STILLWATER — Mike Gundy recalled going to east Texas for a recruiting visit, back in the days when head coaches could get out to schools in the spring.
He was in Texarkana at 6 in the morning, standing at the base of a large hill. At the top of the hill, coaches had placed a flag. At the bottom of the hill, players paired up preparing to race to the top of the hill and return the flag. Those were the extent of the rules.
“That guy can tackle you and they can fight and crawl and fight and there’s no rules,” Gundy said. “It’s just different there.”
Texarkana is a tough, hard-working city. Pleasant Grove High School football coach Josh Gibson said there are two factories in the area, contributing to the blue-collar feel. Northeast Texas area is a place OSU has gotten players from before, think Brandon Pettigrew, Xavier Benson, and most recently, Nick Martin.
Martin’s 17 tackles last Friday in Oklahoma State’s 29-21 win over Kansas State were the most for a Cowboy since Jordan Sterns’ 19 in 2016. By all accounts, Martin is a kind-hearted momma’s boy, the baby of his family, who plays football with a violence that stands out, even in Texarkana. And after sitting behind future NFL linebackers Malcolm Rodriguez and Devin Harper his redshirt year and a season-ending injury to Justin Wright this season, Martin is getting his chance to play.
Well, Martin will tell you he didn’t grow up in east Texas. On an episode of The Pokes Pod, Martin said he grew up in “Beast Texas.”
“East Texas, known as Beast Texas,” Martin said. “There’s beasts out there. The sport, football, is a real violent sport and everybody out there loves it. It’s instilled in you at a young age. There’s a lot of D1 talent out there, a lot of gamers from that area, a bunch of dogs out there.”
But it took a while for Martin to adopt the moniker he now takes pride in.
There was a day when Martin was scared of donning pads and hitting someone, his mom, Tosha said. Martin is the youngest of four brothers, all separated by about four years. That meant he got acclimated to scrapping, whether he liked it or not.
“They teased him at any given chance, just made him the butt of the joke and they were tough on him,” Tosha said. “It was a whole lot of horseplay, wrasslin’ and dominating each other. It was that, but it was out of love. It wasn’t anything harmful or something that I had to be concerned about. They were just boys literally just being boys.”
Whenever mom’s back was turned, someone was picking on the little brother. But Martin never ran inside crying. He was tough. And he made sure to get his shots in, too.
“Brothers are going to be brothers,” Martin said. “We’re going to fight, but I’m really thankful for them because I wouldn’t be here without them, the toughness and grit and love for the game.”
Martin was a late-bloomer physically, and his fear of contact dissipated as he played junior league football and learned he could outrun everyone. He showcased athletic ability in karate and baseball, but he gave it up when it came time to devote himself to football, the sport he had once feared.
‘Nick will kill you’
When Martin started high school, he was known as “Chanucey’s little brother.”
“He was not going to be OK with that,” Tosha said. “So it was fun to see how he handled all of that.”
Martin distinguished himself first from his older brother, and then from every other football player Gibson has coached. Gibson took over as head coach at Pleasant Grove in 2014, and turned a team with four wins in three previous years into a statewide power. The Hawks have been to three state championships and won two.
After beginning his high school career as a running back, Martin pondered switching to linebacker. He said he made the change after he realized playing on defense would allow him to do more hitting.
Pleasant Grove regularly churns out college players, and Power-Five talent is common. Xavier Benson, linebacker at OSU, Landon Johnson, captain defensive end at Arkansas and Marcus Burris, defensive end at Indiana, played with Martin.
“(Martin) isn’t one of the (toughest),” Gibson said. “He is the toughest player I’ve ever coached.”
Gibson said Martin is built like a piece of steel. At the top level of high school football in Texas, he said, everyone is strong, but Martin’s body is elite.
Two separate times, one of Martin’s blows on the football field has left opponents struggling to get up. One time, an ambulance was called.
With flashes of what he saw in games, Gibson was cognizant of protecting his own players’ bodies in practice. He said he couldn’t let Martin practice at even 85% effort.
“And not because he’s a jerk, it’s just that when he uncoils and hits you, he’s going to hurt you,” Gibson said. “And we had three SEC players, Big 12 players on our team at the same time, it was two defensive linemen and him. And I was like, man, they’ll all hurt you, but Nick will kill you.”
Martin’s toughness goes beyond the sound of the thuds he creates.
In 2020, Martin’s senior year, the team’s top two running backs got hurt toward the end of the season. In a playoff game, Martin played both ways, running back and linebacker, taking just two plays off the entire first half.
“He’s making every tackle and then he’s just running over guys keeping us in the game and he comes over to the sideline at one point and his pads are just going up and down, I mean, it looks like his heart’s gonna explode,” Gibson said.
It was no wonder, Gibson said, that coaches from Cal came to Texarkana interested in offering him as a running back. Their pitch? Martin could be their next Marshawn Lynch.
The man behind the thud
Last Friday was pretty great for Gibson. Pleasant Grove beat Gilmer, a Texas high school powerhouse, 63-28. But that wasn’t the only thing Eric Mateos, Baylor’s offensive line coach, texted Gibson about.
“He’s like, ‘Congrats, you guys hammered them and Nick Martin had a game tonight,’” Gibson said. “And that’s a coach from another school in the Big 12 hitting me up who saw that.”
Martin’s gaudy statline attracted attention across the league, but those closer to the Cowboys know how important he has been to Bryan Nardo’s new 3-3-5 defense. Martin leads OSU with 45 tackles, has three sacks and intercepted K-State quarterback Will Howard to clinch a win.
Before Nardo, OSU’s first-year defensive coordinator, moved his family to Stillwater this summer, he killed time late at night in the film room, where he often encountered Martin.
“There were nights that Nick Martin was up there at 9:30 and I was up here hanging out because I had no place else to go,” Nardo said. “Nick Martin was still here wanting to learn. Nick Martin was wanting to come in in the summer on his own, wanting to ask questions, so what you’re seeing now is a byproduct of all the stuff that he’s done to earn the right to be this successful.”
You see, there is a cerebral, softer side to the violent player people see on Saturdays.
At Pleasant Grove, Martin enjoyed showing up to the birthday parties of assistant coach Justin Gibson’s little daughters. Martin plays the violin, he raps. Tosha even described Martin as humble, mild-mannered and meek, meaning controlled aggression.
“I want people to know that he is literally the exact opposite of the beast that you see on that field,” Tosha said.