The Tee in Tennessee

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tee Martin says he can't cry anymore. The needle on his tear-duct gauge has been stuck on empty for years.

Martin knew he could replace folk-legend Peyton Manning as quarterback at Tennessee.

Football is a game. Manning is a quarterback. Quarterbacks come and go.

Martin could never, however, replace Gary Simmons, the best friend who died in his arms four years ago in a drive-by shooting.

Martin could never replace the 12 friends from his neighborhood in Mobile, Ala., who died before Martin turned 20.

Some guys keep pictures of their girlfriends in their dorm room. Martin keeps a photo montage of his fallen friends, a reminder that football is not life and death. Life is life and death.

"I did a lot of grieving," Martin said. "You'd go to class one day, and the next day a guy would not be in class. It was hard. I learned not to get close to people."

People wondered how a quarterback from an impoverished background and no incoming hype could fill the void of Manning, maybe the most popular player in Tennessee history.

Martin knew how.

"We didn't have a family that panicked in tough situations," Martin said last week. "We always knew something good would come from a bad situation. I have a total understanding of life. I know what I'm here for. I know if it's time to go, it's time to go. Looking back, stepping out of the situation, I have a total understanding of where I am."

Martin spoke from a podium in Sun Devil Stadium on Fiesta Bowl media day, four days before 12-0 Tennessee would play 11-1 Florida State for the national title.

It was a lofty perch. In fact, Peyton Manning never stood so tall.

Tee Martin has not only replaced Manning, Martin has trumped his former teammate. He has done the unthinkable. Manning passed for 11,201 yards in his brilliant career, but never beat archrival Florida.

This year, in his first try, Tee Martin beat Florida.

Manning passed for 89 touchdowns but never led Tennessee to an unbeaten regular season or a national title game.

Martin, in his first season as a starter, has led Tennessee to an unbeaten regular season and the national title game.

Martin, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior, won't get caught up with Manning comparisons.

"I hear about it, I get questions about it, but I've never thought about it," he said. "I've been here three years and just tried to be myself. I've never worried about being Peyton."

But there's no telling how dicey this might have been. As Manning's backup, Martin had thrown 16 passes in his career before this season. Every breath he took was going to be compared with Manning.

"Plenty of people doubted Tee Martin," receiver Cedrick Wilson said. "Even when we were 2-0, even when we beat Florida, people would say, 'Why is he playing?' There were write-ups in the campus papers, saying how terrible he was."

In the wake of Tennessee's season, Wilson says Martin has already earned his place in history, even if his comments could be deemed blasphemous in the church of Manning.

"With all the things he has accomplished, he has to be the top quarterback ever to come through Tennessee," Wilson said of Martin. "Not statistics-wise, but just all the things he's accomplished: beating Florida, winning another SEC title, and now being here, playing for the national title. Name another quarterback that has done that for this team."

Manning, who had a successful rookie season with the Indianapolis Colts, is expected to be in attendance for Monday's title game.

He and Martin had a good relationship and keep in touch. Martin spoke with Manning last week.

"He's proud of us," Martin said. "All the guys who left say how proud they are."

No Comparison

How is it Tee Martin took Tennessee to the mountaintop and Manning could not?

It was a long road.

Martin went to Tennessee with diversely different life experiences than Manning, Archie's son, who grew up in the plush Garden District of New Orleans.

Tamaurice Nigel Martin was born out of wedlock in 1978 to teenage parents. His father played wide receiver at Mississippi Valley State but has been, at best, a sporadic participant in Tee's life.

Tee was reared by his mother, grandmother and Uncle Arthur in Mobile. Tee moved 22 times as a child before settling into the R.V. Taylor Plaza Housing Development.

You ask Martin how he escaped the noose of guns and drugs.

"By being blessed and surrounding yourself with good people," Martin said. "There are good people in those situations too. Everybody is not bad."

Martin's grandmother kept Tee busy with early-morning chores and always demanded Tee be home before dark. Martin threw himself into sports and tried to keep a distance from the danger that surrounded him.

Martin says his father instilled the competitiveness in him, while the female side of his family pushed academics.

As a kid, Martin sometimes spent summers with his father, splitting the rest of the year among other family members.

"It was like going to high school, where you have six periods and different teachers," Martin said of his nomadic upbringing. "I learned different things from my father, mother, aunts. I learned from all of them."

Most of all, he learned to keep his nose clean.

Martin said he never gave in to temptations.

"No, never," he said. "What for? I watched everyone else in my neighborhood do it. Why add to the statistics?"

Four years ago, Gary Simmons became a statistic.

Martin was having a water-balloon fight with his friend in the neighborhood known as "Birdsville." Martin was inside the house refilling a balloon when he heard four shots. Simmons lay outside on the ground, a victim of mistaken identity. Martin ran inside and hid inside the closet.

Nothing in his life would ever be tougher than that day, least of all replacing an icon at quarterback.

Independence Day

Everyone in Mobile expected Martin to follow Dameyune Craig, also from Mobile, to Auburn, but Martin wanted to chart an independent course.

After starring at Williamson High, Martin headed off to Knoxville, where he would patiently serve as Manning's backup.

Martin got a taste of the future last year when he led a touchdown drive during mop-up duty in an Orange Bowl loss to Nebraska.

But, this fall, the whole post-Manning era fell in his lap. Reaction? Martin sort of shrugged. He says he has always been calm under pressure.

Yet, no one really knew how Martin would fare, not even his coach. Phillip Fulmer kept waiting for Martin to crack.

This week, Martin had to get up and give a speech at a Fiesta Bowl function.

"I was nervous for him," Fulmer said. "But I shouldn't be because he's handled everything we've put on his plate."

Wilson said the transition to Martin went smoothly because no one expected the new quarterback to be Peyton Manning.

"When Peyton was here, a lot of folks put a lot of pressure on him," Wilson said. "He always felt he had to win the game on his own. Tee was a nobody."

Wilson said the pressure Manning put on himself sometimes hurt the team.

"Peyton always wanted to make the big plays," Wilson said. "Everything he did, it was 'go get it.' But it cost us a lot. He threw a lot of interceptions in different situations where we didn't need it."

Martin, conversely, was almost coddled. Early in the season, he wasn't a primary weapon. The Volunteers won with a strong running game and defense.

The coaches fed him a little more each week until his breakout game Oct. 10, a 22-3 win at No. 7 Georgia in which Martin completed 16 of 26 passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns.

By late October, Martin was in full command, completing 23 of 24 passes for 315 yards and four touchdowns in a 49-14 route against South Carolina.

Martin finished the season with 2,164 passing yards and 19 touchdowns, with only six interceptions. He also rushed for 287 yards and seven touchdowns.

Martin doesn't mind adding to those statistics.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°