Too often, college athletics is anything but fun and games these days. With billions of dollars on the line in television revenue, coaching contracts and future jackpots for pro-bound athletes, the pressure to succeed has led to an ever-increasing moral decay in college sports.
Fortunately, there's still room in college athletics for a young man like Marc Axton. Clean-cut, soft-spoken, well-mannered Marc Axton. Honor student Marc Axton. All-conference basketball player Marc Axton. All-around good guy Marc Axton.
"Marc is probably as balanced a human being as I've been around," says Ray Giacoletti, Axton's coach at Eastern Washington University.
"He's a special one, but he'll never tell you that," adds John Ruby, Axton's coach at Foss High School in Tacoma.
"A real nice person," sums up Khary Nicholas, Axton's teammate at Eastern and Foss.
Ruby, who continues to teach but no longer coaches at Foss, says he is delighted his two sons chose Axton as a role model -- on and off the court. You see, Ruby and thousands of others can go on and on about Axton's 41-point performance in a state tournament classic against mighty Garfield three years ago, but Ruby speaks even longer and more passionately about Axton's lunchroom heroics a few days earlier.
It seems that a new, English-challenged student from the African nation of Sudan was being teased by other students at Foss, a gritty, inner-city school. Axton stepped in and halted the harassment, then handed his new friend the state tournament "spirit" shirt that Axton had just purchased.
"That kid wore that shirt every day," Ruby recalls. "That's just the selfless kind of kid Marc is."
Axton, the son of a minister and grade school teacher, chose to play at Foss even though he lived in suburban Federal Way. Until he turned 16 and could drive, the move often required a nightly two-hour trip home on a city bus.
Axton says the Foss environment "was a big shock to me when I first got there... but I wanted the best basketball. That's where I learned to really play. My first year there, I would still be coming down the floor, and [his new teammates] were already coming back the other way!"
After spending his freshman year on the junior varsity, Axton developed into a three-year starter for Foss. Displaying the versatility that remains one of his greatest assets in college, Axton started at power forward as a sophomore, at point guard as a junior on the state Class 4A champions and at center as a senior on the fourth-place state finishers.
Axton's scoring average jumped from 11 points per game as a junior to 21 as a senior, when he was named state Player of the Year. Axton drew lukewarm recruiting interest, however, partly because he signed a letter of intent with Eastern before his senior season.
"I still kick myself for not calling Gonzaga about him," Ruby says.
"I love it here," insists Axton, whose only other NCAA Division I scholarship offer came from Northern Arizona. "I wouldn't go anywhere else."
Axton was named Freshman of the Year in the Big Sky Conference in 2001-02, when he broke into the starting lineup late in the season, then made the All-Big Sky first team the past two seasons. A business marketing major, Axton carries a 3.1 grade point average and hopes to make the All-Big Sky Academic team for the third straight year.
This season, the 6-foot-7, 225-pound junior forward is averaging a career-high 13.0 points per game and shooting a career-high 49.4 percent from the field, including 40.8 percent on 3-pointers. He also averages 4.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists.
"Marc Axton is a heck of a player," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said after Axton piled up 18 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals in Eastern's loss at Washington last November.
"We always know what we're going to get out of him," Giacoletti says. "As a coach, that's very rare to say."
"He typifies what Eastern Washington and Coach Giacoletti are doing at Eastern Washington in that he's a very tough, competitive kid who's real unselfish and really plays hard," Weber State coach Joe Cravens says.
Axton often guards the opposition's top scorer, and Axton echoes Giacoletti in citing improved team defense as a key factor in Eastern's 13-2 finish after a 4-10 start this season. Giacoletti says Axton's increased role as a team leader also has helped, though Axton is quick to credit seniors Alvin Snow and Brendon Merritt for their leadership, too.
"I like to lead," Axton says confidently. "I don't like to follow."
Eastern won the Big Sky regular-season championship outright for the first time, then won the Big Sky Conference Tournament for the first time after losing in the title game the previous three years. Now the 17-12 Eagles are headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time.
That's a lot of firsts for Eastern, a relative newcomer to Division I (with only 21 years at that level). Axton was one of the first prime-time high school recruits to come to Eastern for men's basketball, and the Eagles are just thankful that Axton was the rare Northwest prep star who did not catch the eye of Gonzaga coach Mark Few and his staff.
"When Marc was a senior,'' Ruby recalls, "I was talking to Mark Few one day, and he told me, 'It looks like we might have missed on a kid named Marc Axton.'"