How does this happen? How does a player who turned 20 last month, who rated three stars coming out of Centennial High in Corona, Calif., who spent the bulk of his true freshman season in Lincoln stretching the first-team defense as a scout squad wide receiver -- how does this guy find himself in the Heisman conversation, being described as the most dynamic player to set foot on the Nebraska campus since Eric Crouch?
We'll begin to answer by noting that, aside from his otherworldly burst and underrated passing skills, Taylor Martinez is also mentally tough -- a quality that manifests itself, at times, as stubbornness, such as when he refused to abandon his ambition to play quarterback when so many coaches were telling him what a great safety or receiver he could be.
The torture through which Casey Martinez put his eldest son would have broken a weaker athlete; would have burned him out on football. Taylor couldn't get enough.
In high school stadiums and in public parks, passers-by have long stopped and stared, or taken a seat in the stands, as father has put his son through sprints and plyometrics. For starters. A former Iowa State safety whose career was cut short by a knee injury, Casey prefers to "bring [Taylor] to a state of pure physical and mental exhaustion."
Before every game he ever played, dating back to when he was eight years old, Casey reminded his son, "You are the most prepared player, physically and mentally, on that field."
That mental toughness was honed seven years ago, when, as Casey puts it, "Taylor had to grow up overnight." Following his divorce from Taylor's mother in 2003, Casey moved from a spacious house to "a little rental in the bad part of town" near Perris, Calf. Taylor, then 13, chose to move in with his father, who was between careers: He'd left teaching to get into real estate.
"It was tough, financially. We had no cash flow. I couldn't afford anything. I didn't know how we were going to pull out of it," says Casey, who describes that period as "my time of severe depression." Taylor, he recalls, "was my inspiration, my backbone."
After six months, they were joined in the apartment by Taylor's younger brothers Drake, then 10 years old, and Keaton, then nine. While Casey continued to "get back on my feet," the Martinez men had a rough year. The ordeal drew them together, made them closer.
Not surprisingly considering his 15 touchdowns through five games include scoring runs of 67, 46, 43, 20, 80 (twice) and 41 yards, Taylor has been nicknamed T-Magic. That handle makes Casey happy because, in some ways, it brings things full circle. "We use that tough year as motivation," he says. "I always refer to that year as a magical year."
Casey met a good woman named Epifiana, and remarried. With business improving, he was able to buy a good sized house on Reservoir Drive in Corona. Casey was pleased to discover that his neighbor, two houses down, was the head football coach at nearby Norco High. Todd Gerhart's star running back that year was his son, Toby, who would go on, of course, to star at Stanford, finish second in last year's Heisman balloting and be drafted by the Minnesota Vikings.
Toby Gerhart had five siblings: younger brothers Garth and Coltin, plus triplet (!) sisters. The Gerharts and Martinezes were soon fast friends. Corona being horse country, many of the lots are at least an acre. The Gerharts had turned their backyard into a baseball diamond. Casey put in a full-length basketball court, with lights. Children from both families migrated freely from one compound to the other, depending on what sport people wanted to play.
Todd didn't take it personally when Taylor transferred to Cajon High in San Bernardino after his sophomore year. "He wanted to be a quarterback, and we didn't really ever throw," says the coach. Taylor did a nice job in his first year at QB, getting his new team into the playoffs and accounting for some 1,500 yards.
Halfway through the season, Casey sent an email to Scout.com, the recruiting and rating service, asking them to give his son a look. "What you saw on film," recalls Brandon Huffman, the site's recruiting manager, "was not so much a really good quarterback as a really good athlete."
It didn't help that Taylor was competing in one of the most quarterback-rich classes in memory. He was ranked behind Matt Barkley (now starting at USC), Austyn Carta-Samuels (starting at Wyoming), Jordan Wynn (starting at Utah), Richard Brehaut (backup at UCLA) and Troy Nunes (backup at Stanford). "They were clearly better passers than Taylor," recalls Huffman. "He had an OK arm, but not a wonderful arm."
But he found ways to stand out. He was flat-out dominant at Scout.com's combine in May 2008. Out of some 300 players, he had the fastest three-cone shuttle run, and the third-fastest 40. His vertical jump was 38 inches.
Around that time, Carl Pelini was making the rounds in the Inland Empire. His brother, Bo, had been named the new head coach at Nebraska. Carl would serve as Bo's defensive coordinator. SoCal was his recruiting territory, which is how he found himself in Todd Gerhart's office one spring day. Once they were done talking about Norco players, Pelini asked, basically: Who else ya got around here? Gerhart recommended his old neighbor. "He's a special one," Gerhart said of Taylor. "He's got speed, size, everything. He's going to be one of those guys you can't miss on."
"What can he play?"
"He can play anything."
After conducting his due diligence, Pelini offered Taylor a scholarship in mid-summer, before the kid's senior season. He didn't accept right away. He and Casey visited Lincoln, after which the father told the son, "I don't know if it's going to get much better than this."
Bo Pelini had given his word: Taylor would be given the chance to compete for the quarterback job. "And if you end up at safety," Casey counseled his son, "you're gonna end up being coached by some of the best defensive minds in college football." Plus, Casey liked the strictness of the Pelinis, the accountability they demanded. "It felt like an extension of our family," says Casey, who told Taylor, "I think it's a perfect fit, kiddo."
Taylor committed, then proceeded to make Carl Pelini look very smart. As a senior at Centennial (yes, that's correct, he'd transferred a second time, a story I'll flesh out in next week's SI) Martinez led the Huskies to a 15-0 season and the state title, and a No. 2 national ranking. The MaxPreps California Player of the Year, to name but one of his many postseason honors, found himself with many more suitors, most of whose calls he didn't return. Nebraska was his only visit.
With 2009 starter Zac Lee returning, and with Lee's well-regarded understudy, Cody Green, coming back, Martinez appeared to be a long shot among contestants in Nebraska's preseason quarterback sweepstakes. He'd played the position two years in high school, then spent a season running pass routes on the scout team. He didn't really have a shot, right?
"He uses those doubts as fuel," says Casey. If he got no love or was passed over for an award at a football camp; if he earned three stars while QBs he considered his equals got four or five; if a few local writers criticized his transfer to Centennial -- it became his mission to prove the rankings wrong, to silence the critics.
He's done so as Nebraska's starting quarterback. He is averaging 147.4 rushing yards per game this magical season. Of course Texas intends to take the run away this weekend, and force him to the air. Martinez wasn't talking this week, but in the past he's flashed mild annoyance at the implication that he's one-dimensional. The fact is, he completed 59.5 percent of his passes for 2,994 yards and 28 touchdowns at Centennial, with just seven picks. He rushed for just 750 yards. "I needed him throwing the ball," recalls Matt Logan, the Huskies head coach. "If I ran him as much as Nebraska is running him, maybe we could've gone undefeated by even bigger margins!"
If the 'Horns intend to tell this kid, "Go ahead and try to beat us with your arm," they may want to be careful what they wish for.