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The Blueprint

Nick and Zack Martin detail football journey from high school to the pros

Tracy Luke

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Editor’s note: This story was written by Emma Kinghorn as part of her honors point project for Advanced Publications, Magazine production:

The University of Notre Dame has a history of producing talented football players, but one name has been synonymous with the program, and its successes, for the last seven years: Martin.

Nick and Zack Martin, brothers and graduates of Bishop Chatard High School out of Indianapolis IN, have been one of the few steady pieces of a program that has undergone transition, controversy, success and failure in the last seven seasons. Their time at Notre Dame has spanned the tenures of two coaches, seen six bowl games and a national championship appearance.

THE ELDER

Zack Martin, ND Class of 2013 (BCHS 2009), entered Notre Dame in 2009 under head coach Charlie Weis, only to redshirt, allowing him to return in the 2013 season as a grad student. Weis was not the only Midwest coach to notice Zack, who was then rated as the 22nd best offensive tackle in the nation and as a 4star recruit evaluated by Rivals.com. Zack also fielded offers from Indiana University, the University of Michigan, as well as several other colleges.

One offer stood out among the rest. The University of Kentucky (UK) is the alma mater of Martin’s parents, Keith and Pam, collegiate football player and athletic trainer, respectively. “Honestly, not to dog on Kentucky or anything,” said Zack, “but if they would’ve had a better program, I probably would’ve gone there.”

Family loyalty was hard to sway. Zack wasn’t set on Notre Dame until his second visit, when he was able to just hang out with people on campus. “They (the people) had the same goals; we wanted the same things,” he said. “It’s when I realized it was where I wanted to be.”

The Fighting Irish were coming from of a 7-6 season, capping it off with a win at the Hawaii Bowl. The second best FBS independent school had many older offensive line players (close to graduation), which meant more playing opportunities for Zack. “(The depth chart) was the icing on the cake,” he said.

It wasn’t just the football program, or the people, that left an impression on Zack. “You can’t get any better than that education wise,” he said. Notre Dame is tied for 18th in US News college rankings and boasts the Mendoza College of Business, ranked 29th in the country by Bloomberg, where Zack would later graduate with a management entrepreneurship degree. “Everything just kind of made sense,” said Zack.

THE YOUNGER

Nick Martin, ND Class of 2015 (BCHS Class of 2011), was a high school football star in his own right. Fresh off a state championship, Martin was named to Associated Press’ first team All-State, and ranked as a 3- star recruit by Rivals.com.

He originally committed to the family school, University of Kentucky. “I grew up going to the Kentucky games,” he said. Notre Dame was late to the recruiting game for Nick, not even offering him until after he committed to UK.

That offer changed his life. “That’s when I had to rethink things a little bit,” said Nick. The deciding factor wasn’t the education, or the prestigious program, but his family ties and the opportunity to play with his brother again. Zack played a crucial role in the recruiting process and said, “I kind of told him. . .you can’t really beat what you will get here.”

“I don’t think he would’ve switched if I hadn’t gone there (Notre Dame),” said Zack, “Which makes it even cooler I think.”

Nick agreed. “Honestly, wherever he (Zack) was playing, if I had the option to go there, I would’ve ended up wherever he was,” he said. Would he have decommitted from Kentucky if Zack hadn’t been attending Notre Dame? “Probably not,” he answered.

When it came time to tell his family, there was nothing but support. “In the end, I had to make the right decision,” said Nick, “but my parents are awesome; they never pressured me.”

With his commitment to the Irish, Nick joined coach Brian Kelly’s second recruiting class, and he, too, would redshirt his freshman year.

Nick never regretted that decision and reflected on his first experiences as a member of the Fighting Irish. “There’s this thing called ‘The Walk,’ (the team walks through campus to the stadium before pre-game). There are people everywhere screaming,” remembered Nick. “You start getting close and you hear the (Irish pep band), then you walk onto the field and it’s game over.”

There’s more than running onto the field however, ”The first time you hit the (Play Like A Champion Today) sign – I mean you see it in the movies. . .but there’s nothing really like it,” said Nick, “When you’re running out, with all those people screaming, you feel like they’re screaming at you.”

“No matter what’s going on, in football, in life, you get lost in that moment,” he said, “There’s nothing like it. There’s really not.”

THE PERFECT SEASON

From rags to riches, from unranked to the BCS National Championship Game, the 2012 Notre Dame football season isn’t one that the school, or its players, will forget. “It was a special season,” said Zack Martin. “Everything just kind of aligned the right way that regular season.”

The first eight wins behind them, the Irish didn’t need their luck until facing No. 4 ranked Pittsburgh at home. Entering the fourth th quarter down 20-6, it looked like Notre Dame’s perfect season was not to be. However, after three overtimes and a quarterback sneak, the luck of the Irish kicked in and they won 29-26. “When we won the Pitt game, I was kind of like, alright, it’s meant to be,” said Nick Martin.

The 2012 season brought more than just No. 1 rankings; it marked the first time that Nick and Zack would take the field together on the offensive line. Despite this, Nick wasn’t filled with nerves. “I looked to my left and saw Zack and Chris Watt (ND Class of 2013); they had started together three or or four years, and I knew I was going to be fine,” he said.

A picture perfect regular season ended with a win over rival the University of Southern California, sending the Irish to the BCS National Championship game vs. No. 2 Alabama. “There was a lot going on. We had media day and things like that,” said Nick Martin, “but we had this phrase ‘Ignore the Noise’.”

The game wasn’t the icing on the perfect cake that Irish fans hoped it would be, “We got handled; there’s no way around that,” said Nick Martin. “It’s okay; you can say it.” Notre Dame lost to Alabama 42-14.

“We kind of got that itch after the game,” said Nick, “You have to step your game up.”

MARTIN MARATHON

Two sons, seven seasons and four consecutive senior days, the Martin family has seen all Notre Dame has to offer. Walking twice with each son in their fourth and fifth years, Mr. and Mrs. Martin have almost become a senior day staple. “This has been seven years now, never missing a game. I think this is going to be hard on them (my parents) this year,” said Zack Martin.

Zack reflected on his first senior day game, against Wake Forest during the perfect season. “I don’t think it was (as emotional),” he said, “Because I didn’t know, but I knew there was a chance I’d be coming back (for a fifth year of eligibility).”

“I was in the air. I had no idea (if I’d be returning),” Zack said, “I didn’t know until probably a week before I announced.” He announced that he would be returning a week before the National Championship in January.

When time to make the decision came, Zack made the decision based on his future with his little brother. “That was the main reason,” he said, “I wanted to come back and play with Nick and have another year with him.”

“But, also, I wasn’t ready (to leave Notre Dame and enter the NFL),” Zack added.

With one more Senior Day ahead, Zack returned to Notre Dame in the fall of 2013 as a graduate student and took advantage of his fifth year of NCAA eligibility. “I think the 2013 season was more special because I knew for a fact it would be my last one,” he said.

It was an infamous South Bend winter day, -3.9 degrees, low visibility and snowing when Zack Martin ran into the Notre Dame Stadium for his last game. The weather only added to Zack’s experiences, “It was a typical South Bend game, so it was cool to have that as my last one,” he said.

It wasn’t just the weather that made the day special, “I got lucky. . .I had a group of guys I lived with all four years and only one of them left for the NFL early, and that was Tyler (Eifert),” said Zack.

“It was all of our (Dan Fox, Chris Watt and Tommy Rees) last games, so it was special to go through that with them,” he added.

Only the very next season, Nick Martin was faced with the same choice, but his was much easier. “Even my mom knew, right when we got there she was like, ‘Oh well, we’ll be back here next year’,” Nick said.

“I knew I wanted to come back(for the extra year). it was a pretty easy decision,” he said, “I love Notre Dame, I love being there, I love the people, I love the game.”

Nick added, “I wasn’t in a big rush. The next chapter of my life wasn’t going anywhere.”

This knowledge didn’t take away from the emotion of the day, however, “(It was) a little bit emotional, because other people that were walking (for Senior Day) were leaving,” he said.

Prior to his final Senior Day walk, Nick predicted, “There will be a lot of emotions flying that day.”
“And I expect to win the game,” he added.

When Nick and his parents walked onto the field prior to the Wake Forest Senior game, it marked the end of seven years in the Notre Dame program. “I think it’s going to be weird for my parents,” said Nick, “It’s not easy. You get used to going to games and having someone there.”

“It was a good little run for us,” Zack said, “This will be our sixth year with Kelly, we’ve always had a guy in the offensive line room.”

“In a way it will be (my parent’s Senior Day) I think,” Nick agreed.

Nick Martin as captain of the Notre Dame football team.

AYE, AYE CAPTAIN(S)

In 2013 Zack Martin made history as the 19th player in Notre Dame history to be voted as a two time captain. His second year brought changes, “In 2012 we had a lot of guys where this was their last year, so I kind of took a backseat. I was an example guy, I didn’t have to say as much,” said Zack.

Things changed for Zack in his second captain season, “the last year i was the oldest guy, so I was more of in the spotlight as that captain that people go to, he explained.

Zack hopes that he’ll have 20/20 hindsight about these experiences, but for now he sees himself as just a part of the team. “Everyone, every captain at Notre Dame that I’ve talked to, said you don’t realize how special it was until after the fact,” said Zack, “I really don’t think about it all that much except that it was great to be a leader of the team.” He added, “Maybe one day ill remember it like that.”

When interviewed, the captain announcements for the 2015 season had yet to be made, but Zack hoped this would be yet another experience he could share with his brother. “I was a two year captain, hopefully Nick will be a two year captain too,” he said, “but for the last four years, really, we’ve been the older guys that people can look up too.”

Nick did just that. Announced as the 20th player to be named two-time captain, Nick and Zack added a new record of their own: the second set of brothers to be named two-time captains. He credited this success to years of shadowing his brother, “Watching Zack was an unbelievable role model, player,” said Nick, “You’d have to be dumb to not try to learn from him.”

For Nick, his second season brought no changes to his team attitude, “I try to be the same guy everyday, when I walk into the locker room, whether it’s a bad day great day, I try to be the same person everyday so that people know they can count on me,” he said.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Before becoming Division 1 powerhouses, Zack and Nick started their careers Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis, IN. Head football coach of the Chatard Trojans, Mr. Vince Lorenzano, said their character was formed long before they arrived at the high school.

“They came from a great family, Keith, Pam, Josh (their older brother),” he said, “It was no secret to us that they were coming here and they would be great players.”

“All I did was try to carry on what their parents started,” Lorenzano added.

Nick remembered Chatard football, and Mr. Lorenzano, for teaching him valuable skills, “When you have a head coach who cares about his players like that, everything he says just immediately validates it,” he said, “It makes you realize who you’re playing for, why you’re playing, it’s really special. It just sticks with you.”

Lorenzano remembers their strong work ethic,

“They were hardworkers from the time they got here to the time they left,” he said, “They never asked for anything they just did what they were asked to do.”

“1 trait that they (Zack and Nick) shared was they finished everything they did, every block, every tackle, they never ever stopped,” said Lorenzano.

Nick said this habit was something he learned here at BCHS, “The biggest thing was finishing, for the people that do it, it’s very noticeable,” he said, “They (Chatard coaches) taught me to play through the echo of the whistle.”

“There’s no doubt about it, it contributed to my success,” Nick added.

TO THE DRAFT AND BEYOND

After years of hard work, Zack Martin was drafted as the No. 16 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft by the Dallas Cowboys. He chose to forgo attending the draft party in New York City to instead be surrounded by friends and family by hosting his own draft party in Indianapolis. “When I started adding those people up, who I wanted to spend that moment with you can’t bring them all to New York, I can’t do what I’d want to do in New York,” said Zack, “it was actually a really easy decision.”

As the pick grew closer, nerves added up, “Really you have no idea, until the moment (it happens),” said Zack.

“When it got close me and my parents went upstairs, my agent was up there,” Zack explained, “You want to spend those moments with the people that help you get there.”

The magic moment came, “Mr. Jones (Jerry, owner of the Dallas Cowboys) called and was on the phone with me, then when they put the pick on TV we could hear everyone downstairs screaming so it was really cool,” remembered Zack.

“(Picking up the phone) was awesome, Dallas is really similar to Notre Dame; high profile, a lot of respect, and because Chatard’s the same way so it’s really all I’ve known,” said Zack, “I don’t think I could’ve gone to a better spot.”

Still following in his brother’s footsteps, Nick was drafted as the 50th overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft by the Houston Texans. Prior to the draft, when interviewed, Nick said, ”I really don’t think about that stuff (where he’ll be drafted), I like to take it one day at a time and to be in the moment.”

“This is my goal, this has been my dream,” said Nick Martin.

all photos by Emma Kinghorn