The Big House
Mike Monaco | Wednesday, September 4, 2013
It’s a few minutes after 6 p.m. on Wednesday. Practice is wrapping up.
The sound system blasts B.o.B’s “Magic” and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Players begin to filter out from the LaBar Practice Complex.
After about five minutes, most of the players have filtered out and the music stops. The only sounds are those of a few scattered students, chattering away, as they walk around the east side of campus.
Fifteen minutes pass. There’s still a group of Irish players, including the offensive line, out practicing on the field in relative silence. The autograph hounds have left. There’s no longer a need for the ushers directing traffic.
Around 6:25, the offensive linemen make their way off the field.
Graduate student offensive tackle Zack Martin leads them.
Leading on the fly
Martin can’t pinpoint exactly when he first captained a team or led a group in school. But he knows it happened in middle school. And it continued in high school.
Martin, now in his fifth season with the Irish and with 40 consecutive starts under his belt, is the 18th two-time captain in the history of Notre Dame football. Martin said he hasn’t had the time to fully sit back and think about the importance of being one of just 18 players with that distinction, but he feels honored.
“It was right before the [season-opening] game so we just kind of got everything going, but after last year you get a chance to kind of sit back and find out how much of an honor it actually is when you meet some former guys who have been in that position,” Martin said. “To have the opportunity to do it a second time is even more of an honor, to have the opportunity to lead this team and hopefully to a successful season.”
But Martin said his leadership started long before these past two years.
“I’d say when I got here after a couple years of playing I was definitely more of an example guy, just try to go out there and do everything at 100 miles an hour and try to get the younger guys to see what it takes to be a starter, to be a good player,” Martin said. “Over time, you know, I’m still that same guy but I try to add the vocal part, especially being a captain.”
Fellow graduate student offensive lineman Chris Watt has literally been Martin’s right-hand man for the past two years. In 2011 and 2012, Watt started all 26 games at left guard, while Martin manned left tackle. Over those two seasons, Watt said he has seen a similar growth in Martin.
“He’s always been a leader. He’s been more of a quiet leader, leader by example in the previous years when he’s first starting out because it’s kind of hard to be that vocal guy when you’re starting out as a freshman or a sophomore,” Watt said. “He’s really developed these last two years becoming a bigger leader for the team vocally and also continuing to do that on the field as well.”
Junior center Nick Martin joins his older brother on the offensive line. Nick, who is in his first season as a starter, said he saw Zack’s leadership from Day One.
“My freshman year, I remember the first padded practice of camp, [Zack] broke down the whole team,” Nick said. “He was only a redshirt sophomore at the time. I was really surprised. He was an underclassman and he was breaking down the whole team. That’s when I really knew how good he was going to be.”
Leading in the quiet
It’s still remarkably quiet outside the Guglielmino Athletic Complex, where the rest of the squad has reached the locker room. Some players have left entirely. Others have already begun talking to the media.
Zack and the rest of the offensive line make their way toward the brick building, the spotlight completely off them. After all, it’s still three days away from Saturday’s rivalry game with Michigan.
Martin walks into the Gug quietly, occasionally making small talk with teammates and laughing softly. Martin said his leadership is different during the week, away from the bright lights and loudness of a game day.
“During the week, you’re trying to go the entire day full-go,” he said. “And during the week I’d say it’s a lot more [leading by] example because you’re trying to show the younger guys how to prepare for a game and how hard you really have to go to be ready for a game.”
During the dog days of summer, all of the work is behind the scenes. Coaches are not allowed to have contact with their players for the eight designated weeks of voluntary summer conditioning activities. That’s when Martin stepped up to do his leading by example, in between and around summer classes.
“We didn’t have class in the afternoons so we would come in and work out [early],” Martin said. “Freshman year it’s crazy. You’ve got to come in to study hall, classes. So they wouldn’t work out until later, about 4:00. So me, Chris Watt and the older guys kind of just took it upon us to stay after we worked out and work those freshmen out.
“We had five freshmen offensive linemen. It’s a very talented group. That’s one of the main things [offensive line] coach [Harry] Hiestand taught us when he got here was we do things together and we don’t leave anyone else behind.”
As far away from the spotlight as Martin and his fellow linemen were, the story made its way back to Irish head coach Brian Kelly.
“The stories that I’ve heard this summer, absolutely incredible,” Kelly said of Martin at media day Aug. 22. “… That just does not happen. But because of him, he’s been able to up the play of all of our younger players exponentially. So he’s made others around him better.”
In addition to making others better, Martin himself has constantly improved. In each of the past three seasons, the 6-foot-4, 308-pounder has won Notre Dame’s Offensive Lineman of the Year award. Following the 2012 campaign, Martin was named a second-team All-American by the Walter Camp Foundation.
“He’s in a very small percentage of players that play this game that has the ability to do what he does on a daily basis,” Hiestand said at media day. “And there are a lot of people that can lead from time to time when it feels convenient or when it feels good or you’re having a good day, but Zack brings it every day and that’s what sets him apart and makes him such a unique and special player.
“He’s the picture of what an All-American is. He’s an All-American football player and offensive lineman that has all the abilities and skills that you look for to say, ‘that’s the example of what we want to accomplish.'”
As perfect an example as Martin may be, and as quiet as it might be for Martin and the offensive line during the week, everything changes as the decibel levels increase on Saturdays. Martin himself said he invokes a completely different leadership style. Leading by example is no longer enough.
“On Saturday, you’ve got a lot of things to worry about, so it’s more of a vocal leadership,” Martin said. “Obviously, you’re trying to do your job and people are looking at that, but definitely more of the vocal side on Saturdays.”
Martin said while the coaches handle the team-wide, pre-game speeches, he shares his own words with his fellow offensive linemen.
“It’s different each week,” Martin said. “But we always break down on ‘Together.’ Basically, the gist of it is being together and playing together today.”
After that speech on Saturday, Martin and the rest of the offensive line will head out of the tunnel to take the field at Michigan Stadium – the Big House – before a capacity crowd of 107,501 screaming fans.
For those next three-plus hours, it will be anything but quiet.
Contact Mike Monaco at [email protected]