When Doug Martin played tag as a child, his siblings and cousins could never catch him.
The stocky youngster was fast, but he also jumped off jungle gyms, did spin moves and rolled on the ground to keep from being caught. He even ran through a glass door once while trying to avoid being tagged.
“I was a fan of Jackie Chan, so I was doing all kinds of stuff,” Martin says. “I was crafty.”
One game Martin didn’t play as a child was football. But that changed eight years ago when he arrived at St. Mary’s High School in Stockton, Calif.
The summer before Martin’s freshman year, the school’s athletic director saw him run during a basketball camp and recommended he try out for the football team. When Martin did, he thought it was only logical he play running back because of his elusiveness playing tag.
But when Martin showed up for his first practice, he wore lineman’s cleats and didn’t have his pads on correctly. Martin’s teammates laughed at him.
Just as Boise State coach Chris Petersen did three years later when Martin arrogantly explained he hadn’t accepted a scholarship offer from the Broncos because he was still waiting to hear from then-Pac-10 schools.
Now no one’s laughing at Martin, who is instrumental for No. 4 Boise State in its chase this season, perhaps more than ever before, for the BCS championship.
The 5-foot-9, 208-pound redshirt senior tailback has rushed for 747 yards and nine touchdowns on 142 carries for the Broncos (7-0, 2-0 Mountain West).
And while quarterback Kellen Moore is Boise State’s most recognizable player nationally, Martin has quietly become one of college football’s most underrated players. Nicknamed “The Muscle Hamster” because of his freakish strength and chubby cheeks, he is just 121 yards short of 3,000 yards rushing for his career.
“Doug Martin is the Kellen Moore equivalent at running back in terms of being an awesome player,” Petersen says. “I don’t know if there’s a harder-working guy on our team in terms of the weight room and how he practices. He’s so tough and so physical.”
Such praise by a coach about toughness is often cliche, but others feel the same way about Martin.
Georgia coach Mark Richt hasn’t forgotten watching Martin break tackles against his team’s defenders and push them to the turf with vicious stiff arms during a season-opening loss to Boise State.
“Doug Martin is one tough football player,” Richt says.
But there was once a time when football’s physical nature kept Martin from playing the sport. He started playing basketball at age 3, but his mother, Leslie Baranco Martin, wouldn’t let him participate in youth football because she feared he would get injured.
Plus, Martin grew up collecting Pokémon cards — “I was a little nerd back in the day,” he admits — and idolizing Michael Jordan, so he listened to his mother.
When Martin finally was in the proper shoes and had his pads on correctly during his freshman season at St. Mary’s, he played football like tag. The inexperienced tailback ran straight up and carried the ball improperly.
“I was a mess,” Martin says. “It was horrible.”
Martin’s teammates quickly caught on to his football naivety. They teased him about not knowing the names of any NFL teams.
“Where are the Dolphins?” Martin recalls his teammates asking him.
“Uh . . . Chicago,” Martin answered, prompting roars of laughter.
“It was that bad,” he says.
Martin’s first game in his freshman season at St. Mary’s was even worse. On the game’s first play, he took the kickoff near the goal line and started running as fast as he could.
At the 15-yard line, a defender stripped the ball out of Martin’s hands and knocked him down. Dazed by what happened, Martin lay on the field as “Touchdown!” boomed over the stadium’s loudspeakers.
“It was embarrassing,” Martin says.
But it also inspired him to watch video of Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and other legendary running backs to see how they ran. The more Martin watched and learned, the better he performed on the field.
By Martin’s sophomore season, he was asked to play for St. Mary’s varsity, but he declined because the head coach’s son was the starting tailback at the time. Instead, Martin played junior varsity, where he started to blossom.
Martin’s first big run of his career came that season on a play called “27 Stretch.” He took a handoff and ran right before reversing his field and streaking 60 yards for a touchdown.
As Martin stood in the end zone after the play, he was amazed by what he had just done.
“OK, I think I can handle this,” Martin recalls thinking.
When Martin finally became St. Mary’s starting varsity tailback as a junior, he rushed for 1,950 yards and 18 touchdowns. But even with his breakout season, Martin didn’t have a single scholarship offer entering his senior season.
Boise State, though, knew all about Martin because of Petersen’s friendship with Martin’s coach, Tony Franks. Petersen and Franks shared an office when they were assistants at UC-Davis.
When Petersen first watched video of Martin, he saw an athletic, strong running back who made play after play, despite being a little short.
“Tony, am I missing this?” Petersen recalls asking Franks. “Is this guy as good as I think he is?”
Franks’ answer told Petersen everything he needed to know: “Doug is a freak.”
But Petersen still wanted one of his assistants to see Martin play in person before offering him a scholarship. When Boise State assistant Jeff Choate attended one of Martin’s games his senior season, he couldn’t believe what he saw.
Martin was a one-man team. While blocking on one play, he knocked down a blitzing linebacker before the St. Mary’s quarterback threw an interception in the flat. Martin then ran 65 yards and tackled the defender before he could score.
On the next play, Martin forced a fumble, which his team recovered, and three plays later, he reeled off a 65-yard touchdown run.
“Are you kidding me?” Choate recalls thinking. “Let’s keep this one quiet.”
Boise State was the first school to offer Martin a scholarship. But he didn’t know anything about the Broncos.
“Who is Boise State?” Martin recalls asking a friend.
Martin was supposed to take an official visit to Boise State in October of his senior season, but his mother wouldn’t let him skip etiquette classes in which he was learning to waltz and salsa.
“That tells you how much I knew about everything,” Leslie Baranco Martin says.
When Petersen and Choate visited Martin at St. Mary’s after a senior season in which he rushed for 1,234 yards and 14 touchdowns, the only other school to have offered him a scholarship was Football Championship Subdivision power Cal Poly.
“We were all about Doug Martin,” Choate says. “Doug Martin wasn’t quite as excited about us.”
During the meeting with Petersen and Choate, Martin told them he was awaiting a scholarship offer from Washington, where he had attended a summer camp, and was interested in Southern California and California. Petersen and Choate laughed because, with signing day just a couple of months away, none of those schools had visited Martin.
“They must have been thinking, ‘Who does this guy think he is?’ ” Martin says.
Petersen and Choate later told Franks about being snubbed by Martin.
“These people are clueless on recruiting,” Choate recalls being told by Franks. “They’re great people. You’ve got a shot. Just hang in there with him.”
Two weeks later, in mid-December 2006, Martin committed to Boise State without even taking an official visit.
“The thing is, I think he was under-recruited,” Petersen says with a grin.
When Martin finally visited Boise State in early January 2007, Petersen didn’t think highly of his tailback commitment’s physique.
“Gosh, he’s got those chubby cheeks,” Choate recalls Petersen saying.
But when Boise State had its recruits weigh in, Martin took off his shirt to reveal a chiseled physique that shocked even Petersen.
“Wow,” Choate recalls Petersen telling him.
“He’s truly that kind of physical freak,” Choate says of Martin.
Just before Martin signed with Boise State in February 2007, he got a call from one of those then-Pac-10 schools he was interested in. California wanted him to walk on as a defensive back.
Martin’s mother had always expected him to attend Cal because many of his family members had graduated from the academically prestigious university. But Martin was adamant about going to Boise State.
“He had made his decision,” Leslie Baranco Martin says. “I never had the feeling that there was any ability to sway him.”
When Boise State was recruiting Martin, it had star running back Ian Johnson but not much depth at the position because of attrition. Petersen says his staff overreacted and recruited a lot of running backs.
Besides Martin, Boise State signed running back D.J. Harper in its 2007 class, and by the time both stepped on campus, running back Jeremy Avery had started to emerge.
During the recruiting process, Petersen had promised Martin and his parents he would redshirt his freshman season. Petersen stuck to that plan for the first six games of the 2007 season — until Johnson started to struggle with injuries.
With the Broncos coming off a wild 69-67 victory against Nevada in four overtimes in their sixth game, Petersen called Martin’s parents.
“There’s a chance we might play him,” Petersen told them.
It was painful for Petersen to backtrack on his word, but he needed Martin to be ready for the Broncos’ game at Louisiana Tech, just in case. Ultimately, Johnson played and Martin’s redshirt season was kept intact.
The next season, Martin got only a few carries because of the logjam at running back, but he ended up being Boise State’s special-teams player of the year.
With Martin not getting much playing time at running back, Boise State’s defensive coaches clamored for him to move to nickel back.
“We’ll take him right now,” Petersen recalls being told. “He’ll start for us.”
Martin’s heart was set on being a tailback, but he agreed to move to defense.
“I just want to play,” Petersen recalls Martin telling him. “If you guys think that’s the best, then that’s what I’ll do.”
Petersen appreciated Martin’s willingness to sacrifice and told him it would take a year to get used to his new position.
“I didn’t really want to do it, but I did it for the team,” Martin says. “Deep down, though, I still wanted to be a running back. I thought it was never going to come.”
After working as a nickel back in spring practice, Martin was still playing defense as the 2009 season approached. But at the end of preseason camp, Petersen had Martin take some carries in case he was ever needed at running back.
Less than a month later, in the third game of the season, Harper tore the anterior cruciate ligament in a knee, and Martin was needed. In his first game back at running back, Martin rushed for 116 yards and a touchdown in a victory against Bowling Green.
“It was awesome,” Martin says. “It finally happened.”
That season, Martin ended up rushing for 765 yards and 15 touchdowns, the last of which won the Fiesta Bowl to cap Boise State’s undefeated 2009 season.
“It’s a great story,” Choate says. “He had patience and believed in the system. Now, he’s getting his.”
Despite having rushed for 1,260 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, Martin still receives little attention nationally. Sometimes, he’s not even mentioned as one of Boise State’s best players.
But Moore believes Martin is the key to Broncos’ offense, especially because of his ability to avoid negative yardage carries.
“He’s huge for our offense,” Moore says. “We kind of get that label as that fancy, tricky, throw-the-ball-around team, but our No. 1 thing is running the football.”
Not that the always-smiling, humble Martin is bothered by his lack of national star power.
“I look at it as laying in the weeds,” he says. “I’m pretty sure opposing defensive coordinators know about me. I just look at it like a chip on my shoulder.”
Plus, Martin has gotten plenty of fame locally. A fan of Martin’s wears a hamster costume with his No. 22 jersey to Boise State games.
Martin is a self-described “tech freak” who rides an electric skateboard but is also known for his dance moves. He performs everything from Michael Jackson to Soulja Boy and won a team dance-off last season.
“Don’t mess with Doug with on the dance floor,” Choate says. “He’ll freak on you.”
After Boise State’s last preseason practice every year, each senior gets to talk to the team. When Martin’s time came to speak in August, he recalled his arrogance when he first talked with Petersen and Choate.
“I was naive,” Martin told his teammates. “I’ve learned a lot here, and it has humbled me.”
Whenever Martin, his siblings and cousins get together in Los Angeles or the Bay Area, they still play tag just like they did when they were children. And they all chase Martin.
“It’s like he’s on the football field,” says his mother, Leslie Baranco Martin.
Martin’s siblings and cousins still can’t catch him. But at least now they know they aren’t the only ones.