By RICKY LINDSAY, Sports Editor
From the first time he laid eyes on him, Justin Cessante knew Mike Martin was going to be special one day.
After completing his collegiate career at Grand Valley State University, Cessante returned to Detroit Catholic Central, the site of his football career’s start. Another career was about to take off.
One day in 2004, the newly minted Catholic Central junior varsity football coach was with a friend when they spotted Martin walking down a hall. Amazed by his size, Cessante’s friend asked which college Martin played for.
“He’s a freshman,” Cessante replied.
From that moment, he knew Martin was destined for something special. Soon, others started realizing that same thing from the kid that would become a star at Michigan and join the ranks of the NFL.
In 2005, one year after Cessante’s hallway encounter with him, Martin made the Detroit Catholic Central varsity football team.
From then on, Martin flourished while donning Shamrock royal blue.
In three varsity seasons, he compiled 206 tackles, 14 sacks, and four fumble recoveries. Each year, Martin saw improvement on the gridiron and more importantly, attracted offers to play at the collegiate level. After a strong senior season — 96 tackles, six sacks, and 36 tackles for loss — Martin was named Michigan Gatorade High School Player of the Year.
Martin wasn’t just a dominant football player in high school. He won two consecutive wrestling state championships and was a two-time shot put state champion in track and field.
A Redford, Michigan native, Martin’s athletic journey would take him to HYPE Athletics, where a friendly face was waiting. Cessante, the Director of Community Relations of the athletic facility housed in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, worked with Martin and several other young, promising athletes since the program’s inception in 2001.
In its 13 years, HYPE has helped young athletes reach the next step of their lives.
For Martin, the next step was signing on a dotted line.
Throughout his life, Martin transcribed his name on many things, from homework to memorabilia. But just like every college football player’s journey, everything began on the first Wednesday in February.
On February 6, 2008, Martin signed his National Letter of Intent to play football at the University of Michigan.
Six years later, Martin returned to HYPE Athletics for its signing day banquet. A defensive tackle entering his third season with the Tennessee Titans, he was chosen as the evening’s keynote speaker along with fellow NFL player Will Gholston.
“Not too long ago, I graduated from Catholic Central in 2008,” Martin said. “When I sat down and put my name down on that dotted line for my National Letter of Intent, it meant a lot to me because I was always taught by my parents….Whenever I put my name on something, it meant a lot to me, whether it was on an essay, on some homework.
“When I signed on that dotted line to go to my school, it meant a lot to me, because I knew that i was giving all of myself to that school and they were going to get everything in return from me.”
Martin’s message to the many high school football players signing with various colleges was simple. He’d been in their shoes years before. He faced the challenges that lie ahead, all reasons Cessante said he couldn’t think of a better person to speak.
Though they may not realize it while lining the tables inside HYPE’s gymnasium, different paths await the prep stars. It would be up to them to decide those futures.
“There were 10 other guys that I signed Letters of Intent with; Guys that went to Central (Michigan). I went to Michigan. We had a punter (that went) to Ball State. Guys all across the board,” Martin said. “And those were the same exact guys that were putting in the extra work. Doing the things that weren’t necessary. Doing the things you weren’t told to do per se, but you knew that you had to put in the work because you wanted to. And it meant a lot to you deep down inside when you thought about it.
“And for me, it opened a lot of doors. It meant opportunity. There’s a lot more work to be put in. It only just begun.”
During his four year career at Michigan, Martin realized it was more than just football, a messaged he stressed to the prep stars and children in attendance. One day, their football careers will end. Athletic talents will age. But through the years, their education gained wouldn’t fade.
“It’s more than a game. You guys know that. It’s more than putting on the cleats. It’s more than putting on the jersey on the weekends and playing and having a good time,” Martin said. “That’s awesome, but it’s about the principles, the accountability, like Justin said. The blood sweat and tears. The glory, the disappointment, everything that goes into it. You have to grow when you play football. You have to adapt. And in life, you have to adapt.”
While Martin was giving his speech, Cessante scanned the crowd and prep stars seated amidst him. He enjoyed watching their faces, their reactions, while Martin was speaking.
“I think a lot of the kids don’t realize, I remember when I was 17, 18-years-old, you really don’t know what you have in the palm of your hands at the time,” Cessante said. “You take a lot of things for granted and you don’t realize how important the academic piece is going to be. I think it wakes their ears up.”
Growing up, Martin’s mother instilled attributes based around commitment.
It became evident once Martin joined boy scouts as a child. He advanced to a Cub Scout, but was ready to give it up.
“I was like, ‘Eh mom, I don’t want to do this anymore,'” Martin recalled. “She didn’t let me quit. She was like, ‘If you’re going to start this, you’re going to finish it.'”
Martin never wavered — he completed the program, becoming an Eagle Scout.
Once he reached high school, commitment shined again. It was Martin’s freshman year at Catholic Central. The school band was attending a trip to Hawaii, one that grabbed Martin’s attention. So he joined the band and began playing the saxophone.
It was an easy decision.
Martin started having second thoughts about his participation in the band during the trip. Once again, his mother made him stay the course.
“She made me stick with it and I was still in the band all the way through senior year,” Martin said. “I wasn’t on the marching band because I was playing, but I was in jazz band and all that stuff. Stuff you wouldn’t think a guy like me, a sports guy, would be doing. I had to stick through it.”
Commitment helped him become a better man. It also helped him through hardships at Michigan.
When Martin committed to Michigan in the summer of 2007, the Wolverines were the No. 5 team in preseason polls. Expectations were never truly met in what would be legendary coach Lloyd Carr’s final season before retirement. The team finished 9-4 after a win over the Florida Gators in the Capital One Bowl.
During Martin’s freshman year, former West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez was beginning his tenure at the helm in Ann Arbor. Excitement, as well as a multitude of questions, surrounded the program.
But two years removed from a Rose Bowl appearance, the Wolverines hit rock bottom. Their 3-9 record sealed the program’s first losing season since 1967. The nine losses in a single season were the most in program history.
The Wolverines were embarrassed in routs at the hands of rivals Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State. But a loss to Toledo, the Wolverines’ first loss to a MAC opponent, marked the season’s low point.
Martin appeared in all 12 games that season, racking up 20 tackles and two sacks. But a bowl game didn’t await him at season’s end. For the first time in 33 years, the Wolverines’ season concluded with The Game.
Even with all the negatives surrounding the program, Martin remained commitment to his signature. Slowly, the Wolverines would improve. Rodriguez lasted three seasons in Ann Arbor, improving the team’s win total by two each season, before being fired.
Like Michigan, Martin’s skills improved each year. But it wasn’t until Brady Hoke was hired in 2011 when he began to reach his potential.
The Wolverines did, too. As a captain on the 2011 team, Martin totaled 64 tackles and 3.5 sacks to lead Michigan to the Sugar Bowl title.
Through all the turmoil and anguish, receiving a Sugar Bowl championship ring was a memorable finish to Martin’s career. But it also marked Michigan’s return. Michigan football appeared to be back.
“It was a direct testament to adversity. It was the perfect story of going through hell, going through the worst you can go through,” Martin said. “I experienced the worst season of Michigan football ever in football history. When I went to Michigan, up to that time, they had a 33 season streak of going to bowl games. My first year, we don’t go to one, we win three games. Anyone else could just lay down flat and say, ‘Why me’ and ‘Why does it have to be so bad?’
“The second year, we won a couple more. The third year we won a few more. In the fourth year, it came together and we won 11 games and I got a ring. It’s just the perfect testament of going through the fire and not quitting.”
Martin’s development as not only a football player but as a person was special for Cessante to watch. Now, Martin is influencing youth like his coach once did for him.
“It’s crazy, because you seen how many good athletes we had up here. Now we’re starting to see a lot of those guys, where Mike was one of the first we seen come through our program and make it to the NFL,” Cessante said. “It was surreal. It was a dream come true and it was one of your guys making it; One of the guys that’s from the neighborhood. One of the guys from your school. One of the guys that you actually had an influence on and now he’s having an impact, influence on the guys coming up after him.”
Nearly two years have passed since Martin was sitting inside Connor O’Neills, an Irish Pub located in Ann Arbor, on draft night. Entering his third NFL season, his presence with the Titans has already been felt. In his first two years, Martin compiled 52 tackles and 4 sacks.
Martin’s first career regular season game came against the New England Patriots in 2012. He lined up opposite of Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady, a former Michigan player.
It was quite the moment for Martin.
“I played a lot in that game and it’s like, ‘I’m over here chasing Tom Brady, man,'” Martin said. “Once I got past that, you play the game and then after, I’m just like, ‘I just played against Tom Brady.'”
Weeks later, the Titans traveled to Minnesota to play the Vikings. Once more, Martin faced against another player he looks up to: running back Adrian Peterson.
“I’m playing against guys that i looked up to and was like, ‘Man, I want to be like those guys.’ Now I’m on the same competition field as them,” Martin said. “The playing field is level now. there’s no Adrian Peterson, Mike Martin; it’s two guys playing against each other.”
After the game, Martin recalled meeting Peterson face-to-face. The two talked about Peterson’s appearance on the HBO series, Entourage. Martin asked the running back how it was being on the show, a moment he enjoyed.
Over the course of his young NFL career, Martin has met and played against guys he grew up watching on television. He recalled meeting NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, too.
But as much as he’s enjoyed the NFL, the day Martin received his diploma meant just as much as getting drafted by the Titans.
Martin was sitting in his Redford home with his mother when he received a letter in the mail; a big letter from the University of Michigan.
He opened the letter and proceeded to cry. It was his college degree.
“It was my degree in Communications and Marketing. And I started crying, man,” Martin said. “I’m getting emotional talking about it right now because to that point, I was only the second person in my family to attend the University of Michigan and also the second person to go to a big time college like Michigan. It was unheard of in my family.”
When Martin’s professional career comes to a close, one door will always remain open: Cessante’s. Even with all the newfound fame and glory, Martin remembers where he came from. He still returns to his home, Redford, Michigan. And on nights like National Signing Day, he makes the path for prep stars a bit easier.
“Mike’s a brother. He’s family,” Cessante said. “Every time he comes home, my wife can’t wait to see him and cook and have him over and just talk. I think he can get away from that limelight a little bit and that fast life of the NFL and all the expectations and just be around guys and people that care about him. Just like I told the kids that come through, I’ll tell Mike, we’ll be here after all the limelight is over and all the fame and whatever comes after it.”