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NU’s Venric Mark lowering his guard as he raises his game

Venric Mark advances during Northwestern spring football practice Lakeside Field Athletic Complex EvanstIll. Saturday April 13 2013. | Andrew A.

Venric Mark advances during Northwestern spring football practice at the Lakeside Field Athletic Complex in Evanston, Ill., on Saturday, April 13, 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 25, 2013 6:16AM

Death can be a difficult subject for anyone to discuss, but for Northwestern’s Venric Mark, it used to be a near-impossibility.

Toward the end of his junior year of high school and into his senior year, Mark dealt with the deaths of his brother, cousin and close friend — all from gunshot wounds.

‘‘I don’t trust a lot of people in my life,’’ Mark said. ‘‘I’ve always been like that. I get along with a lot of people, but I like to keep a close net of friends, and I kind of like to distance myself from a lot of things because that’s just how I am.’’

When he arrived on campus as a freshman in 2010, he realized that didn’t fit the Northwestern mold. The coaching staff preaches a sense of family among its players, like it or not.

Initially, that didn’t seem to faze Mark. That season he was one of two true freshmen to see the field, playing primarily as a return specialist. At Wisconsin that year, his 273 kick-return yards set a school record.

But it was understandably difficult for him to see a correlation between success on the field and openness with teammates and coaches.

‘‘We had to earn trust — and that happens over time and I understand that — and that’s what we’ve worked diligently [on] as a staff and I think as a program,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

Now approaching his senior year, Mark is still the guarded person he was three years ago. But the mere fact he’s now willing to publicly discuss the tragedies he endured as a teenager is an indication he has changed — though he says only slightly.

The change has been enough for Fitzgerald to take notice.

‘‘It’s a two-way street, too, and he had to earn trust, and he’s done a great job with it,’’ Fitzgerald said.

Strangely, Mark’s talent as a football player had been almost as hidden as his tragic past. Listed generously at 5-8 and 175 pounds, he was lightly recruited out of high school. Last season was his first starting at running back for the Wildcats. He’s quick to point that out because the season was so spectacular, it made it seem his success was inevitable.

He started all 13 games for NU, rushing for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns. But his most notable accomplishment came when he was named a first-team All-America punt returner after averaging 18.7 yards per punt return and scoring twice.

‘‘It’s part of my legacy here,’’ he said of the award. ‘‘But football is a team sport, and so when I look at it, I would prefer my team and us go farther and maybe to a Big Ten championship and win that, and maybe to a national championship and win that, than for me to get an ‘All-American’ put beside my name.’’

Still, his individual success obviously would help the team. Undersized, he will need to put up big numbers this season to prove to the NFL scouts, who have regularly attended NU practices, that he’s electric enough to make an impact as a pro.

That can only help a Northwestern offense predicated on making big plays.

‘‘There’s no doubt he’s a fighter,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘There’s no doubt he’s willing to go scrap with anybody, and I think any time you’ve got that type of attitude, I think it obviously has a lot to do with your experiences in life. We’re just really proud of him.’’


Twitter: @SethGruen

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