a title, being eliminated in the quarterfinals.

"And you might argue from '03 and '04," said current Grand Valley State coach Matt Mitchell, "that two of the better players on those teams are gone now.

"It's very tough."

Keyonta Marshall, a Saginaw native and defensive lineman who went on to become Grand Valley State's only three-time All-American, died Friday at University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor. He was 37.

Marshall died after a lengthy battle with several health issues, including cancer. He recently suffered a stroke. Marshall is the second star from those great Grand Valley teams to die young. Cullen Finnerty, the Brighton native and quarterback known as "Superman," died in 2013 at the age of 30, amid mysterious circumstances.

"To me," said Chuck Martin, the Miami (Ohio) head coach who was on staff at Grand Valley from 2000-09, including the last six years as head coach, "two of the best players in Division II history."

Marshall, known as "Big Key" by friends and teammates, played four seasons at Grand Valley, from 2001-04, winning national championships in 2002 and 2003.

He was All-America his last three years, as designated by numerous publications, and all three of those years, he was the defensive lineman of the year in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

In his Lakers career, he had 230 tackles, 26 sacks and 69 tackles for a loss. As a senior, he had 66 tackles, including 25 for a loss. All this after he transferred to Grand Valley after a short stint at Division I Hawaii.

"I remember saying to him, 'Too many luaus in Hawaii,' and he'd just smile. He never said anything back, he just smiled and laughed,'" said Martin, who took over for Brian Kelly as head coach for the 2004 season, Marshall's senior season. "As a Division I player, he just didn't find the right fit, so he came back closer to home and found a really good fit at Grand Valley. He was probably too good for that level, but we were happy to have him."

As a player, there was no debating Marshall's talent. Double-teams didn't work on him. He always knew where the ball was. He was as dominant a player as Martin saw come to Grand Valley State.

As a person, he was larger than life, too, with a big smile, big laugh — and a big voice. He wasn't afraid to speak his mind, regardless of the stature of those on the receiving end of his words.

"Anybody who knew 'Key' knew he was gonna tell you what he was thinking at all times," said Mitchell, who joined Grand Valley's staff during Marshall's senior season, 2004, as a linebackers coach. "I remember, I was part of the defensive staff and we were playing, I believe, Saginaw Valley State, up-tempo. And we were late getting our defensive calls in, and it happened a couple times.

"He got a little frustrated with it, and right before a snap, he stood up and called timeout from the nose-guard position and let us know, in order for players to have more success, we needed to be more timely with our calls getting in. And he was right.

"That's something I'll never forget."

Marshall, 6-foot-1 and 325 pounds, was drafted in the seventh round in 2005 by the Philadelphia Eagles, for whom he played one game. The next year, he was on the New York Jets' practice squad. After his playing career, he went on to a career in finances.

According to his obituary, visitation will be from 2 to 8 p.m. Friday at New Covenant Christian Center Church in Saginaw.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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