LINCOLN — Here is the story of a bad attitude. A kid who spent his first “year and a half” inside Nebraska's program with a chip on his shoulder and touchdowns to score.
NU wide receiver Kenny Bell practically shakes his head at what he used to think. A top-flight, loquacious interview — always able to put it just so, a media favorite from the day he was allowed to talk — Bell was apparently skilled at masking his frustration. But it was there.
“I wanted to know what I could get out of this university, not what I could do for this university,” Bell said.
And it was quarterback Taylor Martinez who noticed it. Then it was Bell, expecting to have nothing more than a business relationship with the close-mouthed California rocket, who took notice. Bell peeled back the stoic skin that's created the long runs and set the school records and found someone he didn't expect.
“He's a good people person,” Bell said. “He has a good feel for how people are. And I think he had that sense in me.”
There is a statistical record on Nebraska's starting quarterback: the 9,449 yards of total offense in his career; the 3,890 total yards and five comeback wins in 2012; the two division titles; the 25-12 record as a starter, which includes a 0-5 record in bowl and conference title games.
There is the visual record of his exploits: the blastoff-style runs in which he gashes through the middle of a defense; the weaving, improvisational scrambles; the scrutinized throwing motion; the courageous (and sometimes careless) daredevil plays.
And as the first-team All-Big Ten quarterback enters his fifth year, there is now an evolving personal record of the enigmatic star. A slow, steady emergence from the shell he inhabited earlier in his career out of uncertainty.
“You really have to be on a really good friendship basis to know the real, true Taylor,” said backup quarterback Ron Kellogg, Martinez's roommate. “He's like my little brother. To be able to converse — to talk football, to talk girls — it changes his whole persona.”
Some of this comfort, Martinez agrees, is his control of offensive coordinator Tim Beck's offense. He knows it well enough to freely change plays and discard the ones he doesn't like. He's surrounded by the most experienced offensive line NU has had under coach Bo Pelini and a buffet of skill players who rank among the Big Ten's best.
“I know I won't have to try to score on every play,” Martinez said. “Maybe sometimes in the last three years I'd try to score — felt I needed to score personally — but now I know I have so many weapons around, they can do it also.”
In a one-on-one interview with The World-Herald, Martinez said he feels at ease with the fishbowl that is Nebraska football. The responsibility of the role, the attention, the adulation, the criticism — all of it. He'd like to win a Big Ten title, play in the NFL and make a final mark as a player. But his pleasure in the game is more elemental.
“From here, I'm enjoying it one game at a time,” Martinez said. “I'm just happy now to play for Nebraska, the great fan base, the great tradition.”
That answer reflects a journey from the kid who won the NU quarterback job in 2010. Talking to Martinez, he inevitably returns to that year. He knew the offense better in 2012 than he did in 2010, and two runs from last year — the 92-yard gallop at UCLA and the scramble through the Badger maze in the Big Ten title game loss — are the signature plays of his career.
“I go into some kind of zone when I run,” Martinez said.
But yet, even now, he selects his first collegiate carry — a 46-yard touchdown against Western Kentucky — as his favorite play. It was the moment, he said, he knew college football wouldn't be so different than high school. From that play until a mid-October kickoff against Texas, Martinez traveled the same road Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel did last year: a mystery emerging from the dark; a surprising talent; a storm of big, almost chuckle-inducing plays.
“I felt like I could score anytime I touched the football,” Martinez said.
His 241 rushing yards at Kansas State on ESPN — and the ensuing chaos of a postgame press conference, where Martinez and Pelini sat at a desk fit for schoolchildren, bus exhaust making reporters and players cough — had the fan base alert and buzzing, conjuring comparisons to the best Husker quarterbacks. Tommie Frazier. Turner Gill. Eric Crouch.
“What made me really nervous was the ridiculous success early on,” Pelini said at Big Ten media days. “From my standpoint, I was watching unrealistic expectations being thrown upon him. But I knew, from my experience, he wasn't ready for that. That wasn't the best scenario, but it is what it is. We wanted to win football games. But people were putting the cart before the horse.”
Martinez said he didn't fully grasp the magnitude of the Nebraska quarterback job. Didn't realize that the reputation of it travels far enough that, just last week, Oregon coach Mark Helfrich compared it to being a “rock star.” Even in the presence of other rock stars. In 2010, Martinez said, he attended a Carrie Underwood concert in Omaha and was so besieged by autograph requests that he had to leave through an alternate entrance.
When the Huskers lost 20-13 to Texas and Martinez was benched for most of the second half, he declined to comment. He chose not to speak before some games, leaving the duty to backups Cody Green and Zac Lee. An injury against Missouri slowed his playmaking ability and willingness to disclose much.
“I really didn't know what to expect,” Martinez said. “I didn't know how the media was. No one really told me how to speak to the media or anything like that. I wish someone would have helped me out a little bit. It was rough. I didn't know how, especially as a redshirt freshman.
“That's why I didn't talk to the media much. I didn't want to say something wrong and frustrate the fans or anything like that. I maybe should have talked to the media more my freshman year but, at the time, I thought it was the best for me. I was still young. I was trying to figure things out.”
The 9-6 loss at Texas A&M — in which Pelini berated him on the sideline during the game, sending his name trending on Twitter into a long, dramatic Saturday night — revealed “how much of a roller-coaster ride it could be.”
“It happened, so there's a reason why it happened,” Martinez said of the game and the 48 hours of noise that ensued, which included rumors of him leaving the team. Martinez said he believes life events have a reason, a utility, a teaching point. He also concedes “I may not have figured out yet” what larger purpose the A&M game will serve.
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Perhaps this: Teammates noticed before then, but more so afterward, the need to lighten Martinez's natural tendency to carry things on his shoulders, silent and solitary, a sniper to his post.
There were times in Martinez's early years at Nebraska, Kellogg said, that “you couldn't get a hello out of him.”
Martinez's dad, Casey, describes his son as unusually focused and driven. He talks of a call he got from former offensive coordinator Shawn Watson in 2010, right after Taylor won the starting job over Lee and Green.
“I remember Shawn told me he's never seen somebody work so hard to win a position,” Casey said.
Casey designed it that way during long, grueling summer workouts he put Taylor through for more than a decade. A lot of running and agility work, but football-specific drills, too. Casey tested Taylor's peripheral vision and reaction to pressure, for example, by rushing him at different angles to see how he'd respond.
“I'd bring the kids to pure physical and mental exhaustion — and then I'd push them a little bit beyond that,” Casey said in a phone interview last week. “Because that's how life is.”
Every day, Casey would tell Taylor and his younger brothers Drake and Keaton, you get better or you get worse. Which are you going to be today? He gave occasional lessons in body language and looking others in the eye.
Ten years ago, Casey said, it was Taylor, as a 13-year-old, motivating his father in the wake of a painful divorce from Taylor's birth mother. It was Taylor helping to watch after his younger brothers. It was Taylor who had to acclimate to three high schools in four years — even missing his entire sophomore season of football, according to the Los Angeles Times, because of a hamstring injury. And Taylor who won a California state title as a senior in his one year at Corona Centennial High School.
“I appreciated him believing in me,” Casey said. “Sometimes kids don't always believe what their parents are saying and telling them. It hurts when they hear it sometimes, but later on they realize, 'Whoa, my parent was right.' Taylor has always been focused and believed in the direction I pointed him in.
“Taylor was a rock then — and still is now.”
Taylor cites Casey as a major influence, but his inner circle has grown during his time at Nebraska. Pelini and Beck are part of it. So is graduate assistant and former Husker quarterback Joe Ganz. After Martinez committed to NU in the summer of 2008, he said he watched Ganz religiously, becoming a fan of his toughness and playmaking.
“I loved the way he played the game,” Martinez said, “and now he keeps me loose. When I'm frustrated, he'll help me out.”
Former NU defensive end Eric Martin is a part of the inner circle. And Kellogg is part of it. The Omaha Westside graduate has played a key role in thawing out Martinez and connecting him to the fan base. The turning point, Kellogg said, was after a 2011 game, when the two were at a restaurant. Kellogg knew Martinez didn't love public attention, so, naturally, he decided to attract some of it.
“I said 'Taylor Martinez is sitting at my table, you guys should probably get some autographs,' ” Kellogg said. “So then a whole bunch of people came over and starting getting his autograph.”
Over time, Kellogg said, Martinez dropped his guard. Now the two — along with defensive tackle Brodrick Nickens — are roommates. They play hours of FIFA soccer on Xbox. They play jokes on each other. Martinez's go-to prank is a bucket of water outside of Kellogg's room. It doesn't rank with Pelini's recent hammer-to-the-cellphone opus, but it shows, Kellogg said, that Martinez has learned “not everything is so serious outside of football.”
“When we get home, he loosens up because he doesn't have to worry about blitz protections and spark calls and stuff like that,” Kellogg said. “He's a regular kid.”
“I can't go anywhere without being recognized,” Martinez said of his travels around Lincoln. A trip to midtown Lincoln's Gateway Mall might mean 90 minutes of autographs and photos.
“I smile, talk, take pictures,” Martinez said. “It's fun. I like it now.”
Evidence that he does, he said, is Drake's presence at Nebraska.
Drake had more collegiate options — Michigan State and Vanderbilt among them — than Taylor. If Taylor had chosen just to finish his career at NU, but soured on the total experience, he wouldn't have pitched Drake on coming to Lincoln. Casey Martinez said Taylor's constant “bragging” about NU was ultimately Drake's deciding factor for picking the school.
“It should prove to people that I love it here,” Taylor said.
If it's not enough, Kellogg has one more anecdote from this year's Fan Day, when a line to greet Martinez stretched more than 100 yards from the northwest corner of Memorial Stadium to the southwest tunnel. One fan brought a life-size cutout of Martinez and wept upon meeting him.
The defining moment, Kellogg said, was when the event technically ended with several hundred fans still waiting for an autograph or photo.
In previous years, Martinez might have left. This year, he stayed.
“People came down here to Fan Day just to see Taylor, and I think he knows that,” Kellogg said. “For him to stay however many minutes to sign autographs — it made his day. He knows it's his last season and he just wants the give the fans what they really want.”