Magical ride for Nebraska's Martinez

College FootballSportsFootballCollege SportsNebraska CornhuskersWisconsin BadgersBig Ten Conference

When his teammates began calling him "T-Magic," it made perfect sense.

In his first five starts at Nebraska in 2010, Taylor Martinez peeled off touchdown runs of 46, 19, 15, 67, 20, 1, 1, 80, 14, 35, 80 and 41 yards.

Defenders would zero in, have him in their grasp and then — poof — he would be across the goal line, flipping the ball to an official.

What no one knew then, and still few do, is that Martinez's father, Casey, created the moniker. And its origin is unrelated to football.

It goes back to 2003. Casey had split with his wife and fallen into a funk. His career switch from teaching to real estate left the family living in a small, dingy rental in working-class Perris, Calif.

"Rock bottom," Casey Martinez called it. "We were scared and weren't sure how things would work out. Taylor was 13, and he basically carried me through. I owe my life to him for giving me my life back. It has created a bond that is almost unexplainable."

Within a year, Casey married a Samoan woman named Epifania whom Taylor considers his mother. Casey's real-estate career flourished to the point where the family of nine (Taylor has six younger siblings) now lives in the oceanside community of Laguna Beach.

At the time, Casey called the transformation "Martinez magic."

And just as the father used it to fuel his success, the son does the same on the football field.

"Whenever I'm down, it's 'Martinez magic' time," Taylor said by telephone. "I can hear my dad's voice in my head."

How else to explain a season in which Martinez engineered comeback victories over Wisconsin (down 27-10), Northwestern (28-16), Michigan State (24-14) and Penn State (20-6).

No, Martinez couldn't rally his team Saturday in the Big Ten championship game after the Cornhuskers fell behind the Badgers, roughly, infinity to 10 at halftime.

But he did score on a 76-yard scramble that defied description. If you saw it in another remake of "The Longest Yard," you would dismiss it as implausible. Martinez juked half the population of Wisconsin before breaking free like a colt at the rodeo.

"Somehow he magically escaped," was how the Big Ten Network's Dave Revsine put it during a highlights show.

That touchdown run occurred after voting closed for the Chicago Tribune Silver Football, awarded to the Big Ten's best player. The winner will be revealed Friday among three finalists: Martinez, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Wisconsin's Montee Ball.

Martinez thriving at Nebraska is remarkable in that he's a California kid with a funky throwing motion (exacerbated by leg injuries in 2011) who merited only three stars from Rivals.com as an "athlete," not a quarterback.

Yet it's not remarkable given Martinez's blinding speed, durability (he played in 2010 with severe turf toe in his left foot and a high right ankle sprain), arm strength, poise under pressure and competitiveness.

"He doesn't like to lose in anything, even a board game," Casey said. "He is programmed to compete."

Casey taught his son how to play chess, and by 12, Taylor was beating adults online. He reached the second-highest level, purple, on one chess website.

"In a way, it's similar to football," Taylor said. "My dad has always told me to play a few games of speed chess to get my mind going before playing football."

Casey also passed on some good football genes. A king in the weight room, he transferred to play safety at Iowa State but suffered a career-ending knee injury.

"I was very aggressive," he said. "I'd rather knock somebody out than get the interception. Taylor would rather put up points."

But the two see eye to eye on almost everything else.

When times were tough and they lived in the cramped house, Casey stuck a note on Taylor's door that read, "Dreams come true when you work hard and pray."

"He will text that to me every once in a while," Casey said.

Said Taylor: "Nothing can break us apart. I will always be there for him, and he will always be there for me."

tgreenstein@tribune.com

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

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