Mighty Mike Martin: Michigan's very own superhero on defense

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BY TIM ROHAN
Daily Sports Editor
Published September 22, 2010

Mike Rodriguez thought for sure that Mighty Mike Martin had put a dent right in the middle of the gym floor.

Design by Sarah Squire

Mike went through his opponent, picked him way up in the air and slammed him right there on the blue mat in the center of the gymnasium — a tackle of sorts. The crowd went nuts. Opposing teams hated wrestling at Detroit Catholic Central, mostly because of that crowd.

Right there in the middle of the packed gymnasium stood a massive man, cloaked in his wrestling singlet. Mike had the power to do great things. He just didn’t know it yet.

Mike’s friends, family, teachers and mentors were there, everyone was excited to see what he would do in his first wrestling match. The whole school was let out an hour and a half early from class to watch this, the first match of the season. And the heavyweight was the first match drawn, so Mike was up first. Front and center.

Mike’s mother Theresa and father Barry were there, waiting to see if their son’s newest pursuit would be a successful one.

Everyone in that gymnasium knew who Mike Martin the football player was, but now he was trying his hand at wrestling — a sport completely different from football, which he had played since fifth grade.

This was mighty Mike Martin. He could do anything.

Then the referee’s whistle blew. He called Mike’s takedown a slam, which cost him one point. The crowd sat down in quiet disbelief.

This opponent wasn’t too big, and Mike wasn’t intimidated. He knew he could handle him. But Mike was facing a senior who had been wrestling since junior high.

The savvy senior responded and pinned Mike with seconds remaining in the match. Mike didn’t know how to get out of a pin just yet. Mighty Mike Martin had lost.

After the match, Rodriguez, Mike’s wrestling coach, rolled up the mat and approached his dejected heavyweight.

“You’ve learned something,” Rodriguez told him. “You’ve got to work harder.”

It was a somber car ride home that evening.

Barry tried to calm his son. He told Mike everything was going to be all right.

“I know, Dad, but I wasn’t supposed to lose,” Mike said desperately. “I wasn’t supposed to lose.”

“It was embarrassing for him, because he had high standards for himself,” says Eugene Grewe, Mike’s high school English teacher and track coach. “He kind of wanted to go out there and make a statement. So it was frustrating for him. I think he had a moment of doubt.”

Another couple of weeks slipped away, Thanksgiving came and went. On Black Friday, Mike had a mid-morning wrestling practice at the high school. Mike took the car and went to practice, but returned just an hour later. His mom knew something was up.

Mike had had enough. He just wasn’t getting it and he let his mom know that. This was completely different from anything he had done before and it just wasn’t coming easy to him.

“You gotta stick it out, just give it your best shot,” Theresa told him.

This kid, who would become a superhero for Michigan at defensive tackle, was caught in a moment of weakness.

Mike Martin wouldn’t quit — would he?

***

The signs were there, constant reminders to those in his life that he was destined to be better than average, faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap across tall buildings in a single bound and save the damsel in distress.

But it started with doubt.

When Mike was in the sixth grade, just a year after he started playing organized football, he dreamt about playing in the NFL someday. When Theresa took Mike to the pediatrician that year, the doctor tried to temper his expectations.

“I don’t know if you’re going to be playing college ball,” the pediatrician said. He knew the odds were stacked against any kid with that lofty a goal.

That didn’t sit well with Theresa.

“It just made me so mad, people’s negativity to young people,” she says. “Because if you have a dream you should nourish it and help support it — instead of squashing it. I know all kids, there’s a very small percentage that play college ball and from there go onto the pros, like a one-percent chance. But if a kid has a dream, you should be there to support it.”

Mike’s parents started him in sports at a young age and tried to encourage him the best they could.

Mike played baseball — his dad’s sport — at a young age and excelled. After games, umpires would rave to Theresa and rave about Mike’s arm strength. He was throwing natural curveballs and sliders, they would say — before the age of 10. But he didn’t stick with baseball or basketball, which he also tried.

Football was going to be his sport, and Dan Hattie was the first coach who brought that passion out of Mike.

Hattie coached Mike during his fifth-and-sixth grade years on the JV team. He saw from the start that Mike was a good kid, a sponge you fill up with information and wring out when the games started.

But this big kid wasn’t being physical enough to put his size to good use.

“When he found out that he could block or knock some kid down — and that was a good thing — he became really, really good at it,” Hattie says.

“He was very emotional, which actually worked to his advantage because he didn’t like to make mistakes. When he did, he got down on himself, but not to the point where he would shut down. The next play, he would go back in there and make the coach happy.”

While being big had its advantages, Mike also had to worry about being too big to play — his kryptonite early on. The CYO weight limit for the area was 165 pounds for a varsity player and 135 for a JV player.

Mike wouldn’t eat breakfast and when he was on JV, he would wear sweatpants and run laps around the track before games to make weight. He weighed 200 pounds in June before his eighth grade year. By the beginning of August, he had lost that excess 35 pounds.

“He wouldn’t eat because he wanted to play so bad,” Theresa said. “That’s when I knew he was serious.”

***

During Mike’s freshman year at Catholic Central, Eugene Grewe, the track coach, found him in the weight room and approached him with a proposition.

As the coach who dealt with shot putters and discuss throwers, Grewe sought big kids with good work ethic in the weight room. Mike fit the mold.

The two talked about the possibility of Mike joining the track team that spring, but Mike told Grewe that he was just too busy that year. Mike promised him that he would throw during his sophomore year.

Saying Mike was busy at that time was an understatement. The freshman was working on advancement in boy scouts. He was also the No. 1 junior handler for the American Kennel club in 2005.

“Everything he does, he’s good at,” Theresa says. “Everything he touched turned to gold,” Barry adds.

The dog handling was partly his mother’s doing. But he became so good that he was at one point two wins shy of making it to Westminster — the pinnacle of dog shows.

Mike was a regular Johnny Coltrane, too.

He picked up the alto saxophone in elementary school, and performed at school concerts. During his freshman year at Catholic Central, Mike marched with the band on Friday night for the varsity game after playing on the freshman team on Thursday night.

Mike eventually made it to the track team, keeping his promise to Grewe. In his sophomore year, he had a slow start with the shot put. He needed to get his feet wet, just like in his debut in football.

At his first meet, he threw the shot 38 feet — “Which is not horrible for a sophomore, but for someone who became what Mike became, it’s a pretty meager beginning,” Grewe says.

By the end of the season, he threw farther than 52 feet and was fifth in the state in Division I in his first year of competing. He was a state champion the next two years, and his senior-year throw of 63 feet, 9 niches came within three inches of breaking T.J. Duckett’s all-time state record.

Grewe noticed that if he saw an adjustment that would improve Mike’s craft, Mike could make that adjustment in one practice. In high school, it would take most a whole season to adapt like that.

“His work ethic was just unbelievable,” Mike Rodriguez said. “I got upset with him. We work hard and then (Mike) was taking off and going in the weight room getting ready for track season doing the shot put. I figured he must not be giving 100 percent in this room, because I worked the hell out of him.

“In his mindset, he wanted to be something special. And he was. … In anything he does, he wants to succeed and to excel. In order to do that, he understands how hard he has to work.”

Years later, at Michigan, Mike’s physique is marveled at by teammates and coaches. Other players talk about his work ethic in the weight room, and the results are on the field. He has what football experts call a “motor” — Mike doesn’t stop working on the field.

“Mike Martin is just an animal out there,” sophomore linebacker Craig Roh said. “He’s the strongest person I’ve ever seen in the weight room. It’s really showing on the field. He’s taking on double teams. (Against Massachusetts), I think the play he sacked the quarterback, he beat a double team and sacked him. Which is — stupid.”

***

Every superhero has a sidekick. Mighty Mike Martin had two — his parents.

Barry and Theresa never married after having Mike. He lived with his mom and she took care of making him breakfast in the morning and getting him to school. His dad would pick him up from school to hang out or go to one of Mike’s various activities.

Though they weren’t together, Mike saw both of his parents every day.

“That’s all that mattered: we were going to get this kid right, make him a gentleman,” Barry says. “That’s what he turned out to be.”

Just last month, Mike couldn’t make his dad’s birthday party on August 20. So he and Barry’s fiancée planned a surprise party. And because Mike couldn’t make it, he made a video tribute wishing his dad a happy birthday. It almost made Barry cry. Everyone was “damn near tears.”

The maturation process really started when he made the jump to Catholic Central — an all-boys Catholic high school, in Novi, Michigan. That’s when everything began to click for Mike.

“It teaches them how to be men,” Theresa says. “Stuff that I could never teach him.

“Once he hit high school, he was just so focused.”

“I had people that did a good job letting me know the right things and how to do them,” Mike said. “I was around people I wanted to emulate: their character, how they carried themselves, just how friendly they were to me. They just taught me a lot of things that you just need someone to show you the way.”

At Catholic Central, he developed many relationships that are still important to him. Grewe and Babicz and the rest of his support system that he built there is still intact. Not only were they mentors, but they were Mike’s friends. His varsity football coach, Tom Mach, said that Mike has the uncanny ability to relate with adults and get along with his peers.

His senior year at Catholic Central, Mike could have easily quit the track team as the season extended deep into the spring. He even missed a spring break trip with his friends because of track. He stayed committed. With great power came great responsibility.

Now, people are already questioning whether Mike will stay all four years at Michigan. They speculate that he’ll leave early for the NFL Draft — but they don’t know Mighty Mike Martin very well.

“No, he’s going to get that education,” Barry tells them.

***

Mike always had a soft spot for Lloyd Carr — ever since that 1997 National Championship game. So on the day of his official visit to Michigan, Mike sat in awe of the former Michigan coach. He committed that day.

He still has a football with an inscription that reads, “To: Mike, a Michigan man,” signed Lloyd Carr.

So when Carr decided to retire right before Mike’s freshman season at Michigan, everything started to unravel. Mike re-opened his recruitment and schools barraged him with calls. Michigan State and Notre Dame were hot in pursuit.

Eventually, Notre Dame coaches were coming to the Detroit Medical Center, where Theresa worked as a nurse, and Barry in plant operations.

The Fighting Irish’s then-defensive coordinator Corwin Brown and another defensive coach talked to Mike’s parents about an official visit at Notre Dame.

When Mike went to visit his girlfriend at Michigan State, the recruiters would see him and call him to slyly ask why he was in East Lansing. The Spartans were trying to get Mike to take an official visit, too.

He was still undecided when he drove up to Michigan State with Coach Mach and his parents to attend an Elite 8 players banquet at the Kresge Building. On the way home, the conversation shifted to Mike’s impending decision.

Mach notices that when Mike referred to Michigan, he'd say "my team," and "my school."

Coach Mach caught the slip up. “What did you just say?" he recalls blurting out.

Mike never made it to South Bend or East Lansing.

***

Mike Rodriguez sees Mike put his wrestling techniques to good use every fall Saturday afternoon in a Michigan football uniform. He’s seen all of Mike’s 80 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and five sacks that have come in his first two-plus years as a Wolverine.

To most who watch him, it’s as if he puts on a cape and accomplishes what mere mortals only dream of.

After his rough loss, Mike didn’t quit wrestling. He didn’t let his emotions get the best of him — he stuck it out.

Soon after that first match, Rodriguez sat Mike down. Mike was beginning to grasp the technique of wrestling, but there was something else this heavyweight had to hear.

“The biggest downfall that wrestlers have — especially heavyweights — is fear,” Mike Rodriguez said. “So when you get over fear there’s nothing you can’t do.”

Mike had to unleash himself, just as he had done in football.

“How many times did your mother tell you from the time you’re (little) until (now), don’t hurt him because you’re so much bigger than everybody else,” Rodriguez asked him.

“All the time coach,” Mike responded.

“So that just stays in your mind,” Rodriguez said. “You need to be physical.”

Another piece had fallen into place. Mighty Mike Martin was starting to understand — he could be unstoppable.

But he had to work at it. He understood what it took to get to that point in his life. Nothing had come easy to him. He could be a superhero, sure, but by way of his own power. Not by a magical potion or a wave of a wand.

So Rodriguez and wrestling coach-in-waiting Mitch Hancock taught Mike how to change levels — which helps Mike get underneath an opponent and explode. Rodriguez also taught Mike how to use his hips to his advantage.

In December of his junior year, Mike used his newfound knowledge to take the No. 7 wrestler in the country into overtime. And even though Mike lost, 2-1, Rodriguez knew right then and there, he would be Michigan’s state heavyweight champ. He did just that — in just his first year competing in the sport.

And he defended that title in his senior year.

Now, Mike is tormenting opposing quarterbacks. Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez knows how valuable Mike is on this year’s defense.

“Mike has been outstanding,” Rodriguez says. “He’s played an awful lot for a nose guard and getting a lot of double teams. He’s probably been our most consistent defender all three games.”

But if you asked Mike, he would just want to talk about the team — a group that was 8-16 in Mike’s first two years.

“It was real rough,” Mike says. “Michigan, the program, coach Rod, we’ve been through the fire. During it, it did suck because my class was the first class that didn’t go to a bowl game and a losing season. … (But) it’s made us stronger and closer as a team.”

Michigan has been dragged through the lowest of the lows — especially on defense. The Wolverines' defense has rewritten the record books, and not in a good way.

Michigan has a superhero who can help lead the turn the defense around — Mighty Mike Martin is on the job.

Mike’s been here before. He’s been the big kid on the football team who doesn’t know he needs to be aggressive. He’s been the shot putter who threw 38 feet. He’s been overwhelmed with tough decisions before. He’s been frustrated learning a new sport.

In life, there have been moments when the world has begged him to quit. Mike has taken those obstacles head on, picked them up and slammed them to the mat. He’s become a state champion, a saxophonist, and even an award-winning dog handler. And for what? To be the best in whatever he does.

“You can see that in him even now, he has not changed,” Mike Rodriguez says. “I’d hate to be the man in front of him in whatever he does. Because the guy believes in himself and he has no fear. When you see an athlete has no fear, he can just go through you. How many times do you see him going, and they have two, three people on him. He’s tenacious. When you get that mindset, it’s unbelievable what you can do.”

Those who know Mighty Mike Martin best still don’t know what he’s capable of doing next.