Big Ten Tales: Chris Martin recalls NU days

What would it be like to grow up in sunny Florida and then move across the country to play college football in the Midwest? Former Northwestern standout Chris Martin knows a thing or two about that. I sat down with Martin at the Big Ten Network studio here in Chicago and asked him to tell me a few of his best untold stories during his collegiate playing days at Northwestern.

After a memorable four years spent in Evanston, Martin went on to play for the Chicago Bears and is now a lead football analyst for the Big Ten Network. In addition to being an in-game analyst on Saturdays, he also appears on BTN’s “Big Ten Football Report” and “BTN Football and Beyond.”

At Northwestern, Martin played under former head coach Gary Barnett for four years from 1992-95. He was a three-year starter and a key member of the Wildcats’s 1995 Rose Bowl team. But playing for Northwestern was not how Martin envisioned his collegiate football career. In fact, he didn’t even know where Northwestern was until he was contacted by the coaching staff. I asked Martin to share his greatest memories from his time spent as a Wildcat.

[RELATED: Watch Chris Martin and Northwestern play Michigan in 1995 on BTN2Go.]

BTN.com: I know you were born and raised in Tampa, Florida. So tell me, how in the world did you end up playing at Northwestern?
Martin: That’s right, born and raised in Tampa. I came out of high school in 1992 and I had never even heard of Northwestern. Geographically, I couldn’t tell you for the life of me where it was located. Growing up in Florida, I knew the University of Florida and Florida State, both of whom were dominant at the time. My idol was Emmitt Smith and I wanted to be like him and go to Florida, but they just never offered me a scholarship.

BTN: Well, what schools were recruiting you at the time?
Martin: I was recruited by Central Florida at the time, but they were I-AA, so I didn’t want to go there. South Florida didn’t have a football program at the time. So I took a trip to Maryland, West Point and Tulane. Those three schools, along with Northwestern, were the ones that showed the most interest.

BTN: So you had no clue where Northwestern was even located. How much of a shock was it to you when you visited for the first time?
Martin: Well, because I had never heard of it before, I had to do some homework. I realized they were in the Big Ten and I realized what a good school it was, so I thought it might be an opportunity to play early and get a good education. So on my visit, I had never seen snow before, I had never been on a plane, and really, I didn’t know what cold weather was.

BTN.com: Let me guess, it was chilly that weekend, wasn’t it?
Martin: It was beyond chilly. Sure enough, on my visit, it snowed that weekend, and it snowed heavily. It was a step below a blizzard. I remember, it was like five degrees. I had my light jacket on and I was just freezing. And I thought to myself “There’s just no way I’m going here. I’m a Florida boy; I got to stay down South.”

BTN.com: So what ultimately sold you on Northwestern?
Martin: I loved my trip. I loved the players I got to meet and Gary Barnett did a great job of recruiting me. I instantly bonded with him, so I took a chance. I’m one of several children, the only one to leave the state to go to school.

BTN.com: Wow. Leaving a huge family and moving across the country like that. I’m sure that wasn’t easy?
Martin: It wasn’t easy at all. I remember just getting here the first year and I remember saying, “I don’t know if this is going to work.” In 1992, that was one of the coldest winters on record.  I called home every day, saying “Mom I don’t know if this is going to work out for me.”

BTN.com: Well, props for sticking it out. How did you guys do your freshman year?
Martin: We weren’t very good.  And I think that was another thing that sort of added to it. We hadn’t won in like 30, 40 years. The games were bad. The libraries were more packed on Saturday afternoons than the football stadium. So it was a lot to take, but fortunately, I had a good group of friends on the team. You know, guys that came in as freshman and we bonded.

BTN.com: Any that you shared some good, appropriate stories with?
Martin:  Well, I do have a great story with one of the guys on the team, Paul Burton. The first day we arrived on campus, all the freshmen had to take our physicals all the way on the far south end of Campus. Meanwhile, we had our first team meeting shortly after that on the far north end.

Somehow, some way, Paul Burton, who keep in mind is a walk-on punter from Framingham Massachusetts, ended up with me and we were the last two to get our physicals. And so, we were running out of time to make our team meeting. Well, we missed the shuttle to take down there, so he says to me, “We need to run to the meeting.” Keep in mind, this is my first time meeting the guy. I’m thinking to myself “Run? It’s not my fault we missed the shuttle, we had our physicals.” But I listened to him, and sure enough, we actually ran side-by-side across the entire campus from one end to the other to make this team meeting. And if you know Northwestern, that’s not exactly a small campus now.

BTN.com: So you were winded for your first introduction to the team and coaches. Well, at least it was worth it to make it on time and give a good first impression.
Martin: That’s what you would think. Well, we didn’t make it on time, and Coach Barnett called us out in front of everybody. Everybody was pointing at us and calling us out. And I was thinking to myself “Why did I listen to this guy?” But the funny thing is that he ended up being one of my closest friends on the planet. From that day on, we talked every day through college and we still talk just about every day now.

BTN.com: That’s quite the introductory, bonding moment.
Martin: One that I’ll never forget. But like you said, one that not many people other than myself and Paul really know about.

BTN.com: So, you go to a small school that is known more for academics than athletics. You aren’t very good your freshman year and then four years later, you guys make it to the Rose Bowl. How did this transition happen in such a short period while you were there?
Martin: It was a lot of belief and conviction. We started to see some strides over time where we knew we had good athletes and we knew we were better than our record was. But really, there was just something magical that kind of happened. Granted, Coach Barnett was a motivational genius because what people don’t realize is that losing is contagious, just like winning is. I think our guys accepted losing for so long, so when he came in, he flushed out all the bad seeds, got rid of them and then the guys that stayed bought into his message and committed to it. And by the end, you could just feel it.

BTN.com: When did you see the results really began to pay off?
Martin: When we played Notre Dame in the first game of the 1995 season. We expected to win that game. I remember Coach Barnett saying, “Hey, when we win tomorrow, do not carry me off the field. Let’s act like we expected to win this game.” He said that and we went out there and did just that.

BTN.com:You played with Pat Fitzgerald during your college playing days at Northwestern right?
Martin: Yes I did.

BTN.com: Did you have an idea or did he give off the impression that he would be a head coach one day?
Martin: That’s a great question. Now let me just start by saying this: I joke with Pat now, I say, “You know, you’re the only guy who’s jersey number matched his 40-yard dash time.” He was No. 51 and ran about a 5.1 40 time. But you know what, he was brilliant. He was a coach before he was a coach, and you could tell that.

I played cornerback and he played linebacker, and he could tell you if it was going to be a run play or a pass play. He was right about 99 percent of the time, and that’s a luxury for a defensive back. He was a great mind, a great leader, not the best athlete on the field, but he knew his strengths and his weaknesses. And you know what? It’s interesting because I think that’s what you see in the program today. He knows his strengths, but recognizes his weaknesses, and in the end, he always finds a way to get it done. That’s how he was as a player and I think that’s how he is now as a coach today.

BTN.com: Well as a Northwestern guy, you have to enjoy seeing your Wildcats get off to this type of start this season?
Martin: It’s very cool to see just how they’re able to win. I think (Fitzgerald) does a great job at motivating these guys. Kind of like my coach, Gary Barnett.  I think he pulled that from him. A great coach can get a player to see who he can become instead of who they are, and I think that’s what he does best, and I think that’s what coach Barnett did as well. Both coaches work you hard, but then once you figure it out, it becomes a lot of fun.

About Sean Merriman BTN.com contributor Sean Merriman interviews Big Ten names and asks them for a great story about their days in the Big Ten for our Big Ten Tales section.

Originally from Farmington Hills, MI, I have worked at the Big Ten Network since 2012 and took over my role as web editor and blogger in August, 2013. Follow me on twitter for constant Big Ten updates @srmerriman. Thanks and enjoy!!

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