AJ Marquez got a call Thursday afternoon with a simple question and small suggestion.
Danelle Fabianich, the UT Martin senior associate athletics director for administration, wanted to know if Marquez had checked the GoFundMe started in support of the Skyhawks offensive lineman and his family, who lost their Florida home in Hurricane Ian.
The redshirt freshman hadn’t. Fabianich proposed Marquez take a look at the page, which showed more than $18,000 raised.
“It didn’t feel real,” Marquez said. “I was so overwhelmed. I got a little emotional, too. It was like, ‘Where is this coming from?’ It was Vol Nation.”
The GoFundMe had generated more than $70,000 by Saturday afternoon, as Tennessee football fans flooded the page to support Marquez and his family in the days leading up to No. 4 Tennessee (7-0) beating UT Martin 65-24 at Neyland Stadium.
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How GoFundMe to help Marquez family started
Marquez set a $1 goal on the GoFundMe page labeled “get my family back on their feet.” He insists he would have been fine with that figure. The page took off instead, starting with Skyhawks’ fans and then soaring when UT got involved.
“It put light in the dark,” Marquez said. “We are in a very dark place where you don’t see many kind actions and kind things. It kind of gave me faith in humanity in a way.”
Marquez’s mom, Seraya, and his stepfather, Armando, bought their home in Port Charlotte on the Gulf Coast of Florida in early 2021. They were in the house, hiding in a bedroom when Hurricane Ian hit in in late September.
Marquez, 20, couldn’t get in touch with his family for almost two days before finding out they were alive but the home had been destroyed. The self-described momma’s boy and backbone of the household wanted to go home and help. He’s the best English speaker in the family and helps bridge the language barrier for his Spanish-speaking mother and stepfather, who are from Nicaragua and Mexico, respectively.
He felt selfish for being in a stable situation at UT Martin while his family was struggling.
“It was probably the roughest week I have ever had,” Marquez said.
UT Martin worked to start the GoFundMe, which Marquez was hesitant to do at first. He didn’t want to bring attention to it after it was posted in early October. He didn’t have to. Others were ready.
How Tennessee football fans got involved to help AJ Marquez
Alex Boggis had an idea.
The UT Martin assistant sports information director saw Tennessee fans donate more than $150,000 for new goal posts this week after the Vols beat Alabama and fans tore down the goal posts in celebration.
Boggis planned a Wednesday night post on Twitter, challenging Vols fans to be “great fundraisers” to help Marquez. Vols athletics director Danny White and UT Chancellor Donde Plowman shared the UT Martin athletics post, issuing a similar challenge.
“We were talking about how God leads you certain places, right?” UT Martin coach Jason Simpson said. “Maybe the state of Tennessee is where God wanted him to be. This state has reached out and taken care of him through their tough circumstances.”
Marquez withdrew $3,000 from the account Tuesday to send to his mother, who cried in joy. She works as a social worker, but the hurricane caused her job to close due to flooding. His family found a house to stay in temporarily as they seek to rebuild the house they lost.
He considered freezing the page Thursday when it reached around $35,000. He didn’t want more money. Fabianich convinced him he was deserving of the love and support he was being shown. He countered that other people deserved it more.
“She said, ‘Don’t take away people from giving you blessings,’ ” Marquez said. “She was a big help in making me feel deserving of all this love and attention from people I don’t even know.”
Marquez didn’t play Saturday against the Vols. He walked slowly around the Neyland Stadium sideline after the game. He meandered to the UT Martin section, where he was greeted with hugs and fist bumps.
He was one of the final Skyhawks to leave the field. He didn’t grow up watching college sports, playing sports to get out of the house. But he felt like he gained a college team beyond the Skyhawks this week.
“I am a big Vols fan,” Marquez said.
Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson.