Like many so-called military brats, Marisa Warren – Risa, to those closest to her – lived a peripatetic early life. Born in Maryland to an active-duty Army mom and retired Army dad, she and her four siblings spent portions of their youth in Virginia, Hawaii, the State of Washington, Georgia, Alabama, and even overseas in Germany. In high school, Risa developed into a solid student and talented athlete.
“Growing up, I didn’t want to be active-duty military,” she remembers, “because my mom was gone all the time. I missed her. I wish she could have been there, but I know that’s how she took care of us.”
For a time, it appeared that Risa was destined for a scholarship to play college basketball. However, in August 2011, prior to her senior high school season, she tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and medial collateral ligament (MCL), an injury that wouldn’t be properly diagnosed or operated on until months later. As a result, most schools backed away from their offers to her.
Undaunted, Risa remained committed to her higher education. From pivoting on the court, she would pivot in the classroom, choosing Auburn University in Alabama to study kinesiology, the scientific study of human body movement. On four separate occasions, she also tried out as a walk-on with the Auburn Tigers women’s basketball team, but a spot for her on the roster would never materialize. Her mother then recommended enlisting in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC).
“My first semester, I was just kind of winging it,” she confesses, “and my mom said, ‘You need some discipline.’ It wasn’t anything I ever thought I would do. I actually was good at it, and it was good for me. So, I just stuck with it, and they ended up offering me a scholarship. That was amazing.”
Risa came away less impressed with most of Auburn’s high-profile football players, whom she found off-putting because of what she perceived as their unwarranted cocksureness. During her sophomore year, a new student who appeared on campus managed to catch her eye, yet every time she tried to stop and talk with him, he’d legitimately be running late to a class or other commitment. He’d taken a shine to her as well, though, and thanks to a mutual friend introducing him to Risa’s Instagram page, he found a way to connect with her via direct message.
“Instead of asking me to come to his room or hang out, he asked to meet me at the gym. I thought that was great! He watched me play basketball for a little while, then we played some 1-on-1. The next day, he asked me on a date. First, he asked me to come to his room to watch him cut someone’s hair. He said he was a barber. I thought he was making it up, but he really can cut hair. We’ve been together ever since.”
Only later would she discover, to her pleasant surprise, that this tall, charming junior transfer student also played football for Auburn, a fact Brandon intentionally kept hidden as long as possible, not wanting to influence her one way or the other.
“I think I was different for her. I was just trying to be myself. I guess I … made the cut,” he explains with a laugh. “She’s such a competitive and strong woman. There aren’t a lot of military families that are very wealthy. So, for her to go to college and get an education was kind of mandatory. She embraced it and continued to strive and do very well.”
The same could perhaps be said of Brandon, who hailed from Alabaster, a small suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. Recent Census figures indicate that around 6 percent of Alabaster residents fall below the poverty line and, according to Brandon, “a lot of people don’t graduate high school … If it wasn’t for football, I probably wouldn’t have gone to college, either. There’s no way my family could afford it.”