For NFL player Cassius Marsh, the magic came with gathering of nerds

Former pro soccer player Jermaine Jones, left, shows football cards to Cassius Marsh, co-founder of Cash Cards Unlimited.
Former pro soccer player Jermaine Jones, left, shows football cards to Cassius Marsh, co-founder of Cash Cards Unlimited, during a visit in May.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Share

He still remembers it. The same episode, every night, on the TV in his room.

A Caterpie evolves into a Metapod. That Metapod evolves into a Butterfree. There was never a new ending to this episode of “Pokémon,” the only VHS cassette that Cassius Marsh owned as a kid. At that age, he didn’t have the money to buy another.

Yet as he lay horizontally watching the show in his red bunk bed, those same yips and mews and zings never got old. He was hooked on the show’s concept of evolution.

Marsh, a former UCLA star and current defensive end for the Pittsburgh Steelers, grew up loving trading card games based on improving one’s collection, such as “Pokémon” and “Magic: The Gathering.” He’s never stopped loving them.

Advertisement

“Life is my personal [role-playing game],” Marsh said, smiling. “Wake up and try and build my character, day in and day out.”

He’s building his character through training on the football field. He’s building his character as a partner and as a father. He’s building his character, most recently, by co-founding his own trading card shop, Cash Cards Unlimited, in Westlake Village.

Cassius Marsh is always evolving.

::

It’s a Friday afternoon in late May, and Jermaine Jones, a broad-chested, retired pro soccer player, steps into Cash Cards Unlimited, a shop co-founded by Marsh as the trading card market was experiencing sizable growth.

Jones and Marsh stand at the white center island in the middle of the showroom ripping open packs of NFL cards. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Marsh’s thighs, fresh off a morning workout, ripple under bright orange, tiger-striped shorts. But Marsh’s fingers, the nails painted a warm hue of lavender, are delicate with the cards, laying each carefully on the countertop.

“A lot of card shop owners, they’re just stoked to have a card shop. But I really wanted to do so much more. I wanted to influence the whole market.”

— Cassius Marsh, NFL player and longtime trading card collector

Advertisement

Cassius Marsh, left, and friend Nick Nugwynne, co-founders of Cash Cards Unlimited, are photographed inside their business.
Cassius Marsh, left, and friend Nick Nugwynne, co-founders of Cash Cards Unlimited, are photographed inside their business in Westlake Village.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Perhaps the content does not warrant the care.

“Packs are dookie!” Marsh exclaims, laughing.

He’s carved out a solid football career, but Marsh’s own trading card probably wouldn’t sell for much. A former four-star recruit out of Oaks Christian High in Westlake Village, he was selected in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL draft by the Seattle Seahawks. Three years in Seattle preceded stops in New England, San Francisco and Arizona and most recently a 2020 season split between Jacksonville, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.

“This last couple years has just been a whirlwind of movement,” said Holly Ann LeBlanc, Marsh’s mother.

In that whirlwind, Marsh’s off-field passion has provided moments of stillness.

Some players might bring a book on the road to occupy their spare time. Marsh brings some of his “Magic: The Gathering” decks — a strategic, turn-based fantasy card game.

“Coaches traditionally teach you that you shouldn’t do anything outside of football — you need to lock in on that, that’s all your mind should ever be thinking about,” Marsh said. “But I think it’s a beautiful thing to be multifaceted.”

Marsh has come to be known as the “Foil King” in “Magic” circles for his collection of ultra-rare cards.

“Some people probably look at it like, ‘Wow, dude, you’re nuts. What are you doing? That’s so much money you’re spending on these cards,’ ” Marsh said.

Shop manager and co-founder Chris Cyre, left, watches Jermaine Jones open up a pack of soccer cards.
Shop manager and co-founder Chris Cyre, left, watches Jermaine Jones open up a pack of soccer cards purchased at Cash Cards Unlimited.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Marsh is investing. The rarest “Magic” cards are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Marsh first doubled, then tripled and quadrupled his collection. From that came the co-founding of Cash Cards Unlimited with business manager Nick Nugwynne. The shop is an upscale haven for the “Pokémon,” “Magic” or sports trading card fan, with doting staff and even Marsh waiting to engage customers in the world of opening packs to discover what awaits them.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the store to Marsh and Nugwynne is watching a kid’s eyes light up when they walk in. Marsh has seen children shed tears just because their grandmother bought them a pack of “Pokémon” cards.

Those moments help preserve the childhood memories Marsh says he will never forget. The red bunk bed. The VHS cassette. The wonderment.

“That makes you feel good, to feel like a kid again,” Marsh said. “Just opening a pack and opening something, like, epic as f---.”

Advertisement

::

Colorful tattoos cover nearly every inch of Marsh’s body. Stringy blond hair falls to his shoulders. Physically, he’s hard to identify from his childhood self. Yet Cassius now is the same as Cassius then, LeBlanc says.

At 23, his mother got into a car accident on the freeway that ejected her through the windshield. She broke her back. To this day, she has no feeling in her right foot. But two years later, LeBlanc had Marsh.

Off the football field, she was fiercely protective of her son. Marsh didn’t play video games. He wasn’t allowed to sleep over at friends’ houses. He had to find other ways to fill his spare time. “Yu-Gi-Oh” and “Pokémon” beckoned him.

As a kid, Marsh’s brother would take him around his apartment complex to battle friends for ownership of rare “Pokémon” cards. One day, the two won a wager for a foil Zaptos.

“I was just so fired up,” Marsh recalled, grinning. “And I remember the kid being pissed, right, because it’s a Zaptos!”

Customers, including Gabriella Cowan, left, and her father Jeff, from Ventura, visit Cash Cards Unlimited.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Marsh’s immediate friends in later years were a group of football players. He had another crowd that he hung out with too — much older “Magic: The Gathering” fanatics at the hobby shop A Hidden Fortress in Simi Valley. The two circles never mingled. Marsh would disappear on Friday afternoons to go compete.

“We were very machismo guys in high school,” said Nugwynne, who went to Oaks Christian at the same time as Marsh. “For us, there was even a stereotype where we felt uncomfortable talking about [trading card games].”

For most of his life, Marsh kept the two sides of himself separate. Then in 2016, when Marsh was still with Seattle, he made his interests widely public in a series of tweets after $20,000 worth of “Magic” cards were stolen from his Land Rover. The game’s creator, Wizards of the Coast, dropped off some cards at the Seahawks’ practice facility as a consolation gift. Teammates took notice.

“Some guys [poked] fun,” Marsh said. “I didn’t care, because I’m a grown man, like, you can’t pick on me anymore, bro.”

Marsh has always been a self-described advocate for the fantasy “nerd” world, one he believes is blooming with beauty. Parents have reached out to thank him for it.

“If somebody’s like, ‘Why are you playing that dumb game? It’s so nerdy,’” Marsh said, “they can be like, ‘Well, Cassius Marsh plays that game. And he’s a badass football player.’ ”

::

Advertisement

For years, thousands upon thousands of dollars sat in Nugwynne’s parents’ attic, accumulating both layers of dust and value. Not cash or rare coins. A childhood “Pokémon” card collection.

Ben Bleiweiss, the general manager of sales for “Magic” retailer StarCityGames.com, has seen massive growth in the trading card market over the last five years. Chief among the reasons for the surge has been the rise in the value of cryptocurrency, Bleiweiss said.

“The cryptocurrency allowed people to take what was essentially one alternate investment, being the Bitcoin, and turn it into another alternate investment,” Bleiweiss said. “Which, in this case, were primarily ‘Magic’ cards and ‘Pokémon’ cards.”

As Nugwynne said, it’s a great time to be a nerd.

Marsh always dreamed of opening his own card store but thought he’d wait until his playing days were over. As the market grew in value, he and Nugwynne felt the timeline accelerate. Thanks to their individual collections and sponsorship deals with card distributors, they had an inventory and opened Cash Cards Unlimited in late 2020.

The shop itself is a kaleidoscope of colorful anime designs. After entering through a room with a massive “Yu-Gi-Oh” mural, customers walk into the tidy showroom, where shiny “Pokémon” cards abound. Marsh estimates 99% of them are from Nugwynne’s childhood collection.

Armando Martinez, left, grades a rookie card of Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert belonging to customer Jeff Cowan.
Armando Martinez, left, an employee at Cash Cards Unlimited, grades a rookie card of Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert belonging to customer Jeff Cowan, who is visiting with daughter Gabriella.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Marsh would spend Fridays of his childhood in another world at A Hidden Fortress, but his immediate environment contained little more than cardboard and plastic tables. If he had so much fun in such a simple place, Marsh said he thought, what could an enhanced experience bring?

“A lot of card shop owners, they’re just stoked to have a card shop,” Marsh said. “But I really wanted to do so much more. I wanted to influence the whole market.”

Marsh hopes to turn Cash Cards Unlimited into a chain corporation starting in 2022.

“When he wants something, he goes for it,” LeBlanc said.

::

Marsh has continued to go for it while bouncing from team to team. The movement has made him uncomfortable at times, fiancé Devyn Adair said. But she thinks that’s given him an opportunity to grow, to become more patient. Understanding. Flexible.

“To see him handle what he has handled with his family and with his business with the league and not breaking down — that’s my son,” LeBlanc said. “That’s the man that I raised to be the soldier that he is today.”

Marsh is an “amazing father,” in the words of Adair, because he’s still a kid at heart. Two weeks ago, he went to Target and told her he got them a present: bags upon bags of Nerf guns. Later, at a friend’s house with Cassius Jr., they divided into teams and waged war.

Advertisement

Cassius Jr., of course, was the victor. He toppled Marsh, who crashed to the floor as if he were trying to draw a penalty on the football field.

“I’ve never heard him laugh so hard,” Adair said of their son.

Marsh says his favorite thing about life is being a father. It was a huge evolution for him, he believes. One could say, his version of turning from a Metapod into a Butterfree.

Cash Cards Unlimited shop manager Chris Cyre stocks a shelf inside the store located in Westlake Village.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
VIDEO | 06:14
LA Times Today: For NFL player Cassius Marsh, the magic came with gathering of nerds

Watch L.A. Times Today at 7 p.m. on Spectrum News 1 on Channel 1 or live stream on the Spectrum News App. Palos Verdes Peninsula and Orange County viewers can watch on Cox Systems on channel 99.