User ID: Password:

November 5, 2008

Following their uncle's path, the Martin brothers share childhood memories and grown-up dreams

By: Jimmy Robertson

He sort of stole an old Hokie Huddler from 1988 out of his parents’ house. The paper looked slightly faded and the edges were slightly frayed.

The article was about his uncle, with a black-and-white photo of him playing, a man who was a good player at Tech back in the day and an all-conference person – and a man who started him and his younger brother on this path. His family soon laminated that piece of paper carefully to preserve it. But this wasn’t so much about preserving a worn piece of paper or an article, mind you. This was about preserving a dream, his dream and his brother’s. So he taped it gingerly inside his locker, a reminder of where this dream started and that he and his brother are actually living it.

“Uncle Bobby is like a hero to us,” Orion Martin said, referring to Bobby Martin, who played at Tech from 1986-89. “We didn’t really know anyone else who played big-time college football like he did. Not where we grew up. It was kind of our dream to be like him and play football at Virginia Tech.”

Orion and Cam Martin grew up as brothers, nephews, cousins and friends. They grew up with maroon blood gushing through their veins, but unlike most, theirs was tinged with a bit of orange.

They grew up watching Uncle Bobby play football at Virginia Tech, though they barely remember the details given their youth at that point. They do remember rifling through his old media guides and game programs and newspaper articles, and at that young age, toddler age, actually, a dream reached an embryonic stage.

They wanted to play football at Virginia Tech, too.

And a family sewed together with undeniable love and uncharacteristic respect for each other helped them pursue it.

The court really isn’t a court. It’s a hardscrabble patch of dirt adjacent to Grandma’s unpretentious farmhouse. And it features just the perfect amount of space for a rugged game of three-on-three.

“Those kids have played so much basketball there,” said David Martin, the father of Orion and Cam. “I bet that thing has sunk three feet.”

The goal itself wasn’t some shiny contraption, with an adjustable rim. Rather, it was plain and homemade, and much more durable than anything available at the local Wal-Mart.

Orion Martin wears the same number as Bobby Martin - 90 - who is seen here forcing former West Virginia quarterback Major Harris to fumble the football in the Hokies’ 12-10 upset of the Mountaineers in 1989.

This court served as the primary gathering spot for the Martin brothers and their cousins. That, and the field next to it, which the kids used as their personal football gridiron, a place where two-hand touch often morphed into a game of tackle.

The playground is part of a wonderful rural spot in Henry County, near Martinsville, that once served as the large farm of James and Kathryne Martin. James passed away many years ago, but he left each of his sons and daughters – seven of them in all – a small slice of this Americana to do with as they pleased. Six of them built homes there, each surrounding the main farmhouse, including David and Bobby. Together, this large piece of real estate off Flat Rock Road serves as their own little ‘Martinsville.’

This is where Orion and Cam Martin grew up, and they buck the perception of the black student-athlete. Most think of the backgrounds of black student-athletes as inner city. Yet these two are country to the core. Mention the ‘hood’ to them and they think you’re referring to the hood of Uncle Bobby’s old pick-up.

They grew up playing with all their cousins. Kathryne Martin, the grand matriarch of this family, is the grandmother of 17.

“It was me, Cam and eight or 10 other cousins all outside playing,” Orion said. “We played basketball on a dirt court and played tackle football out in Grandma’s field. All the boys from the neighborhood would come up there. We played football and basketball pretty much all day.

“We were sheltered in a way. We were away from all the things you’d see in a city; all the violence and all the extra stuff that people experience growing up in an inner city. We didn’t experience any of that. We grew up playing hide-and-go-seek in the barn and doing things like that. Most people don’t know that, but that’s how we grew up.”

“It was fun,” Cam said. “When I tell some people, they’re jealous. Some people see their cousins two or three times a year. We had all our cousins right there, so we could go down the street and get enough people for a game of basketball or a football game. You get to see them whenever you feel like. It was really a lot of fun.”

But it wasn’t all fun and games for the Martins, not by a long stretch. Living on a farm more or less means working on a farm.

For the longest of time, the Martins raised cattle and also had a horse or two. The large barn near Grandma’s house needed to be filled with hay every summer, and the fences needed constant repair after seeing perpetual head-butting from ornery bovines.

Uncle Bobby also dabbled in the logging business once he graduated from Tech. During the summers, he often wrestled Cam and Orion away from their beds – the two shared the same room for years – and hauled them into the woods for a day of cutting and splitting wood.

“I treated them like my own,” Bobby said. “That’s the way we do it around here. We’re all raising each other’s children. If I told them to do something, they did it just as if their dad told them. Same with my kids.”

Their hands became calloused and then became as tough as leather. Their mindset became the same, too. At the end of the day, Bobby didn’t always line the pockets of the boys’ trousers with cash. Often, he’d just take them to the general store for a can of pop and a hot dog or a pack of nabs.

“Yeah, most of the time, I fed them or I’d take them to the movies every once in a while,” Bobby said.

He paused for an instant.

“What did they tell you?” he laughed.

“Sometimes, he’d pay us, but he’d always find a way to take care of us,” Orion said. “He’d always get us a Pepsi and a hot dog. He was what an uncle should be – a good, strong, Christian man looking out for his family.”

Church plays a huge role in this family, in large part because David Martin juggles being an English teacher with being the associate pastor at their church. Every Sunday, the family loaded up and headed to God’s house, though the two boys weren’t always willing participants.

You see, church cut into the NFL pregame shows, much to the boys’ dismay. But as they got older, they understood the importance of their faith. God led them to Him. He has a way of doing that, if one lets him.

It helped that Uncle Bobby went, too. Cam and Orion hold a special relationship with Bobby in large part because of Bobby’s playing career at Tech. David Martin often loaded his boys in the car and made the 90-minute drive to Blacksburg on Saturdays in the fall to see Bobby play. Back in the days when Lane Stadium was half empty, videoboards didn’t exist and Enter Sandman hadn’t become Hokie Nation’s national anthem.

They remember few of the details of Bobby’s playing days. Bobby graduated from Tech in 1990, and at that time, Orion was 5 years old, Cam 3. Orion remembers a game against Florida State, and he also remembers his uncle downing a punt.

“He downed it near this end zone,” Orion said, pointing to the north end zone. “But I don’t remember who it was against, though.”

The details matter little. They just know he played and they saw him, and they loved it. They loved it when he dragged them into the locker room after games and they got to high-five Will Furrer and others.

They saw others play, too, once Bobby departed. The family kept coming to games, not every game, mind you, but a couple a year, which only whetted the boys’ zest for all things Hokie.

“We’d park in the lot out there next to Price’s Fork [Road],” Cam said. “Then Orion and I would run across the Drill Field just to be sure that we didn’t miss the kickoff. It was exciting. Man, those were some good days.”

The dream kept swelling, and they knew that Bobby lived the dream that they ultimately came to want to live. So they’d do anything he did to live it. They saw him working hard, so they did the same, even if it meant cutting wood all day for a hot dog and a cold Pepsi.

“When you look back, Coach [Frank] Beamer has built Virginia Tech on hard work,” Bobby said. “I know. I was part of it. And Cam and Orion have learned that here [on the farm].

“Sometimes, you don’t always work hard for a paycheck. Sometimes, you work hard because it’s the right thing to do.”

Orion and Cam Martin get their athletics genes honestly. Bobby Martin wasn’t the only Martin to succeed on the gridiron. David Martin played at Ferrum for two years and then went on to play at William & Mary in the late 1970s. Also, Uncle Melvin, the oldest of the seven children of James and Kathryne Martin, played at William & Mary, too, his time was during the mid-1970s.

Perhaps by fate, that trio of brothers ended up at George Washington High School in Danville, with David and Bobby teaching (Bobby also coached), and Melvin serving as the assistant principal. Rather than shuttle his kids to Martinsville for schooling, David just buckled his boys into his own car and hauled them to Danville, where they enjoyed a daily family reunion with dad and the uncles.

Orion & Cam Martin

The two played sports, but obviously cared more about football than any other. Uncle Bobby served as an assistant coach – and a resident taskmaster over his two nephews. He was hard on them, so hard, in fact, that a couple of GW’s coaches pulled Bobby to the side after a practice and gingerly confronted him about his coaching style.
“Maybe I was a little hard on them, but I had to make sure they played because they earned it,” Bobby said. “Not because they were my nephews. They never complained. They’d hop in the car and ride home with me after practice and we’d be just like family.”

They never complained because Martins simply don’t complain. They just work. It’s what you do while pursuing your dream.

Orion, older than Cam by two years, graduated in 2003, but his pursuit of playing at Tech nearly came to a halt. Frank Beamer’s staff showed little interest in an undersized defensive end/tight end despite his abilities to make plays. So he enrolled as a day student at Hargrave the following fall and played on the prep school team in hopes of garnering some love from Blacksburg.

But he still couldn’t win over their affection. So he committed to Norfolk State – the only school to make him an offer.

“I had just accepted that this was the best it was going to be,” Orion said. “Tech didn’t recruit me and I was hoping they would. By Christmas, they hadn’t shown any interest at all. I didn’t care where I went at that point. I had it in my mind that this was the best that I could do and I was going to make the most of it.”

That January (2004), David and Denese Martin drove their oldest son and his belongings to Norfolk, with a nagging feeling that this wasn’t quite right. When they got to the dorm, they nearly turned around and drove him back. It more resembled the Norfolk landfill than housing for the school’s students, but Orion talked them out of it, telling them he wanted to give the school a shot.

David and Denese trusted their son and then made the trek back to Henry County, saying little along the way. That night, they got in their bed.

And the emotions came out.

“We both just sat there and cried,” David said. “We knew that was not where he was supposed to be.

“I remember to this day him telling me, ‘Dad, no one else wants me.’ You can’t begin to imagine how that felt. I knew as a father that was not the place for him.”

Later that spring, Orion came to the same conclusion. The epiphany occurred in the Norfolk State weight room, of all places, following spring practice.

“One of the guys there was like, ‘What am I doing here?’” Orion said. “I heard him and I thought, ‘That’s a good question. What am I doing here?’

“I mean, I had done everything I was supposed to do. I went to Hargrave and I got my SAT scores. What was I doing here? I wanted to go to bowl games and play on ESPN. I wanted to play in Lane Stadium.”

Orion Martin went home following that spring semester.

He never went back.

In contrast, Cam’s recruiting was going rather swimmingly. Recruiters from all over the country dialed up the Martin residence for the purpose of wooing the smooth athletic skills of one of the best players to come out of that area in a while. But Cam never filled his brother in on everything.

“I was more frustrated than he was,” Cam said. “I didn’t talk about it [Cam’s recruitment] with him because I knew he wasn’t in a place where he wanted to be. I didn’t tell him much. I know he was happy for me, but I don’t remember one time when we really talked about it.”

Beamer and Kevin Rogers were among the many trying to lure Cam. Rogers practically established residency at George Washington High, but a Beamer visit to the school that spring changed things dramatically for the Martin family.

David Martin knew that Cam wanted to go to Tech and he knew Orion’s dream was to be there, too. So he managed to corner Beamer on that visit and ask a favor.

“I told him about Orion and explained his situation, and asked him if he would give him a look,” David said. “He said if Orion could get into school, then he’d be glad to give him a look.”

“I had a spot as a walk-on, but nothing was guaranteed,” Orion said. “I just wanted a shot. I didn’t want to be one of those ‘could’ve’ guys. My mindset was if I go and be on the scout team for four or five years, then that’s OK because I gave it my best shot. That’s what I was thinking. If it didn’t work out, it wasn’t meant to be. But I didn’t want to go through life thinking, ‘I could’ve played for Frank Beamer or Bud Foster.’”

Everything fell perfectly into place after that. Orion got into Tech and enrolled the following fall. Then he earned a scholarship in the spring. Cam committed to Tech before his senior season and then went out and enjoyed a superb senior campaign, earning All-Group AAA honors as a safety. He then enrolled at Tech the following fall (2005), and once again, the brothers were together, playing a game that they played so often in the cow pasture next to Grandma’s farmhouse.

“I had mixed feelings about it at first,” Cam said, with a smile. “We even shared a room in the dorm and I was thinking, ‘I can’t seem to get away from him.’

“But we still live together now and I wouldn’t change it for the world. As you get older, you realize your friends and relationships may fall apart, but your brother will always be there for you. He’s always been there for me. I was too young and immature to see that at first, but I see it now.”

The remainder of Orion Martin’s career consists of a few games. He’s been a two-year starter and gotten to play with his brother and in front of a loving family. He’s played countless games on ESPN, enjoyed the delirious atmosphere at Lane Stadium a half a dozen times a year and participated in an Orange Bowl, a Chick-fil-A Bowl, a Gator Bowl and a Sugar Bowl. And he got engaged to a young woman named Jennifer Edwards, whom he met at church, in the process.

He’s lived the dream.
“I think it’s two things,” Orion said of the keys to his success. “Putting God first in my life. I haven’t always been the perfect example of a Christian, but I’ve tried to put Him first in everything I do, whether it’s off the field or on the field.

“And Tech is a gold mine for success. There isn’t any reason why someone shouldn’t be successful here at Tech and graduate. There’s a great coaching staff, a great strength and conditioning staff and the academic people are great. If you come in here and do things the right way, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be successful here.”

Meanwhile, Cam has another season left at Tech, another year to live his dream, albeit without big brother attached at the hip.
“I’ve done it before back in high school,” Cam said. “But it won’t be the same. It’ll be different.”

“Just watching the two of them has been absolutely breathtaking,” David Martin said. “It’s been very rewarding and I thank God for it. We’re just going to try and enjoy the ride these last few games.”

The future is the unknown for Orion, who already holds a diploma from Tech. He harbors thoughts of getting into coaching, but he wants to pursue the NFL dream next.

Cam Martin (top) and Orion Martin (90) have played football together at every level, but nothing has been able to topple the experience of playing together at Virginia Tech.

If anything, an NFL contract would give him enough change to pave that packed-down patch of dirt known as a basketball court next to his Grandma’s.

“No way,” he said, laughing. “That’s who we are.”

For sure, he’ll take that Hokie Huddler with him wherever he goes. Looking back, it’s certainly funny how things come back around.

Nearly 20 years ago, Uncle Bobby was bringing his two nephews into the locker room after games to meet the players. Last year, Orion and Cam returned the favor, bringing Bobby into the locker room.

Then they showed him that old Hokie Huddler article taped on Orion’s locker.

“I had to turn away,” Bobby said. “My eyes started tearing up. That was very humbling.”

It was more than an article about a Virginia Tech football player. On the contrary, it sparked two young men to peer inside their beings and say ‘Why not?’

It was a vision. It was a hope. It was a dream.

And it certainly has come true.