Perhaps you recognize Tony Martin from the times you made
late-night purchases at the Mobil station on 67th Avenue in
Miami Lakes in 1984. He was the one dozing at the counter, with
the doors locked, at 3 a.m. when you wanted to pay for your gas.
Incidentally, he apologizes for the fact that you had to knock
on the window to rouse him.
At 11 most nights back then, the 18-year-old Martin would ride
his bike two miles to work, where he would ring up Pepsis and
Twinkies and regular unleaded and dream (literally) about
starring in the NFL.
Thirteen years later, Martin's nocturnal musings have come true.
Last fall his 14 touchdown receptions led the San Diego
Chargers, tied him for first in the AFC and earned him his first
trip to the Pro Bowl. In May the Chargers rewarded him with a
four-year, $9.4 million deal. When he goes to the Miami Lakes
Mobil station now, it's to buy supreme for his BMW. Or for his
Porsche. Or for his Ferrari. "I thought this day would come,"
says Martin, 31. "I just didn't know when."
It certainly didn't come quickly--or easily. In retrospect,
Martin sees a number of ways he might have streamlined the
journey. By suffering a summer of classes, for instance. As a
senior at Miami's Northwestern High in 1982, he was due to
become the school's starting quarterback but blew off summer
school and was ruled academically ineligible for the season.
"Summer, that's playtime," Martin says. "I just didn't go, and I
July 15, 1997
His poor academic standing and small stature--the now 6'1"
Martin then stood just 5'9"--discouraged most schools from even
looking at him. But a recruiter from tiny Bishop College in
Dallas made him an offer. "I had never heard of it, but I
thought, What the heck?" Martin says. His season there, however,
was so miserable (he was homesick and the competition was lousy)
that he headed home after his freshman year and moved in with
his father, Harold, who insisted he get a job. Work at the Mobil
station filled his nights, but in the afternoons he worked out
and nurtured his dream.
In the spring of 1985, Tommy Streeter, a buddy who was playing
for Colorado, talked Martin into moving to Boulder, enrolling at
UC and trying out for the Buffs as a walk-on. By the end of
preseason drills, Martin was slated to start at quarterback.
The week of the opener, however, Colorado found out that Martin
had played at Bishop, a fact that he had failed to mention. "I
wanted to start over," Martin explains now. He was kicked off
the team for falsifying his application.
He stuck around Boulder, supporting himself with odd jobs before
eventually moving back to Miami. Then, in 1987, Bob Cortese, the
coach at NAIA Mesa State College and a former Colorado
assistant, heard about Martin's availability and his three years
of eligibility and invited him to Grand Junction, Colo. In 1988,
Martin's second year as the starting quarterback, Mesa averaged
53 points and 540 yards per game. The scouts came marching in,
and Martin decided to skip his final year of eligibility to take
a shot at the NFL. "I knew if he got a chance he'd dazzle them,"
says Cortese, now the coach at Fort Hays State. "He had a
big-time arm. When he threw the ball, you could almost hear it."
But because Martin ran a tantalizing 4.3 40, the scouts worked
him out at receiver and defensive back more often than at
quarterback. When the Jets drafted him, at the age of 23, in the
fifth round in '89, they made Martin a receiver, then cut him at
the end of camp.
He played on the Dolphins' developmental squad that season, and
made their roster the next, as a backup receiver and sometime
punt returner. He was also listed as the third-string
quarterback but never practiced at that position. Adjusting to
the unaccustomed role of backup receiver was an exercise in
frustration for Martin. "Playing for Miami, if Dan Marino
doesn't want to throw to you, there's nothing you can do," he
Martin remembers a late series from a 1993 game against San
Diego in which the Dolphins used three receivers and a tight
end--and left him on the sideline. "I was furious," he says.
After the game, Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard, who had
scouted him at Mesa, asked how he was. "Not too good," Martin
replied. "Get me out of here. Or pray for me." Soon thereafter,
the Chargers acquired Martin from Miami in exchange for a
fourth-round draft pick.
Finally, Martin had found a good fit. He was a backup his first
season with the Chargers, but he was their best deep threat and
caught a 43-yard touchdown pass from Stan Humphries to beat
Pittsburgh for the AFC championship.
Since then, he has started every game and is being compared to
Chargers greats Kellen Winslow, Lance Alworth and Charlie
Joiner. In 1995, his 90 catches broke Winslow's single-season
team record; last year his 14 TDs equalled Alworth's season-best.
Martin still thinks he could have played quarterback in the NFL
and plans to lobby new Chargers coach Kevin Gilbride for a
tryout at cornerback. He wants to play both ways, but he won't
give up his receiver position, where he has grown comfortable.
Jerry Sullivan, a receivers coach who worked with Martin for
three years in San Diego and who is now with Detroit, says of
his former charge, "Off the line of scrimmage, there's nobody in
this league who's prettier than Tony. It's like one of those
shows where you watch the cheetah accelerate to catch its prey
and they show it in slow motion so you can see all the muscles.
That's Tony. He looks so smooth and effortless."
Even if his journey has been anything but. Martin recently got a
reminder of how far he has come. While in New Orleans at Super
Bowl time to pick up the receiver of the year award from the NFL
Alumni Association, he ran into Marino. "I sure wish we had you
now," the Dolphins quarterback told him. Martin laughed.
Recognition, at last.