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He had a round face, an infectious grin, and big wire-framed glasses that lent him a bookish air.

He loved sports—basketball and baseball, in particular—but also math and chess.

“My son,” she captioned a picture of her 15-year-old, Blake, kayaking on the Hudson River and smiling at the camera.

She also tweeted a similar photo, writing: “My son in the Hudson.” O’Donnell’s adoptive daughter Chelsea, 18, went missing in August after going off her mental illness medication.

Her son, she had been told, was wandering the streets. That it had come to this, in the space of only a few months, seemed inconceivable. As with most such shows, the drama—not to mention the ratings—leaned on the intensity surrounding which contestant would be sent home each week and which would advance. Gordon Ramsay, the celebrity chef most famous for one of his numerous reality shows, led the three-person judges’ panel, which also included prominent chefs Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich. He’d been living in Mississippi, where he’d landed a job with the Army Corps of Engineers.

Just a year earlier, Josh Marks, the 7-foot-2 gentle giant with the sweet-tempered smile and almost sappy sincerity, was the breakout star on Gordon Ramsay’s reality show From rival competitors to hardened viewers to the cooking contest’s notoriously hotheaded, impossible-to-please host, the 26-year-old Marks had done the unimaginable: make everyone like him. From that moment, like a thread being pulled from a fine garment, his mental state unspooled so rapidly that the change in him seemed as impossible as his lightning-strike ascent had seemed charmed. He’d come home to Chicago three months earlier to attend a birthday party for his little sister, Danielle, who was turning six, and a high school friend mentioned that a casting call for the show was being held the same weekend at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in the Loop.

“He was involved with a minor, and Rosie’s concern has been and always will be the health, safety and well-being of her daughter,” O’Donnell’s publicist, Cindi Berger, said in a statement to PEOPLE.

Not surprisingly, he played basketball in school—well enough to land a scholarship at tiny Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. Several members of his extended family lived nearby, and Mitchell says that her son “really gravitated to the slower pace of Southern country life.” Once Marks had settled in, finding a church became a top priority.

In it, he saw the potential for an entirely new life. The producers kept them sequestered in their rooms at night, switching them to new hotels every other day.

Like the other contestants on the show, Marks had never cooked professionally. To keep word of the show’s progress from leaking, producers also discouraged them from calling relatives.

With the family’s blessing, he dropped everything and went to work on his best dish for the audition: shrimp étouffée.

“He left my kitchen a mess, but I didn’t care,” Mitchell, his mother, says.


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