Brandon Marshall extended his hand with a firm handshake then displayed a glistening smile as if he had encountered a familiar face.

In reality, it was just another stranger trying to unravel the mystery behind the player known for his dynamic ability and volatile personality; someone trying to understand how experiences have aided Marshall in his quest to silence doubters and discover himself.

So the question was posed, face to face in an interview Friday with the Tribune, about how challenging childhood was for Marshall growing up in a Pittsburgh neighborhood he briefly referred to as the "slums.'' The newly acquired Bears wide receiver paused for a second, collected his thoughts and then responded in a polite manner.

"You have everything already,'' he said. "I'm not going to go into too much detail about that. I think I've covered everything.''

Yet there is still so much more to uncover.

Outsiders are familiar with the reckless, 27-year-old three-time Pro Bowler who has had his share of brushes with the law, including a recent incident in New York where a woman alleged Marshall punched her during a melee. Naysayers see a player who both the Broncos and Dolphins have discarded and can ill-afford another misstep with the Bears. Marshall expects to be cleared of wrongdoing in his most recent incident and that he won't face NFL discipline.

Although Marshall has educated the world about his struggle with the psychological condition borderline personality disorder -- he says the condition is at the root of his hostility -- skepticism remains. But not everyone views Marshall in the same light.

"He's not a bad person,'' said retired cornerback Dre Bly, a former teammate of Marshall with the Broncos.. "He knows right from wrong. If you know him and had a chance to play with him and had a chance to sit down with him, he's a good dude. I've played with some knuckleheads that looked like knuckleheads. Brandon ain't no knucklehead.''

At the same time, Bly wasn't oblivious to the anger pent up inside Marshall.

"He was labeled early, dealing with the things he was dealing with,'' Bly said. "But everyone doesn't come from the same background. When people don't understand, they label you.''

Another change of atmosphere could provide Marshall ample opportunity to shed that label.

A different side

Steve Kohn was amazed when he walked into an open-gym session inside Lake Howell High School and spotted a lanky kid who had transferred in from Georgia.

Kohn, now in his 25th season as the basketball coach of the suburban Orlando school, knew right then Marshall was a special talent.

"The first thing I noticed was that his hands were just better than anybody else's,'' Kohn recalled. "I didn't know if he was a football player or basketball player. He had such great balance and was never out of position or knocked sideways. That probably was why he was so great at catching stuff.''

There was something else Kohn noticed about Marshall, a three-sport standout in football (quarterback), basketball (wing) and track and field (state champion triple-jumper).

"To me, he was one of the most polite gentleman I had ever been around,'' Kohn said. "I knew he was a social guy. I knew he wasn't afraid to speak. But with me, he was always like, 'Yes sir. No sir.' He showed so much respect.''

Maybe Marshall simply had a better appreciation for his new surroundings. The predominantly black East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh he declined to reflect upon suffered a tremendous economic decline while he lived there. When he moved to Orlando, Marshall once told Sports Illustrated he was one of five blacks kids in his school "so I saw both sides.''

Marshall's parents declined to provide more details on his upbringing. When contacted by the Tribune last week, his mother, Diane, said she was reluctant to speak on anything as a result of the ongoing investigation into the New York incident.