Toy Story super fan Jo'Quavious 'Woody' Marks finds perfect fit at USC

Mississippi State running back Jo'Quavious Marks tries to avoid South Carolina defensive end Tyreek Johnson on Sept. 23
Mississippi State running back Jo'Quavious Marks (7) tries to avoid South Carolina defensive end Tyreek Johnson (10) during a game on Sept. 23 in Columbia, S.C. (Artie Walker Jr. / Associated Press)

Tameka Marks just wanted to buy her youngest son a Halloween costume. She had no idea, at the time, what she was committing to.

All she knew was that Jo’Quavious, who was in preschool, loved Toy Story. Especially Woody, the toy cowboy leading man. So she bought him a Woody costume — with a signature hat, cowhide vest and boots — and nearly two decades later, as Jo’Quavious settles in as the new leading man in USC’s backfield, it’s still a part of him.

That’s because as soon as young Jo’Quavious put on that costume, he never wanted to take it off. All these years later, they still call him “Woody” because of it.

“He wanted to wear it every day to school,” Tameka said. “Every. Day.”

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It wasn’t just the costume. Tameka bought him Toy Story-themed clothes. The Toy Story movies were played on repeat in the Marks household, to the point that multiple DVDs broke and were replaced.

Even as Jo’Quavious went to kindergarten and stopped demanding to wear the costume to school, the movies were still a fixture.

“I watched it all day, every day on the weekends,” Jo’Quavious said. His mom, as one might imagine, “got very sick of it.”

Eventually, the obsession waned. But the nickname stuck. By high school, it was how most people knew him.

Others tended to mispronounce his actual first name. At one high school football game, Tameka marched up to the press box when she heard it mispronounced over the loudspeaker. She told the announcer to just call him “Woody” from then on.

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He’d hear his name called plenty during four years at Mississippi State, emerging as the go-to back early on in Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, even if Leach also struggled to pronounce his first name. Marks led Mississippi State in rushing during three of his four years in Starkville, while also catching 214 passes, a career total that far exceeds any receiver currently on USC’s roster.

It was the sort of resume he once hoped would result in him being drafted this April. But a hamstring injury he suffered in October lingered through the end of the season, sapping him of his effectiveness. He forced himself to return for the final two games, but he wasn’t the same.

“After the season was over with, it was nothing but the NFL,” Tameka Marks said. “But he was still nursing his hamstring, and the closer it got, it just wasn’t there, where he wanted it to be. He didn’t want to go out there and run a 4.5 or a 4.6. He didn’t want to reinjure it, and he didn’t want his draft stock to go down. He had the extra year, though, so it was like, let’s just go with that extra year, nurse that hamstring and make that last year your best year.”

USC wasn’t initially on the family’s radar. But Lincoln Riley made a point to reach out early on, and his history in the Leach coaching tree intrigued Tameka. So she and her oldest son, Dontavious, did a deep dive into Riley’s offense. They particularly liked that it was a more balanced version of the Air Raid, one that would allow Marks to show more of his chops as a runner.

“We thought when you turned the tape on, that he was the best [running back in the portal],” Riley said. “We thought he was incredibly productive, he caught the ball well, he was a really physically tough runner, which we wanted to get a little bit bigger and a little bit more physical in the backfield and Woody showed that on tape. The other thing is his career, you look at his numbers, it doesn’t quite tell the whole story because he’s battled a lot of injuries. He hasn’t really been able to stay healthy and you kind of look like, 'Man, if this guy can improve and can stay healthy, what can he really be?'”

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When Marks and his family sat down with Riley for his official visit, the coach pitched him on a role in USC’s offense similar to what he’d cooked up for Joe Mixon at Oklahoma. It was a compelling case for the Marks family, who proceeded to devour Mixon tape from his time under Riley’s tutelage.

There was also still the matter of his injured hamstring. At the time, he was still doing rehabilitation work in Atlanta, near his family’s home. But USC sold the family on its strength and conditioning program under Bennie Wylie.

It was enough to ease any concerns — and convince Marks to commit.

“I couldn’t move the way I wanted to when I got there,” Marks said. “I wasn’t feeling like who I was. But I think Coach Wylie has put me in a great spot.”

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Now, as his first spring practices at USC wind down, Marks is feeling like himself again. Assuming that continues, the expectation is he’ll become the third consecutive transfer to enter the fall as USC’s lead back, while sophomores Quinten Joyner and A’Marion Peterson factor in as change-of-pace options.

Until then, he plans to take advantage of all that his new home has to offer. Jet skiing in the ocean. Lying by the beach. This weekend, he’s even considering a visit to Disneyland, where his namesake awaits on the Midway.

Just don’t get Marks started on the next Toy Story movie, which is slated to be released in 2026.

“I heard Woody wasn’t going to be in it,” he said. “So I’m not sure I’m gonna be a fan.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.