Sept. 12, 2014
“It’s one of those things that you always hope as a college football player, that you can play in your hometown. But it is rare to get the opportunity, playing in front of your family and friends. This will be a matter of pride that not only I will feel and our family will feel, but Nick will feel as well.” — Keith Martin, Indianapolis native and father of Notre Dame senior Nick Martin
By Todd Burlage
The excitement in the voice of Irish senior offensive lineman Nick Martin is evident when he talks about returning home tonight and representing the University of Notre Dame in an event such as the Shamrock Series that has become as much a city festival as a football weekend.
The Notre Dame-Purdue game this evening won’t be the first time Martin has played in Lucas Oil Stadium — he won a state title on this field as a high school senior in 2010 with Indianapolis Bishop Chatard High School team– but to unexpectedly return home as a member of the Fighting Irish is clearly one of his career highlights to date.
“I can’t think of anything better, it’s very exciting,” Martin says of his homecoming, even if it’s only for a business trip. “My family and all my buddies are going to be at the game, it’s really going to be special in terms of pride.”
It’s a pride shared by family, teammates, coaches, a hometown and anyone who has gotten to know Nick as an athlete, student or friend.
As the starting center on the Irish offensive line, Martin may not draw the praise or headlines of his high-profile teammates, other than maybe this weekend. His position is a thankless one — the less attention the better.
Staying inconspicuous is fine with Martin. Strong yet unassuming, Martin isn’t a yeller or a screamer. He is a leader by example, and a very good one at that, evidenced last month when Irish head coach Brian Kelly named his sturdy senior one of four team captains for the season.
“I think the strength of the offensive line is in the pack, it’s in the group,” Kelly says. “Nick Martin is the leader of that group. It’s pretty clear.”
If you ask Martin where he fits at Notre Dame, consistency and reliability are traits for which he wants to be remembered.
“That’s one of the best compliments you can have in football, consistency,” Martin says. “You have to step up and be that guy, be a leader and be able to have people count on you every day and on every play.”
Much of Martin’s career at Notre Dame has hummed along smoothly, though it hasn’t always gone according to plan and it has provided some difficult challenges.
After not seeing playing time as a freshman year in 2011 and playing primarily on special teams as a sophomore in 2012, Martin grew tired of biding his time as a spot player.
With four experienced linemen seemingly locked into starting roles at the two guard and two tackle spots going into last season, Martin recognized that following the graduation of mainstay Braxston Cave, the center position allowed him the best option of becoming a starter in 2013.
So Martin went to work immediately following the 2012 campaign, trying to learn and claim a first-team spot at a position he had never played in his life. By the end of spring ball in 2013, the starting center spot was his, drawing praise from Irish coaches as being both a quick study and the most improved player on the team.
“He was going to do everything in his power to take the position, and he’s done it,” Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand says. “He’s just kept himself in a position where he’s been steady, to not open it up for anybody else to have a shot.”
Martin survived his audition and baptism last season, starting the first 11 games and improving to the point of becoming one of the best centers in the nation. Then adversity hit in the first quarter against BYU when a hyperextended knee — an injury Kelly called “significant” — prematurely ended Martin’s season.
Martin had already fought and played through a “boxer’s fracture” in his snapping hand that he suffered a couple weeks earlier, but the knee injury and subsequent surgery took him out of action and even left some doubt as to his availability to start 2014. In fact, the injury was so severe, the Irish coaches and Martin’s own father weren’t exactly sure what to expect during Nick’s recovery and demanding rehabilitation.
“Nick always has had a good work ethic, so it didn’t surprise me that he would get back,” Keith says. “Now, I didn’t think he would probably be back as quickly from his recovery as he made it, but he really dug in. Both his surgery and rehabilitation have gone well, and it has just kind of taken off from there.”
A Family Tradition
Part of what drove Nick to work at center before the 2013 season was the opportunity to start and play on the same offensive line as his older brother Zack. The two played together in high school and the chance to do it again at Notre Dame was a dream both shared.
Zack even delayed a National Football League playing career in 2013 to return for a fifth season and play alongside his little brother. Nick and Zack are only the second brother pair to start on the same offensive line at Notre Dame, joining Dave and Tim Huffman from 1978 in that exclusive club.
“Playing together is something we’ll never forget. I have learned a lot from him,” Nick says of his big brother, a two-time Irish captain, one of the best left tackles ever to play at Notre Dam and a first-round NFL Draft pick last spring of the Dallas Cowboys. “Zack really took me under his wing. He was a great role model. Growing up, he was always doing the right things, especially from a football standpoint.
“When you have a guy who is that consistent, and who never takes any shortcuts and is always doing his job, you have to learn from him.”
Football and family is the fabric of the Martins. Keith and his wife, Pam, and their oldest son, Josh, were all terrific athletes in their own right. They stay in constant contact with Zack and Nick as their biggest fans and, often times, their toughest critics. The three boys are separated by only five grades.
Keith played football at the University of Kentucky. Josh played football at the University of Indianapolis and Pam was an accomplished swimmer before becoming a football trainer at Kentucky where she met Keith.
When football is over for Zack and Nick — which will likely be several years up the road — the two plan to join their father Keith and brother Josh in some sort of business venture. Josh and Zack already hold business degrees, Keith has a background in finance and Nick will earn his management consulting degree from Notre Dame in the spring.
“We don’t exactly know what our plans are yet,” Nick says. “But running a business together is something we have always talked about and wanted to do together, to all be able to share in something with each other.”
With his degree in hand but a year of football eligibility remaining at Notre Dame, Nick may well face the choice after this season on whether to follow his brother’s lead and return to school for a fifth year, or follow his brother’s career path and try to join him in the NFL ranks. Nick says he will weigh that decision when the time comes, but he did offer a passing clue.
“I really haven’t given it much thought,” he says, “but I’m guessing I will look hard at being back at Notre Dame for another year. I love this place.”
Zack and his Cowboy teammates will be busy preparing for their game tomorrow against the Tennessee Titans, so big brother won’t be able to make the trip back home to watch little brother play.
The entire Martin clan, however, will be closely monitoring all the football doings this weekend, offering some pre-game encouragement, for sure, and a little post-game critique if necessary.
Keith and Pam have every intention of making the five-hour drive from Indianapolis to Nashville after Nick’s game to go watch Zack’s game.
“It will be a busy weekend for Pam and me,” Keith says.
And a prideful one as well.