STILLWATER — Tosha Martin knows if she wears an Oklahoma State hoodie or shirt around her East Texas town of Texarkana, she’d better have time to stop and chat with folks.
“Oh, that’s Nick’s mom!” she will inevitably hear.
And the thing is, people don’t just want to talk about Cowboy linebacker Nickolas Martin. They also want to talk about Cowboy linebacker Xavier Benson.
The first is her son.
The second might as well be.
“Zay was a little boy spending the night, almost living at our house,” Tosha Martin said of Benson. “So they’ve always been friends.
“Zay is like a member of the family.”
The Martins and Bensons have become like family, too.
“We’re real close knit,” Benson’s mom, Jackie, said. “We just hung out as much as we could while living there in Texarkana, and we still keep in contact now, even though we’re no longer there.”
When OSU faces Texas with a Big 12 championship on the line, the Longhorns are bound to put pressure on the Cowboy defense. They have the talent to frustrate and fracture a defense, but the Cowboys have something of a secret weapon: brotherhood. Benson and Martin, linebackers anchoring the defense, have been friends more than half of their lives.
“It’s really cool to have guys that tight,” said Collin Oliver, the Cowboys’ third linebacker. “I’m considered an outsider now.”
Oliver was kidding about being an outsider, but he’s definitely been a beneficiary of Martin and Benson. Their stellar play this season has allowed Oliver to roam. He can line up behind the line of scrimmage, a more traditional spot for a linebacker, or he can move up into more of a rush-end hybrid. Offenses never quite know where the former Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year is going to be coming from.
Oliver wouldn’t have been able to move around as much had Martin and Benson not been so solid.
“Their stability has allowed flexibility for him,” Cowboy coach Mike Gundy said. “We don’t have as much flexibility with him if those guys haven’t been as reliable.
“Nick and Xavier both have had unbelievable years for us.”
Longhorn coach Steve Sarkisian, whose team faced Alabama and OU earlier this season, called the Cowboy linebacker corps “probably the best one we faced all year.”
“They’ve got three very, very good linebackers that impact the game. They rush the quarterback extremely well. They tackle really well. They force turnovers really well. They fly around the field. Those three guys, Oliver, Benson, Martin, they’re big-time players.”
And the fact that two of them have known each other since childhood, well, even people who know them well say the journey to this point has been a wee bit crazy.
‘That’s my little brother’
Xavier Benson became a regular around the Martin house when he was starting middle school. His family had just moved to Texarkana — his dad, Byron, grew up there — and Benson found friends on the football team.
His best bud was Chauncey Martin.
The second of the three Martin brothers was always inviting Benson to his house. All three of the brothers did that with their friends, so there was always something going on at the Martin house.
“Xavier would a lot of times go over there and hang out at their house and eat up everything,” Benson’s mom, Jackie, said, “and then come over to our house and eat up everything. It’s been going ever since.”
Because the Martin brothers were all within a few years of each other, it wasn’t long before they and their buddies started becoming friends with each other. That’s how it was with Benson and Nickolas Martin.
From left, Xavier Benson, Nickolas Martin and Chauncey Martin. (Contributed)
Didn’t matter that Xavier was three years older.
“He kind of grew up with me,” Benson said. “That’s my little brother.”
But as close as Xavier and Nickolas became, they didn’t play much football together back in Texarkana. Not in middle school. Not in high school, even though they were at Pleasant Grove High School for a year together when Benson was a senior and Martin was a freshman.
“Nick was a late bloomer,” Pleasant Grove football coach Josh Gibson said, adding that Martin played on the freshman team.
And you had to be pretty darn good to play on the Pleasant Grove varsity when Benson and Chauncey Martin were seniors. That team actually went undefeated and won Pleasant Grove’s first state football championship in 2017.
Benson approached Gibson the night before the state finals.
“If we need to get a big play in the game,” Gibson remembers Benson telling him, “I want you to call on me and I will make the play.”
Facing West Orange-Stark and its 40-game winning streak the next day, Pleasant Grove threw the ball to Benson on three huge third-down plays.
“And he made huge plays to help us convert these third downs,” Gibson said. “The final drive of the game, we needed a stop on defense, and Xavier intercepted a pass and took it back for a touchdown to seal the game.”
Two years later, Nickolas Martin followed the example set by Benson and led Pleasant Grove to another state title.
Gibson calls Martin the most physical player he’s ever coached.
“In one of our games, he ran over three kids while carrying the ball and broke four tackles,” the coach said. “Seven defenders had a chance to tackle him, and he just ran through them and looked like he was hurting people as they bounced off him.”
In another game, the officials actually called Martin to the sideline after a legal but ferocious hit and warned him “that he was going to kill someone if he kept hitting like that,” Gibson remembers.
“He wasn’t trying to be a bully either,” Gibson said. “He was just more physical than others on the field.”
Even though Martin and Benson became two of the most decorated players in Pleasant Grove history and two of the more ballyhooed recruits coming out of Texarkana, their paths didn’t automatically lead to OSU. Benson spent three years at Texas Tech, opting out of the 2020 COVID season, then left Lubbock and returned to East Texas to play a year at Tyler Junior College. After a big season, he started making recruiting visits to Power Five programs.
OSU was among them.
His host on his visit: Nickolas Martin.
Tosha Martin could hardly believe it when Nick, who had just finished his redshirt year, called and told her that he was hosting Xavier. And when Benson decided to join Martin in Stillwater, Tosha was elated.
OSU linebacker Xavier Benson (far right) has become like family to fellow linebacker Nickolas Martin (third from left). They became friends in Texarkana, Texas, and have been friends for more than half their lives. (Contributed)
“You want to make sure he’s around somebody he knows, that he’s comfortable and got support and friendships and all of that,” Tosha said, adding that Nick had already made friends and gotten comfortable. “But it still did my heart good to have someone there that he knows on a personal level. It’s just comforting.”
Jackie Benson felt the same way.
“Nick was there and everything, which gave Xavier that extra security he needed,” she said. “It became a comfort zone for him.”
Despite all that, the fact the Texarkana tandem is having this much impact on the Cowboys this season caught lots of people by surprise.
‘It goes way deep’
Benson was expected to be one of OSU’s starters at linebacker heading into this season; he started a year ago, and with starter Mason Cobb transferring, the Cowboys needed as much experience as possible with Oliver.
Martin seemed in line to get a shot at the third linebacker spot, but when the Cowboys brought in transfer Justin Wright, an experienced linebacker from Tulsa, it looked like Martin would have to wait at least another year.
Then Wright got injured before the opener.
Martin started that game — and every game since.
“He was just a guy,” Gundy said of Martin, “and then, he’s thrust into that role and just took off. We felt like he was gonna be that kind of player. I didn’t think he could do it this year. I didn’t think he was ready.
“But obviously, he was.”
Martin has 120 tackles, including 16 tackles for loss and six sacks, as well as one interception, nine quarterback hurries and one forced fumble.
“It’s crazy,” Gundy said of Martin’s tackle total. “We talked about Malcolm Rodriguez (who had 123 tackles in 2021) and nobody being able to do anything like that again. And he’s got Malcolm Rodriguez numbers.”
Benson doesn’t have as many eye-popping numbers, but his 56 tackles rank fifth on the team and his six quarterback hurries rank third, behind only Martin and Oliver. Benson’s two fumble recoveries are tied for the team lead.
His superpower, though, is his consistency. Since the Kansas State game, Pro Football Focus has graded Benson at 66 or better in six of eight games. (A grade of 80 is considered like an A+.) Neither Oliver nor Martin have had that many games during that stretch with grades at 66 or above.
Safe to say, the Cowboys wouldn’t be where they are without Benson and Martin, and they are a source of great pride back in Texarkana.
“Everyone in East Texas knows about these guys,” Gibson, the Pleasant Grove coach, said.
“They’ve made our hometown extremely proud.”
The same can be said of their families — and their extended families. The Bensons and the Martins feel the success twice as much. It’s not just one Cowboy linebacker that they feel is family. It’s two.
“We rootin’ for both of them,” Jackie Benson said.
Tosha Martin said, “It goes way deep.”