Aug 28, 2013
By Todd Burlage
The pre- and post-game phone calls and text messages come like clockwork to Zack and Nick Martin from every member of their immediate family, all carrying the same common themes – play like a champion today, leave nothing on the field, kick butt, win, improve, Go Irish!
Zack Martin is a fifth-year senior at Notre Dame and a legitimate first-round NFL Draft candidate at the coveted left tackle position. Nick Martin is a junior center and a first-time starter for the Irish this season.
And all those calls and text messages? Those come from the Martin parents, Keith and Pam, and older brother, Josh, the three biggest fans and toughest critics of Zack and Nick as the two youngest boys enjoy this rare opportunity to start and play together on the same college team.
“Anytime your boys reach their goals and are doing well, of course you are very proud of them,” Keith Martin says. “They have worked very hard for this opportunity and they’re fortunate to have it work out.”
In many respects, football is the fabric of the Martin family. Keith played at the University of Kentucky. Josh played at the University of Indianapolis and Pam was a swimmer before becoming a football trainer at Kentucky.
Football runs so deeply in the Martin household, it’s not unusual for the supportive pregame messages from family members to become postgame critiques of the rare mistake or missed block by Zack or Nick.
“My family has been a huge influence,” says Zack Martin, who was coached by his father through grade school in Indianapolis. “To have their support and guidance is the reason so many great opportunities have come my way.” And those opportunities have been plenty at Notre Dame, even if the chances of even arriving in South Bend once seemed unlikely.
Growing up a Kentucky fan because of his father’s football legacy, Zack admitted to hardly even following Notre Dame growing up, even though he was a three-year starter and a two-time Indiana state champion at Bishop Chatard High School, a catholic football powerhouse in northern Indianapolis.
“We went to the Kentucky football games,” Zack says. “So Notre Dame never really caught my eye when I was younger. I never paid much attention.”
That all changed when former Irish head coach Charlie Weis and his staff began recruiting Martin, along with a host of Big Ten suitors that included Michigan and Purdue.
Thinking more about life-long education than NFL aspiration, Martin committed to Notre Dame shortly after his senior prep season and arrived on campus with no idea he would leave as one of the best and most durable offensive tackles ever to wear the blue and gold. Zack enters his fifth and final season with a perfect 39 starts in 39 games during his first three years playing here, and he has never missed a start or game because of injury.
“My career at Notre Dame has gone 100 percent beyond what I expected,” Zack says. “I knew when I made a decision to come here, it was not for a coach or anything like that. It was for the opportunity to come here and get an education, and to build some important relationships along the way. It’s the best decision I have ever made.”
Staying In The Now
A great left tackle is as good as gold in the NFL Draft. And at 6-4 and 308 pounds, Zack Martin is one of the best in the business. A solid senior season this year could turn Martin into a consensus All-American, a top-10 draft pick, and an overnight millionaire. But first thing’s first for this grounded team leader.
“In the summertime you think about (the NFL) at times,” Martin says. “But once training camp started, I haven’t really thought about it at all. There is no time. There is too much to do. Being out here with all the guys, coming out here and practicing with all your best friends, it takes your mind off of pretty much everything else.”
With a bachelor’s degree in business entrepreneurship from Notre Dame’s prestigious Mendoza College of Business already in hand, Martin could have fulfilled his NFL dream after his terrific work last season earned him second-team All-American honors from the Walter Camp Football Foundation.
But Martin said the choice to delay a professional career and return to Notre Dame for a fifth season was an easy one for a variety of reasons, mainly to start on the same offensive line as his little brother, and to spend a second season working under Harry Hiestand, one of the brightest college offensive line coaches in the business.
“I just felt like I needed another year to come back and play and improve,” Martin says. “And then be able to finish it out with my good friends who came back for the fifth year, and the guys who are a grade below that are seniors, it can’t get much better than this, playing football with these guys every day.”
Martin is not only a great player in his own right. He is one of those valuable teammates that make everybody around him better. Martin also is a vocal leader, the voice of his position group, and a pain in the butt for the guys he works against in practice every day.
Irish defensive end Stephon Tuitt, a 322-pound preseason All-American, thanked Martin for making him arguably the most disruptive defensive lineman in the country.
“Zack makes me better every day,” Tuitt says. “He doesn’t take any plays off in practice, so I can’t take any plays off because I don’t want to get pancaked. We go hard at each other. He makes me better and I think I make him better. When you go against one of the best offensive linemen in the country everyday in practice, it’s a huge advantage on game days.”
Tuitt isn’t the only member of the Notre Dame football family willing to celebrate Zack Martin’s talents. When asked how valuable the rock of the offensive line is to his team, head coach Brian Kelly needed about one second to formulate his answer.
“Zack Martin is the best offensive tackle in the country, in my estimation,” Kelly says. “And he’s the best offensive tackle because of his athletic ability, his strength, his understanding of the position, what he does for our team, the way he teaches and leads, so he is the best offensive tackle.”
Family And Friends
Being the middle of three boys separated only by five school grades, Zack had the chance to start alongside his older brother, Josh, in high school, and now his younger brother, Nick, at Notre Dame.
Josh, a senior tight end, and Zack, a sophomore tackle, lined up next to each other at Bishop Chatard in 2006. And now Zack and Nick share the same huddle and line on an even grander stage.
Zack and Nick are only the second brother pair to start together on the same offensive line at Notre Dame, following Dave and Tim Huffman in 1978 – the senior Dave an All-American center, sophomore Tim at right guard.
“You don’t ever think about being out there with your brother too much when you’re playing. Obviously, you’re just worried about blocking the guy in front of you,” Nick Martin says. “But when you kind of step back and think about it, it is very special. Not too many people get that experience, especially at this level, playing for Notre Dame. Yeah, it’s something we’ll never forget and I have learned a lot from him.”
And when football is over and a new career path begins, the three Martin boys – all of whom will hold business degrees when Nick graduates next year – are already planning to own and operate a business together.
“We don’t know what it is going to be yet,” Zack says, “but it wouldn’t get much better than working together with my brothers. That would be a lot of fun.”
And while family members have known Zack the longest, teammate and linemate Chris Watt probably knows him the best.
Watt and Martin have roomed together since the two best offensive line recruits in the Midwest arrived on campus together in 2009. Martin calls Watt a slob. Watt thinks Martin is a weirdo.
“(Zack) has this thing with Batman,” explains Watt, freely throwing his roomie under the proverbial bus. “His bathroom has black and gold towels, a Batman bath mat that was a gift from his teammates, and a little Batman nightlight.”
It’s funny moments like these shared with teammates that helped bring both Watt and Zack Martin back for a fifth year at Notre Dame. There’s also a little unfinished business on the football field that starts today with Temple and hopefully ends on Jan. 6 in Pasadena, Calif., with a second straight trip to the BCS National Championship game.
“The seniors and the older guys now have done a very good job the last couple of years at getting the entire team as kind of one group,” Zack says. “That has been huge for our program and it showed last year and hopefully it does this year too. We’ve got a special team and a close group so we know this could be a special season.”
And when the final horn sounds and Zack Martin’s last chapter at Notre Dame is written?
“I want to be remembered as a leader, a guy people talk about and say he came out every day, practiced hard and gave it his all,” he says. “If you can come out and show the younger guys how to prepare everyday, you can make a huge influence on people. That’s what I try to do.”