He was there … and then he wasn’t.
The star quarterback, nicknamed “T-magic,” slipped past reporters and disappeared down a hallway after Nebraska pounded Colorado here in late November. So many questions, like so many helpless defenders this season, left in Taylor Martinez’s wake.
This much is known: Martinez is a phenomenal athlete who in his first full season of college football completed an impressive rise from scout team player to quarterback of one of college football’s powerhouse programs. By midseason, he was on more than a few short lists of candidates to win the Heisman Trophy.
But what’s also known is what happened next: injuries, an oft-aired clip of an irate head coach screaming at him on the sideline, and rumors that he’d quit the team and would transfer.
Which is what spurred those questions that have been swirling for more than a month.
Only Martinez isn’t talking. Not now, in the run-up for Nebraska’s Holiday Bowl game Thursday night against Washington at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium. Not for most of the season.
“He’s an introvert,” says Matt Logan, who coached Martinez at Corona Centennial High.
Martinez’s father, Casey, who played strong safety at Iowa State years ago, said rumors, speculation and unbridled opinion is par for what any prominent Nebraska football player faces. “Especially,” he adds, “for a kid that doesn’t talk to the media.”
He does talk, though. But mostly to his father, with whom he is extremely close. In fact, talking with his father is what led to Coach Bo Pelini’s sideline blowup in which he yelled at Martinez while only inches from his face and twice jabbed him in the chest during a 9-6 loss to Texas A&M in November.
Martinez had sustained a leg injury in the first quarter of that game, and Casey was concerned enough that he tried to call members of the team’s medical staff to check on his son’s status. When no one picked up, he then tried Taylor, who returned the call — to assure his father he was OK — while still in the locker room. The call constituted a violation of team rules, and when word of that conversation got back to Pelini, the coach flipped.
Making matters worse, Taylor chose to skip a treatment session the next day after talking the situation over with Casey.
“Maybe [that] wasn’t the politically correct thing to do,” Casey now says.
Huskers fans assumed the worst about a player who attended three high schools in four years, and speculation spread like wildfire that Martinez had quit the team and/or would transfer.
So many miles away and absorbed in his own team’s season, even Logan heard the rumors and decided to check in by text message.
“Yeah, everything’s good,” Martinez replied, “and I didn’t quit.”
Indeed, after sitting out the Colorado game because of the leg injury, Martinez retook the reins of Nebraska’s offense for the Big 12 Conference championship game this month against Oklahoma. And even though he struggled mightily in that game, a 23-20 loss in which he lost a fumble and had a pass intercepted as the Huskers blew an early 17-0 lead, he was confirmed as the bowl game starter this week.
Martinez has passed for 1,578 yards and nine touchdowns and run for 942 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Casey says his son is quiet but not a quitter and describes him as “the most fierce competitor you will ever meet.”
At Corona Centennial, Martinez passed and ran the Huskies to a state championship and, as a senior, was chosen by The Times as its Glenn Davis Award winner as the top player in the Southland. However, most college recruiters didn’t want to commit to playing him at quarterback at the next level.
Nebraska won out when it said it would give him a chance there, and when the Huskers did during Martinez’s first year, a redshirt season, he often found holes in the first-string defense during practice.
By last spring, Martinez was in a battle with Zac Lee, the incumbent starter at quarterback. By the summer, he had taken over.
Then came the first three games — routs over Western Kentucky, Idaho and Washington — in which Martinez ran for 421 yards and eight touchdowns in 40 carries, becoming only the second Huskers quarterback to rush for at least 100 yards in three consecutive games. The other: Eric Crouch, the 2001 Heisman Trophy winner.
That earned rave reviews, even from Pelini, who said: “The sky is the limit. He’s not near his potential.”
Of course, tougher competition — and scrutiny — soon followed. And Martinez’s personality and leadership ability were picked over while he remained silent.
“He seems fine on the field,” Huskers fan Brandon Effle, a 2006 Nebraska graduate, noted after the Colorado game. “He just seems uncomfortable off of it.”