LINCOLN — Wearing a tracksuit and a stocking cap, Taylor Martinez stood in a large huddle with the rest of Nebraska's seniors after Tuesday's practice inside the Hawks Championship Center.
The huddle broke, and the quarterback walked briskly off the field alone. For the second time in as many weeks, a reporter asked Martinez — out for the last four games with a toe injury — if he'd share a few recollections on his record-setting career at NU. Martinez flashed a knowing smile.
“No, I'm good,” he said, still walking. “Maybe after the game.”
NU's career leader in total offense, passing yards, completions and touchdowns often preferred to let his play speak for itself. A senior year cut short by injuries — Martinez played in four games, two of them losses — has silenced that part of his persona, while the media-shy part has remained intact. It's resulted in one of the most notable players of the Bo Pelini era having one of the quietest exits.
“It's been a crummy year for him,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “Expectations so high. His goals. And really, he's improved over the course of his career. What he's done for this program, I wish he had been healthy and been able to play.”
Said Pelini: “He's had a helluva career. He's broken a lot of records. He's done some great things. He has nothing to hang his head about. You can't say enough about him and what he's done.”
Pelini suggested at his Monday press conference that not enough positive things were said or written about Martinez over the course of his career.
“I don't think he was appreciated as much as he probably should've been while he's been here,” Pelini said.
“You guys answer that question,” Pelini said, indicating the media.
The player from Corona, Calif. — recruited to NU in the same year as Cody Green, who later transferred to Tulsa — drew occasional criticism in the press and on Internet message boards for turnovers and enigmatic answers in press conferences. He also drew praise for explosive runs and game-winning drives in 2012.
He won the job in 2010 over two more experienced quarterbacks — Green and Zac Lee — who had fans of their own. Martinez quickly seized the job, though, helping the team rattle off five straight wins. Later that year during the Texas A&M game, Martinez was chewed out on the sideline by Pelini for taking a call from his dad, Casey, in the locker room after he'd sustained a foot injury.
In 2012, Martinez led NU to a Legends Division title, engineering four fourth-quarter comebacks in the Big Ten. He was named first-team All-Big Ten quarterback by the league coaches and was considered a Heisman contender heading into this season. But Martinez got hurt in the season-opener against Wyoming. He played for two more weeks — including in a 41-21 loss to UCLA — before sitting down for three games. He returned to lose at Minnesota, and sat again.
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This season, Husker coaches described his injury as turf toe until Martinez held a quick press conference after NU's 34-23 loss to Minnesota. It's the last time Martinez spoke to the media.
“A lot of people think it's my big toe, but it's not, and it's not turf toe, either,” Martinez said at the time. He added it was “simpler” to say it was, even if “turf toe” wasn't accurate. Martinez's real injury, according to a Nov. 11 text message from Casey Martinez, could take up to six months to fully heal.
A TV reporter asked Beck on Tuesday if Martinez had an “odd” relationship with the fans.
“Who in this program doesn't?” Beck said. “Who has a great relationship with the fans in this program? There's a lot of players, coaches — it's just the way they are. It seems a lot of times when they do good, they like him. And when they don't do good, they don't like them, whoever it is. I guess that's the definition sometimes of a fan, right?”
At Fan Day, though, fans formed a line 120 yards long to meet Martinez and have their picture taken with him. One girl brought a life-size cutout and wept upon seeing Martinez.
Martinez's roommate and close friend, fifth-year senior quarterback Ron Kellogg, captured Fan Day on video. Kellogg, once described as “the perfect backup quarterback” by Beck, had always been the one who could loosen up Martinez with a joke or a prank. As the season began, it appeared likely Kellogg would renew that sidekick role.
But Kellogg beat Northwestern with a Hail Mary pass. Kellogg then led the Huskers to a comeback win at Penn State. Because of an injury to Tommy Armstrong, Kellogg is likely to start Friday against Iowa. It's his Senior Day, too.
If he'd been told he would start his final game as a Husker, “I would have told you you were a liar,” Kellogg said. “I probably wouldn't have believed you because Taylor was almost invincible. I would have just assumed that he would start the entire season.”
Kellogg said Martinez has handled his injury as well as could be expected and been a help where he could be.
“It's been difficult, but he's a mature adult, and he's handled it like an adult,” Kellogg said. “He's been there for us, especially as a senior who's played for four years now.”
Pelini has not ruled out Martinez's return for the bowl game. Neither did Casey Martinez in the text he sent two weeks ago. But Beck doesn't doubt that, if Nebraska asked Martinez to play Friday, he'd probably try. That toughness, Beck said, is what he'll remember.
“The way he competed every day,” Beck said. “The way he competed in every ballgame. It was never-say-die.”
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