KANSAS CITY, MO. — Marcel Shipp prepared to die.
The gunman appeared from the shadows that night, pointed the muzzle at the teenager’s head and threatened to pull the trigger.
In that moment, Shipp was given a choice: his coat or his life.
“ ‘Gimme your jacket! Somebody’s going to die tonight. Don’t try any fast [expletive],’ ” the Jets’ running backs coach told Newsday. “That’s exactly what he said.”
Shipp was in the eighth grade at the time.
He and his friend had gone to the store to get “some honeybuns,” he recalled with a laugh. But his smile soon faded.
“It kills me,” Shipp, 38, said softly. “’Cause I remember it like it was yesterday.”
While on their way home around 8 p.m., the teens were accosted as they walked through a park in their poverty-stricken hometown of Paterson, New Jersey. The gunman demanded Shipp’s prized possession — his leather Los Angeles Raiders jacket — and he obliged.
“My life could have ended right there,” said the former NFL running back. “He could have really shot me. He put the gun to my face.”
Shipp had expected to hear it go off.
“Death had hit my family so hard during that time,” he said. “Uncles were dying . . . It was just a bad time. So I thought I was supposed to go that night. Thank God I didn’t.”
Death visits Paterson often.
Homicides, gang violence and drug use have ravaged Shipp’s hometown for decades. Through last Sunday, police reported 16 homicides there, compared with 19 killings in all of last year, according to northjersey.com.
The gritty city never hardened him. Instead, it made him strive harder. And even as he faces the endless demands and work hours of an NFL assistant coach, he still hears the tragic stories from the old neighborhood.
“There were killings back then, but never to this level. It’s worse than I imagined,” said Shipp, who grew up in the Alexander Hamilton Housing Complex — known to residents as the “Alabama Projects” — and lived in the Brooks-Sloate Terrace public housing projects at the time of the robbery.
“When little kids are being killed, it’s a bad thing all around. No one wins. Something has to be done because we can’t let our youth keep killing each other.”
His crime-ridden city has generated countless cautionary tales. But it’s produced inspiring stories, too: Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz. Colts safety Mike Adams. Former Cardinals linebacker Gerald Hayes. And Shipp. Men, who in the face of nearly insurmountable odds, made it out of Paterson and on to the NFL stage.
But the path out of Paterson isn’t always paved with athletic prowess. Just ask Shipp’s brother — a United States District Court judge.
THE CHOSEN ONE
“We’re all still striving toward being success stories,” said Michael Shipp, 50, who was nominated to the federal bench by President Barack Obama in 2012. “But I certainly feel we’re on our way, coming out of the Paterson scenario.
“Paterson is a tough city. There are no bones about it,” added the judge, who, two years ago, ruled New Jersey could not move forward with its plan to legalize sports betting at casinos and racetracks. “Especially during the period within which we came through, there was a lot of crime. We were in a single-parent household and the stats would say that we would not to be successful.”
They both credited their mother, Ida — a detention officer, working primarily at the Passaic County Juvenile Detention Center — for being their “rock” and instilling in them an unparalleled work ethic.
“It’s just that kind of perseverance that we learned in Paterson — that kind of stick-to-itiveness,” Michael, the eldest of the Shipp children, said by phone. “And I think that’s what has enabled all three of us [including sister Pamela Shipp-Jackson] to still be on this road, still striving for success.”
The odds were never in Marcel or Michael’s favor. But that didn’t deter them. They had thrived in spite of their surroundings, made do as a family with little money, and all the while, Michael and Pamela helped to raise their baby brother after their parents’ divorce.
“He was like an only child with two sets of parents,” said Michael, who lives in the Princeton area.“Because my mother worked two jobs most of his early years, Pam and I really took on primary roles as caretakers.”
The siblings dressed and fed Marcel in the mornings before dropping him off at either a babysitter or school. Later in the day, Pamela would pick him up while her older brother went to work. Said Michael: “It was a hustle.”
‘THE PATERSON WAY’
Killings were commonplace in Paterson comprised high- and medium-rise buildings on Alabama Avenue near Route 80 that housed 480 families. Over time, the structures became a control center for criminal activity.
“When you have so many people living in these eight or nine-story buildings, with 10 to 12 apartments on each floor — most of whom are below the poverty level,” Michael said, “it’s almost destined, at times, to end up being a place where you’re going to have a lot of the crime.”
The buildings were demolished in 2009 and later replaced with The Heritage at Alexander Hamilton, a redeveloped complex featuring townhouse-style units. But everything that transpired in the hallways of the “Alabama Projects” and on its street corners left an indelible mark on Marcel.
“I only knew one way — and that was the Paterson way,” he said.
“You’re going to have to work hard to be successful. We always felt like we were the underdogs, so we always had a chip on our shoulders with everything that we did,” he added. “My friends and I always thought we were the toughest guys around so if we could get to this point here, it’ll be easy for us.”
It wasn’t until Marcel started playing high school football at Passaic County Tech in Wayne, New Jersey, that things began to “click.” That’s when he realized, “I could be pretty good.”
Football saved him. So did the support of his close-knit family.
And because of that, he’s determined to be an example for kids in Paterson.
“That’s why I like to go to schools and I like to walk through downtown,” said Marcel, who’s hosted football camps in the city for nearly a decade. “I just want them to say, ‘There’s nothing special about him. How come he can make it and I can’t?’ ”
After a year of prep school, Marcel became a standout player at UMass (1997-2000), which won the 1998 Division I-AA national championship. His 6,250 career rushing yards remain a school record. Undrafted, he played for the Cardinals from 2001-07 and the United Football League’s Las Vegas Locomotives (2009-11).
Two years later, he served as a coaching intern in Arizona where Todd Bowles — an Elizabeth, New Jersey native — was the defensive coordinator. And when Bowles became the Jets’ head coach in January of 2015, he convinced Shipp, then the running backs coach at UMass, to join him.
“I always told him he was a natural coach,” Michael said. “He’s one of those locker room guys that the coaches loved.”
And so do his players.
Last year, former Jets running back Chris Ivory recorded his first 1,000-yard rushing season. This season, new No. 1 back Matt Forte has 196 rushing yards, 68 receiving yards and three touchdowns heading into their Week 3 matchup with the Chiefs on Sunday.
“It’s great having Marcel,” said Forte, 30. “He’s been in the NFL, he knows the speed of the game. He sees a lot of the same things I see. It’s kind of like having another player out there with you on the sideline. He’s like a second set of eyes.
“He lets you be who you are as a player . . . there are times you’ll come to the sideline and he’ll say, ‘We’re running this play. Don’t mess up.’ Just silly stuff to keep it loose during the game.”
Michael still beams with pride when he talks about his baby brother.
“He deserves it all,” he said of Marcel. “I’m so incredibly proud of him and his achievements because I’ve seen firsthand how hard he’s had to work. We’ve kind of had these parallel lives but in different realms.”