GREEN BAY – Blake Martinez probably had no business even playing in the game.
In the days prior to the Pac-12 championship game, the Stanford senior linebacker badly rolled his ankle in practice. Doubt immediately started to creep in about whether the Cardinal’s leading tackler would be able to play against USC in the biggest game of Stanford’s season.
Coaches braced for the absence of Martinez, an irreplaceable difference-maker in the heart of the defense. By Saturday, everyone seemed resigned to the fact that Stanford would be without its biggest playmaker and cog.
Well, everyone except Martinez.
“He spent a ridiculous amount of time in the training room trying to just get healthy enough to suit up, let alone play,” Stanford inside linebackers coach Peter Hansen said this week. “Then, he was all over the field in the game and basically caused the game-winning sack fumble touchdown for our defense.”
A game-time decision, Martinez didn’t just play against USC – he was dominant. His defining moment came with Stanford clinging to a 20-16 lead with 4 seconds left in the third quarter when he forced a fumble on a sack of Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler.
Behind Martinez’s team-high 11 tackles, Stanford went on to win 41-22 and proceeded to trounce sixth-ranked Iowa 45-16 in the Rose Bowl a month later.
This wasn’t the first time Martinez toughed it out for his team. He played a month of his senior season at Canyon del Oro High School in Tucson, Ariz., with a club on his hand. If it’s not difficult enough to tackle someone with one free hand, try catching a ball with an obstruction.
That’s what Martinez did. A two-way player, the school’s all-time leading tackler assumed a larger role in Canyon del Oro’s offense following the graduation of current Bears running back Ka’Deem Carey.
He wasn’t just the Dorados’ running back or tight end – he was a weapon. A durable one at that.
“I don’t think he missed an entire game his two years,” Canyon del Oro coach Dustin Peace said. “The type of body he is, it’s just so big and durable. I think that’s kind of been the thing with Stanford. He didn’t miss a game in two years at Stanford even if he was banged up a little bit here or there.”
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At 6-foot-2, 245 pounds, Martinez paved his way to Green Bay with grit, tenacity and rare discipline. He doesn’t drink – not even a soda since he was a teenager – and rarely helps himself to any type of sweet dessert.
Hansen coached one other player like him – former San Francisco All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis. During his time as defensive assistant with the 49ers, Hansen remembers one day going through the line in the cafeteria next to Willis and playfully trying to entice his linebacker into having a cheat day.
“I said, ‘Pat, you have to try whatever it was – stuffed potato with all kinds of cheese or something,’” Hansen remembered. “He’s like, ‘Oh Pete, I can’t eat that.’ They remind me of each other of how disciplined they are with their diet.”
This isn’t a phase. Martinez’s approach to football hasn’t changed since he first stepped onto the field at Canyon del Oro. Coming off an Arizona state championship, Peace was skeptical at first about the kind of impact Martinez could make after transferring to the school late in his sophomore year.
It took a day-and-a-half in spring practice to convince the coach.
Together, Martinez and Carey helped catapult Canyon del Oro back to state the following year. Martinez set a record with 13 first-half tackles in the state title game and finished with 18 tackles.
Colleges were enamored with Martinez’s production in high school – 247 career tackles and 1,100 total offensive yards during his senior year – but many questioned his speed. He held nearly every lift record Canyon had to offer, but could he keep pace with running backs and tight ends at the next level?
If you watched the film, that shouldn’t have even been an issue in his coach’s mind.
“Initially everybody was saying, ‘He was slow. He was slow – too slow to play wherever,’” said Peace. “But he’s never coming off the field. He’s on there all the time. I think that’s one of the things Blake has worked so hard in. Knowing that he’s big, strong, physical, and can read (defenses), it’s just continuing to build that speed.”
After shadowing future Buffalo Bills linebacker A.J. Tarpley for a few seasons, Martinez stepped into the spotlight his senior year as the coverage linebacker responsible for blanketing tight ends and whatever No. 4 or No. 5 receivers spread offenses like Washington State might throw at Stanford’s defense.
Every Saturday, Martinez showed he was up to the task. He ran down running backs, kept stride with receivers and tight ends. He finished his senior year with a team-high 141 tackles, which also led the Pac-12.
The next closest Stanford defender, defensive lineman Aziz Shittu, had 57.
Hansen says the production was all Martinez. Offenses would try to run away from him, but he was a magnet to the football. The program preached the importance of using strength to “destroy” blocks. Martinez was the poster child.
“Our playbook had to get changed a little bit to say, ‘Blake will be the guy covering anybody that’s a tight end or a wide receiver,’” Hansen said. “Basically, we put Blake on the threat because he proved over and over that he can run with guys, he can change direction with guys.”
Martinez’s performance at the NFL scouting combine was a perfect representation of his skill set in Peace’s mind. He led all linebackers with a 4.20-second time in the 20-yard short shuttle. His 22 bench reps of 225 pounds and 6.98-second time in the three-cone drill both ranked second among inside linebackers.
The Packers liked enough of what they saw in Martinez to use the first of their two compensatory draft picks (131st overall) on the linebacker. He faces a steep climb to the NFL, but Hansen believes Stanford’s system should help hasten his transition. The Cardinal defensive scheme is molded in the vision of former director of defense, Vic Fangio, a disciple of Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
What makes Martinez tick remains an enigma. Maybe it was his family’s blue-collar construction background or the piles of notebooks Martinez amassed during his four years at Stanford. Regardless, the tales of his work ethic and dedication are something both Hansen and Peace pass onto future players.
Where exactly he’ll fit in Green Bay’s defense will be determined in the coming years. As far as the individual the Packers are getting, Peace cannot think of anyone better.
“He’s been blessed with talent, but he’s one of those special guys who has actually followed through on that talent as far as earning it with his work ethic, his discipline and his leadership and everything that he does,” Peace said. “If there’s a guy who deserves it, that has taken advantage of his God given ability, then he’s that guy.”