Long before Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez became known as T-Magic for his playmaking as dual-threat quarterback, he earned the nickname off the field.
Martinez was just 13 when his parents divorced at the end of 2003. His father, Casey, took the split so hard that he slipped into depression. Almost broke, he was in the midst of a career change from teacher to real estate investor.
Casey Martinez and his three sons moved out of a two-story lakefront house in a gated community in Canyon Lake, Calif., and into a tiny 600-square-foot house with a rock front yard in working-class Perris, Calif.
It was so cramped that they slept two to a bed. The house’s only decorations were the boys’ homework and artwork as well as an inspirational message — “Dreams come true when you work hard and pray” — that Casey had written and taped to the door of Taylor’s bedroom.
“We were at rock bottom,” Casey Martinez recalls.
Taylor, the oldest son, kept his father going. He scoured the telephone book and made cold calls to help his father find properties to buy. He cleaned the floors with a hand sweeper because they couldn’t afford a vacuum. He took care of his brothers, then 8 and 9, and reminded his father to pick them up from school.
With Taylor’s encouragement, Casey Martinez didn’t give up. Instead he came up with a family motto: “Martinez magic.”
“We just figure we have something most people don’t,” Casey Martinez says.
Within a year, their lives underwent a fairy tale-like transformation. Casey became engaged to a Samoan princess. The housing industry boomed and he became of one of the region’s top real estate investors. The family moved into a 6,500-square-foot house on an acre lot with a regulation basketball court.
That year was so magical that Casey got a personalized license plate for his Lincoln Navigator that said, “WEMGAC.”
“We believe in the impossible,” Casey Martinez says. “We were all praying for the impossible and the impossible happened. I believe in miracles. To me it’s magical.”
“Magical” also would describe Taylor’s debut as Nebraska’s starting quarterback this season. The shy speedster has rekindled memories of former Cornhusker dual-threat quarterbacks Turner Gill, Tommie Frazier and Eric Crouch.
Martinez, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound redshirt freshman, is fourth in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 737 rushing yards along with 12 touchdowns. He’s also completed 60 percent of his passes for 660 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions, becoming a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate. Meanwhile, the resurgent Cornhuskers are suddenly in the thick of the national championship race.
On Saturday, Martinez and No. 5 Nebraska (5-0) will face their biggest test so far this season in hosting Texas (3-2) in a rematch of last year’s controversial Big 12 championship game won by the Longhorns.
“He hasn’t even scratched the surface of what he could be,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini says of Martinez, who last week set a school record for rushing yards by a quarterback, gaining 241 in a 48-13 win against Kansas State. “People are seeing him run, but he’s a pretty talented passer too. People just haven’t seen that part of him yet. He’s going to be fun to watch for a long time.”
Dad’s career cut short
The story of Martinez, who declined an interview request through a Nebraska spokesman, begins with his father, who played outside linebacker at San Bernardino Valley College, a junior college, before transferring to play strong safety at Iowa State in 1988.
A hard hitter, he set five strength and conditioning records for the Cyclones.
“I preferred the knockout shot as opposed to the interception,” says Casey Martinez, who despite his surname is not Hispanic. Casey was adopted and his surname comes from his mother’s second husband. Taylor’s heritage is German, Irish and French.
Martinez blew out his right knee midway through his junior season. That ended his career because he already had undergone four previous surgeries on his knees.
“He would have been a great player,” says Jim Walden, Martinez’s coach at Iowa State. “We really thought he had a future.”
Casey Martinez knew his oldest son had the same type of potential from the moment he started playing football at 8 on a team of 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds. In one of his first games, Taylor was playing linebacker in a scoreless contest with two minutes remaining.
Taylor stood up the ballcarrier near midfield, ripped the ball out of his hands and ran it in for a touchdown, the first of his career, that ended up being the game winner.
Casey Martinez recalls telling himself, “This kid’s going to be something else.” He even has a photo from the play that he still looks at.
“He’s never stopped since,” Casey Martinez says.
Growing up, Taylor was a two-way starter as a running back and free safety, but always wanted to play quarterback. During one game he took a toss as a tailback on a sweep before pulling up and throwing a 40-yard touchdown pass.
Taylor’s grandfather turned to Casey Martinez and said, “He looks like a natural quarterback.”
“That really stuck with us,” Casey Martinez says.
So did Taylor’s support for his father after the divorce. He encouraged him to get out and meet people, which eventually restored his confidence.
“He was my complete inspiration,” Casey Martinez says of Taylor. “He was carrying me on his shoulders.”
A new family member
Even though the elder Martinez was still struggling financially, he took his three sons out to eat once a week. During one of those meals in January 2004, he struck up a conversation with their waitress, a Samoan woman named Epifania.
A princess in the tiny village of Faleseela on the Samoan island of Upolu, she lived there until she was 5 before moving to Hawaii, then California.
She and Casey hit it off immediately and married two years later. She took on the role of mother to Taylor and his two younger brothers and has since had four other children.
Taylor hasn’t spoken with his biological mother in 7 1/2 years and considers his stepmother to be his mother. A week before fall practice began this season, he got a large Samoan tattoo on his left arm in honor of her.
“She played a big role in providing him with the motherly figure that he calls Mom,” Casey Martinez says.
Despite his family’s turmoil, Taylor continued to make a name for himself on the high school football field. When Carl Pelini came to Nebraska as defensive coordinator in December 2007 when his brother, Bo, was hired as the Cornhuskers coach, he was assigned to recruit California.
He recalls having 60 to 70 DVDs of California recruits, one of which was of Taylor’s highlights from his junior season at San Bernardino (Calif.) Cajon High School, the first year he had played quarterback.
Pelini wanted to know more about him before deciding whether to offer a scholarship.
“He was very raw,” Pelini says. “But at the same time, you can spot a talented athlete.”
So Pelini visited Norco (Calif.) High School coach Todd Gerhart, the father of Minnesota Vikings tailback Toby Gerhart. Taylor had played safety for the elder Gerhart as a freshman before missing his sophomore year because of a hamstring injury.
“He’s a special athlete,” Pelini recalls Gerhart telling him. “He’s going to do great things.”
Even though Pelini still hadn’t seen enough of Taylor at quarterback to know if he could play the position in college, he offered him his first scholarship.
“He’s a can’t-miss prospect because if he doesn’t start for you at quarterback, he’s going to be on the field somewhere,” Pelini recalled thinking.
There already was a special connection between Casey Martinez and Nebraska’s nickname, Cornhuskers. A decade earlier, he had trademarked the name Corn Fed, an expression he had used as a headline for a story about a football recruit from Iowa in a national high school football magazine he once owned. In 2006 he started a clothing company bearing that name.
The blue-collar brand has licensing deals with schools such as Nebraska, Iowa and Iowa State and is sold in hundreds of retail stores across the country.
“With the family business and doing a lot of business in the Midwest already, I don’t think anybody could have offered anything after that point that could have intrigued us,” Casey Martinez says. “I don’t know that there was a better fit for him. I don’t think there was.”
After Pelini assured Taylor Martinez he would have a chance to prove he could play quarterback for Nebraska, Taylor accepted the offer.
By then, he had transferred to Centennial High School in Corona, Calif., so he could take his younger brothers to a nearby school when his stepmother was put on bed rest while pregnant with twins. That fall he led Centennial to an undefeated season and state Division I championship by passing for 2,994 yards and 28 touchdowns and rushing for 750 yards and 12 more scores.
During that season, at least half of the Pac-10 offered scholarships, but Taylor stuck with Nebraska. His conversations with Carl Pelini increasingly centered around him playing quarterback.
“Truthfully, I don’t think I ever once doubted that he would be a great quarterback,” Pelini says. “He just had it beyond his speed and throwing for all those yards.”
When Taylor arrived at Nebraska in July 2009, he was already behind fellow freshman Cody Green, who had participated in spring practice, in learning an offense that was then more of a traditional West Coast attack. So he redshirted last season and because of his speed played running back, wide receiver and quarterback for the scout team.
In preparation for Texas in the Big 12 championship game, Martinez worked at wide receiver to imitate the Longhorns’ Jordan Shipley. For Virginia Tech earlier in the season, he played quarterback to simulate the Hokies’ Tyrod Taylor.
“Wherever he was, he was difficult for us to handle,” Pelini says.
That was especially true at quarterback. When Martinez emulated Taylor, he reeled off several long runs for touchdowns against a dominant Nebraska defense that featured future first-round NFL draft pick Ndamukong Suh at tackle.
After the scores, Cornhuskers defenders would turn to Pelini and ask what they did wrong.
“Nothing,” Pelini told them. “The guy we’re facing this week, he’s not going to be that fast. Hey, you played that well. You’d make that play on Saturday. You really can’t play it much better than you did. You’ll be fine.”
But Taylor was frustrated watching other freshmen play. During the season, Nebraska’s coaches considered pulling him out of redshirt in a few games to run the Wildcat offense, but decided against it.
He never considering transferring, but missed his family and called home daily.
“It was a tough semester for him,” Casey Martinez says.
And as soon as last season ended, Taylor’s focus shifted to becoming the starter at quarterback.
“It’s lights out now,” Casey Martinez recalls telling his son.
Taylor ended up beating out last season’s starter, Zac Lee, and Green to become the starting quarterback. He and his father still talk at least once a day, often more. After games, Taylor immediately calls.
They discuss whether throws he made were to his primary or secondary receiver. Casey then tells his son he’s proud of him and encourages him to be tougher next week.
“He’s my best friend,” Casey Martinez says.
Taylor, he says, is an even better better son than football player.
“I owe the complete turnaround to our life to the maturity of him, his kind works and his focus on keeping the family together,” Casey says. “What he did is just unbelievable. I can’t even explain it. If he wasn’t there, I don’t know if I could have done it alone.”