Senior linebacker Matt Martinez has endured a lot to become a leader of a talented Utah defense. Throughout his career as a Ute, Martinez has shown himself to be a true Utah man, a Salt Lake City native who never wavered, always bled red , and still does so today.
"Utah's always been my team. Growing up, it was never like a lot of people do, BYU one year if they're doing better or Utah if they were having the better year," said Martinez. "It seemed like there was a lot of that back then, but not for me. I was always just a Utah man."
The fifth year senior linebacker is a true underdog who fits the classic University of Utah stereotype: the quiet, under-the-radar recruit walk-on made good in the mold of so many just like him that came before, and the string that will undoubtedly continue long after he takes off jersey number 52 for the last time.
Unlike many locals on the Utah roster, there was never a question or a thought of going to BYU to play for Martinez. An excellent, versatile athlete, Martinez excelled in track and field and wrestling at Salt Lake City's Cottonwood High School, in addition to his first-team All-State and All-Region efforts in football.
In all, Martinez wracked up nine letters during his tenure at Cottonwood, earning four in football, three in wrestling and two in track. A prolific and accomplished wrestler with a senior record of 38-1, Martinez also achieved first-team All-State and All-Region honors in wrestling and won a regional championship before placing second in the state championship that season.
With impressive accomplishments in that sport, Martinez says he briefly considered accepting a wrestling scholarship to a small school on the East Coast. No surprise, Martinez also strongly considered attending Boise State, another upstart school who depends on the scrappy, under-rated type of players Utah has to build their program to the national brand it is today.
"I had a couple of football offers. Actually, I was going to commit to Boise State. Then I took a trip there and got kind of home-sick," admitted Martinez. "I couldn't really see myself there, and wanted to stay home by my mom. So I decided to come here and walk on. It was the best choice I ever made."
With no regrets, Martinez is in his sixth season with the Utes after having been granted a rare sixth year of eligibility due to three consecutive season-ending injuries early in his career at Utah.
As a true freshman in 2006, along with another freshman linebacker by the name of Stevenson Sylvester, Martinez was expected to contribute to the team. As Sylvester catapulted his way into the hearts and minds of Ute fans, Martinez suffered an early season MCL tear and was redshirted.
"That [injury], I just kind of took in stride. I battled through it and I did the freshman thing, took bad weight off, then put good weight on," Martinez explained. "It was ok because I was able to get ready physically and really learn the game, but at the same time, there was some frustration."
After extensive rehab over the course of a year, Martinez suffered a heart-breaking injury in his very first game at Oregon State in 2007, the same game in which most recall the injuries to higher profile teammates Brian Johnson and Matt Asiata. Quarterback Johnson injured his shoulder and would miss three games while Asiata broke his leg and was lost for the season along with Martinez.
"Oregon State, freshman year, I think I was on kickoff and I think I just took a bad step and blew out my knee. It was a bad experience since I'd just come back from missing the first year," recalled Martinez. "I ran off the field and thought I'd just kind of tweaked it. I didn't think it was serious at all but when the doctor told me it was blown out, I couldn't believe it. It was humbling and devastating."
After recovering from two straight serious injuries and consequently missing two consecutive years, Martinez was poised and ready for a big 2008 season, having come back stronger mentally and physically from the adversity he had already faced as a young player.
Then, in a blow-out 58-14 win at Utah State, Martinez tore the bicep muscle and tendon in his left arm, knocking him out for the season for the third straight time. It was just the third game of the season, but not just any season.
The 2008 season would prove to be magical for the Utah football program, making it bittersweet for Martinez who, as the consummate team guy, was thrilled for his teammates. However, on a personal note, the team success only added more frustration to his perennial inability to stay healthy and stay on the field.
"[The third injury] was a huge setback for me mentally and physically," Martinez said. "You had two ways to look at it, let it take you all the way down, or use it. I used it to give me the drive to keep going all this time."
The theory sounds like a simple one; a black and white choice. However, the adversity and the mental capacity to overcome the series of setbacks that confronted Martinez cannot be undermined.
"What Matt went through was tough. Looking back on what he went through, it was tough. Not many guys could have, or would have come back from those injuries, but Matt did," said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham. "That he did come back just speaks to his mental toughness and how he approaches life. He is a fighter, is what he is."
The fight that Martinez displays on a daily basis shows through every day on the practice fields, where it counts in the minds of teammates and coaches most, as well as off the field, where academic excellence is valued most by prospective employers. In that regard, Martinez is in good shape.
The quiet, soft-spoken linebacker can also boast a career of academic excellence both in high school and while at Utah, garnering Academic All-MWC three times and making the Athletic Director's Honor Roll once. Martinez is one class shy of earning his degree in Economics, one of two majors, with the other being Sociology with a Criminal Justice background.
While accomplished in the classroom, teammate and friend Chaz Walker envisions football in Martinez' future.
"I see him having a chance at the next level, for sure. I can't say Matt Martinez can't do something. But I see him being a player or a coach, just being around football in some way in the future," Walker predicted. "I can't see him ever being away from it."
While acknowledging that he'll try for a future in professional football, Martinez is proud of his academic accomplishments, and if football doesn't work out, feels good about his professional prospects after life as a Utah football player.
"It couldn't have worked out any better. I was able to get the second major, and it's been a perfect fit for me," Martinez said of his choice in majors. "It's something I can really see myself doing, and enjoying in the future. If football doesn't work out in some way, I know I have a really good fall-back. So you can't ask for more than that."
Martinez' statistics indicate, to some extent, his value to the team, but what Martinez has brought in his time as a Ute is woefully underappreciated and discredited. In one full season as a starter and spot-duty in one other, Martinez has 112 career tackles to go with six tackles for loss and two sacks, with one coming early in this, the 2011 season. The numbers shouldn't be a surprise, as Martinez collected an astonishing 150 tackles as a senior at Cottonwood High School.
In the tradition of hard-nosed linebackers under former defensive coordinator and current head coach Kyle Whittingham and current defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, Martinez was mentored by former linebacker Joe Jiannoni, another low-profile player in fan's minds, yet no less impactful on the field.
"Joe Jiannoni was kind of like my big brother when I got here, who helped me with everything. He showed me the ropes on and off the field," credited Martinez. "He showed me a lot and I tried to soak up everything. Especially being a teammate and how to give for the team and make that kind of sacrifice."
Another key player in Martinez' development was the aforementioned Stevenson Sylvester.
"Kalani had me and Sly [Sylvester] always together. Whether that was in study hall or lifting or room assignments," Martinez remembered. "We came in the same year and kind of came up together, so it was that type of thing that you see, two guys in at the same time, thrown together to learn and grow up together."
Fellow linebacker and team tackle leader in 2010 and again so far in 2011, Chaz Walker has benefitted as much as anyone from Martinez' experience and time at Utah. The two are seen as the same type of senior duo that usually signifies or typifies Utah teams year in and year out. Few are aware, however, that Walker came to the program in 2007 and redshirted, and began contributing in 2008. It was Martinez who has mentored Walker.
"I came in as a safety and made the move to linebacker my first spring here. Matt was kind of the guy who took me under his wing on defense, and showed me the ropes," Walker reminded. "Matt is, honestly, kind of the reason that I do what I do. He knew the defense, and he taught me that bit by bit. He's one of my best friends, and to come up in the program together has been a special thing. It's been a journey, and I don't know if there's anyone better to take it with."
The relationship between Walker and Martinez personifies the Ute linebackers' tight brotherhood, which they have dubbed the Kongo brothers. What began as a quiet, low-key inside group formed as early as two years ago, the Kongo brothers have become a highly visible and tangible entity on the Utah defense, to the point that linebackers J.J. Williams, Brian Blechen, Walker and Martinez can be seen wearing printed shirts and other equipment bearing the same name.
In fact, the day interviews were conducted for this feature, defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake was sporting a professionally printed black shirt with red lettering reading K-O-N-G-O on the front.
"[The Kongo] is just kind of the linebacker crew, a brotherhood. I don't even really know. I know it has a lot of meaning for them," Sitake expanded. "Honestly, I think it's something we outsiders kind of know about on the surface, but unless you're on the inside of that, I don't think anyone really knows. Outside of them. They're a very tight group, and it means something to them, so it means something to me. It's something that, I'll always want to support if it means something to my guys."
Undoubtedly, part of that brotherhood is to mentor and pull younger players along in the program, as was done for him and as he has done for Walker, Williams, Blechen, Boo Anderson, V.J. Fehoko and Jacoby Hale. Martinez' efforts in that regard have been highlighted somewhat, but still can't be understated. Sitake took the first opportunity to discuss Martinez' values and impact on the team.
"The one thing I can say about Matt is that he is one of the most unselfish people I've ever been around. His character is unimpeachable. Looking back on his time here, he has held so many leadership roles, officially and unofficially," Sitake praised. "He has always been on the leadership council, he's taken every linebacker in this program in and taught them how to be a Utah linebacker. I can't say enough about Matt and what he has meant and brought to this program."
Truly, enough can't be said of Martinez and his meaning to the Utah defense in his five years on The Hill. Teammates' quotes about the example he has set in terms of work ethic, resiliency, academic excellence, being a teammate, knowledge of defense, his endless teaching and mentoring abound.
For all of that, Martinez' name is likely the least known on the Utah defense. Humble, grateful and unassuming, Martinez isn't playing for the spotlight, but rather the respect and credit given him by the very teammates he has helped to develop and the coaches who have grown to value him as much for his coaching and leadership as his play on the field.
"You suffer adversity, and if you have the right mind-set, it just makes you humble. It makes me appreciate every snap and every down I'm on the field, because you don't know when it's your last. It makes you question every single thing you do. Whether or not you play football, your major. What you eat, how you workout, how much or how little you sleep. Just the way you do everything on a daily basis," Martinez said of his obstacles. "I'm grateful for what I've been through and for the respect I've earned here and the friendships I've made here. The lifelong relationships I've made here. I can't see it going any other way, because this is where I am and I think it's where I'm supposed to be, and it's turned out how it's supposed to be."
Head coach Kyle Whittingham perhaps sums up Martinez' career best.
"Matt is a self-made, blue-collar guy. He's gotten where's he gotten through hard work, determination and discipline. You could go on and on, throwing out adjectives and not fully quantify it," Whittingham said. "We're very fortunate to still have around here. I've always been drawn to over-achieving tough guys at linebacker, and we've had our fair share of them here. We've been fortunate to have this one, in Matt, here as long as we have."