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Denton couple get back their refurbished Mazda van with surprise handoff from Cowboys' Alfred Morris

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Randy Cummings, For the Denton Record-Chronicle

A four-wheeled Christmas gift came a few days early for a surprised John and Donna Marsh of Denton when they arrived Tuesday morning at the Classic Mazda of Denton dealership to pick up their 13-year-old van after it spent three weeks in the repair shop.

Not only did the local couple get their 2004 Mazda MPV back, restored to smooth-running status, but Dallas Cowboys running back Alfred Morris was there to hand them the keys.

It was hard to determine what shocked the Marshes, die-hard New England Patriot fans, the most — the fact that their aging van had been completely renovated to near showroom-quality, or that a well-known Cowboys player was on hand to share in the presentation.

Dallas Cowboys running back Alfred Morris, left, and Denton residents John and Donna Marsh look over the couple's refurbished 2004 Mazda MPV on Tuesday at Classic Mazda of Denton. The vehicle was part of a pay-it-forward campaign by the Denton dealership.DRC
Dallas Cowboys running back Alfred Morris, left, and Denton residents John and Donna Marsh look over the couple's refurbished 2004 Mazda MPV on Tuesday at Classic Mazda of Denton. The vehicle was part of a pay-it-forward campaign by the Denton dealership.

"We are just totally, totally overwhelmed," said Donna Marsh upon seeing the van, which has 160,000 miles on the odometer and was originally brought into the dealership for a simple inspection. "If you could have seen the van when I brought it in — this looks like a brand-new van. It's amazing."

Morris was invited by Classic's general manager, Rick Wick, to participate in the ceremony because he owns a refurbished 1991 Mazda 626 that he's driven since his college days and continues to drive today. Morris has maintained it through Mazda's assistance as a reminder of how others have helped him throughout his life. It also serves to inspire him to give back to his community.

"I was immediately on board," Morris said of the presentation. "Mazda has been so good to me keeping my car, which is near and dear to me, running. They've been so helpful and doing things for me, so it was easy for me to do this. It was a no-brainer."

The Marshes not only got their van back but were also presented with a check from Mazda for $2,500, as well as a Morris-autographed NFL football. And for fun, Wick sneaked a Cowboys helmet sticker and blue 4 (Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott's jersey number) on the back window of the van to go along with the several Patriots stickers that the Marshes proudly display.

"To have a Dallas Cowboy here, that's truly converted me," said Donna Marsh. "I'm going to be a big Alfred Morris fan now."

Despite her allegiance to New England, Donna Marsh assured Morris she'll find a place in their home to showcase the football he signed for them.

"I told him it's going to be displayed right under Tom Brady's poster in my living room," she said.

While Wick's association with the Cowboys' running back goes back just a few weeks, his relationship with the Marsh family began several years ago when Wick and John Marsh got to know each other as members of Denton's Knights of Columbus organization.

John Marsh was driving an old Chevy van at the time that was constantly in need of repairs. He was also battling health issues related to his diabetes, which had led to the loss of his lower left leg and three toes. In fall 2013, the van suffered a blown head gasket, making it undriveable, and forcing Donna Marsh to take the bus or ask for rides to get to her job.

That's when Wick decided that maybe his Classic dealership and the Mazda corporation — active for many years in various charity work in the area — could help out his friends.

"I got with our owner, Richard Allen, and asked if from our Christmas fund if we could see about getting a vehicle for the Marshes," Wick said. "He said, 'Yes.' And we just happened to have gotten a trade-in for a 2004 Mazda MPV. It had 152,000 miles on it.

"So we used some of our Christmas charity funds and took their old van in trade and donated the [Mazda MPV] van to them," Wick added. "We presented it to them in December of 2013. We've kind of maintained it ever since."

For the past four years, Classic Mazda has provided regular maintenance and repair work on the Marshes' van at no cost. About a month ago, a day after the Mazda Gulf Region offices had contacted Wick about doing some repair work on Morris' car, the Marshes called Wick saying their van needed to be inspected.

"I figured I'd leave it for an afternoon, and that was three weeks ago," Donna Marsh said. "They said they were going to go from the front of the van to the back of the van and fix whatever needed to be fixed. I had no idea what they were going to do."

In addition to the simple inspection, Classic Mazda wound up doing about $4,000 worth of work of updates and repairs to the van, ranging from replacing all the belts and hoses to upgrading the brakes and fixing the headlights. After replacing the air-conditioning system last summer, Classic also repaired a dented bumper and fixed some hail damage to the van's body.

Wick originally was contacted a few weeks ago by Mazda corporate officials about doing some repair work on Morris' 27-year-old four-door, which Morris has affectionately nicknamed "The Bentley." The Denton dealership was chosen because Morris and his family reside in Denton County.

"I got a phone call from the Mazda Gulf Region [office] and ... they wanted me to reach out to them and get the car fixed," Wick said. "In that conversation, [Mazda Gulf Region] asked if there was a needy family that we could tie in with Alfred. She asked about the family that we had donated the van to."

Morris was eager to participate in the presentation of the refurbished van, in addition to the autographed football and a Mazda cap, to the Marsh family.

Morris has been driving his 1991 model since his playing days at Florida Atlantic University. The story goes that he purchased the car for $2 from his pastor and, while his NFL career has provided him the opportunity to drive a new and nicer car, he continues to drive his Mazda daily as a humble reminder of his poor background as a youth.

"I grew up in a family where we didn't have that much," Morris said. "We had so many people pouring into our lives that were not even blood to us. They helped us and shaped my heart to give. When we had this opportunity to give back to this family, I was, like, 'Sure, why not?'"

This recent round of repairs is actually the second time Morris' 626 sedan has undergone a makeover. In 2013, during his playing days with the Redskins, a Washington, D.C.-area Mazda dealership reportedly spent 275 man-hours of labor installing 450 new parts in the car.

Morris drove his car to Tuesday's event at Classic Mazda. After all, he can fully appreciate and share in the Marshes' excitement and joy of getting a cherished vehicle back and up and running.

"I'm just beyond thankful because I've been on the receiving end of ... seeing other people's generosity," Morris said. "Now I get to be on the other side of it, to be able to give and be generous. That's awesome to me."

FEATURED PHOTO: Dallas Cowboys running back Alfred Morris, left, along with Rick Wick, second from right, present Denton couple Donna and John Marsh the keys to their refurbished 2004 Mazda MPV on Tuesday at Classic Mazda of Denton. Jeff Woo/DRC