Having covered high school sports since the 1970s, I've learned the best way to project the future of an athlete on and off the field is to see how they respond to adversity. Winning is easy; losing tests the soul of a competitor.
Jeremiah Martin, a senior quarterback from La Cañada St. Francis, was helpless last week when his previously unbeaten team lost to Whittier La Serna in a playoff game. Martin was on the sideline, his left arm in a sling after breaking his collarbone the previous game.
There might not be a quarterback in Southern California who had a better 11-game season than Martin. He didn't throw an interception and completed 69% of his throws for 2,460 yards and 29 touchdowns. He also ran for 10 touchdowns.
FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this story stated Martin had his right arm in a sling. It's his left arm that is in a sling.
This after not playing his junior season — he had quit football to focus on baseball, only to be let back on the team after he asked for a second chance.
St. Francis Coach Jim Bonds sought out his quarterback after Friday's defeat ended Martin's high school football career. He wanted to make sure Martin was doing OK.
Martin's response: "I don't feel bad for myself; I feel bad for my team."
If a coach's job is to prepare players for dealing with the ups and downs of life, for understanding the importance of team, for knowing right from wrong, then Bonds and his assistants have accomplished their task.
"Our team had cruised through 11 games and then this happened," Bonds said. "Things come out of nowhere. You can't fold up the tent. You have to keep going."
Martin, 18, underwent surgery Tuesday to repair his collarbone. A six-inch plate was inserted, and he spent the night in the hospital. Though he wasn't able to go to football practice on Thanksgiving — a cherished day for a high school football player because it means his team is still alive for a championship — he is no doubt headed for a bright future.
"I'm very blessed I was able to come back and play," he said. "It's unfortunate it had to end this way, but that's football and that's life."
It was this time last year that Bonds received a text message at the football banquet from Martin asking whether they could meet the next day.
"I knew what it was about," Bonds said. "He wanted to play football again. I was excited to get that text."
Said Martin: "He was disappointed I didn't play my junior year and wanted to focus on baseball. I saw my opportunity and wanted to take a shot. Unfortunately, it didn't work out. I wanted to come back. He was pleased. He didn't grant me anything. He said, 'You have to work for the spot.' I missed football and realized how big a part of my life football was."
Some coaches don't welcome back players who quit teams, but Bonds said, "I tried to talk him out of it. You've got to let a kid make a decision and do what he wants to do. We don't have enough kids at our school to turn people away. When he said, 'I want to play football again,' it was a no-brainer."
During an 11-game win streak, the 6-foot Martin looked as if he had never left, showing great instincts for a first-year varsity player. "The best thing about Jeremiah is how smart he is," Bonds said. "I tell him one time what to do and he does it."
Even though his season ended early because of the injury, Martin had a lot to be thankful for.
"Looking back, I don't regret it," he said. "That year off changed me. Mentally, I started to focus more on what I wanted instead of how others were telling me to lead my life. Physically, I got stronger and faster through baseball workouts and personal workouts.
"I grew as a person, athlete and man. I'm thankful for all the coaches accepting me back and the players having no hard feelings. I had to prove myself. I think I proved it was possible."
What Martin proved is the magic of sports and how a teenager can grow up, rise up and learn lessons to be savored for years to come.