Marshawn Powell was lost.
Arkansas’ junior forward had directions to Fort Smith Southside, but missed a turn on his way to the high school in late May.
“I just kept going straight,” Powell said. “I was like, ‘Holy … where am I?’”
Turning around and heading back to Fayetteville never crossed his mind, though. He promised Atleigh Long he would make it to her graduation ceremony.
By the time Powell found the right turn and pulled up to the high school, he was running a little late.
Not too late, though. He made it to the Southside football field in time to see Long maneuver her motorized wheelchair across the stage and receive her diploma.
After the ceremony, Powell was there to congratulate Long, posing for pictures with the 19-year-old and her family. She never doubted he would make it.
“He told me that he would keep his word with me that he would come, so I pretty well knew he was going to be there,” Long said. “I was really excited. It was special to know that someone like that was at graduation for me.”
Long weighed just 2 pounds, 13 ounces when she was born premature at six months, then was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when she was 8 months old. She is talkative and graduated high school with a 3.97 GPA despite needing an aide to help her write. She has been confined to a wheelchair her entire life.
That hasn’t stopped her from becoming a fixture at Bud Walton Arena, where she’s rarely missed an Arkansas basketball game the last six seasons.
“She’s just a great person,” Powell said. “She doesn’t have to like us. She doesn’t have to like my game. She doesn’t have to like the Razorbacks. She doesn’t have to come to every game. She just does.”
Not much can get in the way of Long attending games. In 2007, she had major surgery to insert rods into her back less than a month before the season opener.
“She told the doctor, ‘Well I can’t miss a basketball game. I’ve got to go,’” said Sandy Long, Atleigh’s mother. “She went to the game. She was going to go no matter what. She doesn’t miss a game unless it’s the weather.”
Sitting courtside in front of the student section, Long has developed a relationship with multiple players who make their way over to her wheelchair to say hi or sign autographs for her on a regular basis.
It started when recently graduated forward Michael Sanchez introduced himself early in his career. In 2009, Long and her mother ate with Al Dillard at Herman’s Ribhouse in Fayetteville. He wanted to meet Long after Dillard’s mother noticed her at the celebration for the 15th anniversary of the national title team and told him about her.
Long also made friends with Courtney Fortson, Rotnei Clarke and other former Razorbacks, while everyone on the current team knows who she is.
“Everybody that she wants to talk to, she talks to,” Powell said. “She’ll be like, ‘Hey, Marshawn, go get BJ. Tell BJ to come here so he can sign my shirt.’ So I go get BJ.”
Sanchez introduced Powell to Long early in Powell’s career. The bond was instant.
“I met her the second home game of my freshman year,” Powell said. “I was out in the hallway and Michael Sanchez introduced me to her right before I went in to talk to the media. I talked to her and she’s so nice.
“After that, I made it my business to talk to her and give her a hug every time I saw her.”
Powell and Long talk in Bud Walton before or after every game. Whenever the two talk, the conversation usually involves some coaching from Long.
“She’ll tell me before games, ‘Marshawn you’ve got to rebound,’” Powell said. “I’ll tell her, ‘I’m going to try to rebound better for you tonight.’ When I talk to her after games she tells me if I play good, but she also tells me if I play bad. I’ve got to stay out of foul trouble. That’s what she always tells me.”
Powell, SEC All-Freshman team, doesn’t mind the advice. It’s when she isn’t there to give it that he notices.
“There’s probably been one or two home games since I’ve been here that I’ll look over and not see her,” Powell said. “It’s like, if she isn’t here today, this game isn’t going to be packed.”
Powell and Long eventually exchanged phone numbers and Powell makes sure Long is OK on the rare occasion she does miss a game.
“Marshawn is one of my favorite players just because he has gone out of his way to make sure he speaks to me and make feel a part,” Long said. “He’s just very friendly. If I’m not there, they’re shocked.”
Long first asked Powell if he would attend her graduation early last season, before the 6-foot-7, 220-pounder tore ligaments in his knee, a season-ending injury suffered in practice a day before the Hogs’ third game of the season.
“I was like, ‘Yeah. Sure, I’ll go,’” Powell said. “In the back of my mind, I was like, ‘Hopefully I remember to go.’ After I got hurt, she reminded me of it. So I made it my business to come. She probably reminded me again two months before. When she reminded me like three times, I was like, ‘I’m going to come for sure.’
“For her, she comes to every game even though she’s in a wheelchair. So it was nothing for me to go to down there for her graduation.”
As Powell, Long and Long’s family posed for pictures after the ceremony, word about the special guest spread around the football field.
“The team has made a huge impact on her life,” Sandy Long said. “She feels very accepted. It just makes her feel like she has a place in life. She has a niche. They’re just sweet. They’re just part of our family.”
Powell made time to attend Long’s graduation, but spent most of the spring working to recover from the knee injury that sidelined him last year, forcing him to watch from the bench as his team missed the postseason.
Powell averaged 19.5 points and six rebounds in the two games prior to his injury, two performances that are the driving motivation for his recovery.
“That just shows me where I can be at,” Powell said. “Just picture me playing that way the whole year. I feel like I’ll be a lot better. I’m a little ahead of schedule. I’m trying to come back and change my whole game.”
Powell started individual workouts in early June and hopes to play when Arkansas tours Italy for at least three preseason games in mid-August.
“So far, so good,” coach Mike Anderson said in late May. “Probably in July he’ll be doing some contact work.”
Regardless of whether Powell plays in Italy, Anderson’s real goal is for his top big man to be 100 percent by the time the season rolls around in November.
Powell’s biggest fan is counting down the days.
“The year they came out with his jersey I was so excited,” Long said. “Before he got hurt, I wore it to pretty much every other game.
“Now I’m just waiting until I can wear it again.”
Atleigh Long (left) with Marshawn Powell at Fort Smith Southside graduation ceremony.
Coach Mike Anderson poses with Razorback fan Atleigh Long.