CHICAGO — The lightbulbs that hang over the front entrance outside the Hilton Downtown Chicago belong on a movie theater marquee.
They’re big. Round. They might have been plucked from the mirror of a Hollywood actress’ dressing room. The bulbs illuminated the rainy sidewalk in a hazy glow around 11:50 a.m. on Thursday, when the Big Ten world waited for the arrival of its next star.
Adrian Martinez and the Huskers were late.
The first session of Big Ten media days included Ohio State and Michigan State, but the story of Day 1 was Martinez and the Huskers. The 4-8 team now picked to win the Big Ten West and the sophomore quarterback with the Big Ten’s best chance to win the Heisman Trophy.
A year ago, Martinez wasn’t even the favorite to start at Nebraska. Now, he’s on the cover of preseason magazines and the hot story reporters around the country were itching to write this week.
And so, they waited, eyes on Twitter for updates of Martinez’s whereabouts while Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany spoke for the final time at media days.
Summer storms threw off Nebraska’s plans for an 8 a.m. arrival in Chicago. Scott Frost was scheduled to speak at noon. Outside the Hilton at 11:52 a.m., Chicagoans sat outside office buildings under umbrellas for a cigarette break. Penn State coach James Franklin and Purdue coach Jeff Brohm shook hands and took separate Ubers with their families for lunch. The media tapped their collective foot inside the ballroom.
At 11:54 a.m., the jet black Chevy Suburban rolled up. In the first suit he’s ever owned — navy blue, with brown shoes and a magenta tie — Martinez emerged from the SUV into the rain, right under the bright lights above.
Last year at media days, it was the Frost show. Where he moved, the story moved, and surrounding him were storylines and fastballs of quotes coated in confidence and culture change.
Frost stepped out of the car with his shirt untucked, his top button loose, not quite ready.
Martinez smiled and hugged a Nebraska official waiting for him at the door. He collected his luggage from the back seat, buttoned his coat, straightened his tie and walked in.
Sign up for Big Red Today news alerts
Get a daily Husker news roundup, recruiting updates and breaking news in your inbox.
* * *
Nebraska boarded the charter plane around 7:30 a.m. and took off at 7:48 a.m., leaving behind a warm, humid Lincoln morning.
In the air over Iowa, Frost told stories on the plane to pass time. Martinez, Mohamed Barry and Khalil Davis hung on his every word in the stuffy cabin.
Beyond the heat, the flight seemed normal. The turbulence hit about an hour after takeoff.
Around 8:30 a.m., the plane lurched violently, and the pilot turned around, landing at 9:08 a.m. in Peoria, Illinois, 161 miles from Chicago.
At 10:14, they boarded again, this time set for Gary, Indiana, where they’d then drive the 31.1 miles to the Hilton. Above the thunderstorms, the plane bumped along.
“The bumpiest plane ride,” Barry said.
“I was shaking the whole time,” Davis said.
While descending, the drop came, the worst of them all, the one that hours later would still give Barry goose bumps.
“The longest drop I’ve ever had,” Davis said.
The plane sunk down in the clouds, and the stomachs inside the cabin sank. Barry grabbed his seat and the wall and wailed. Panicked, Davis looked over at his quarterback.
Martinez was laughing.
“He was calm the whole time,” Davis said. “Didn’t really bother him much.”
After becoming the first true freshman to start a season opener in Nebraska’s history and after gaining more and more notoriety over the past 12 months, Martinez is made to handle the pressure and turbulence of his position.
Which is why, after putting on suits in the airport bathroom in Gary and after the professional driver hired by the university turned a 45-minute drive into 30, Frost told the room full of media he wouldn’t trade Martinez for anyone.
“He’s as good a player as we have, and I think as good a player as a lot of people have around the country,” Frost said. “He deserves to be here.”
* * *
One year ago, Martinez was just an option. In 2019, he’s the answer.
He set 11 school records as a freshman and threw for 2,617 yards and 17 touchdowns. He also ran for 629 yards and eight touchdowns. He understands the offense more now, he admits. He understands why Frost calls the plays he does. He is, as The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman told The World-Herald, one of the only reasons Nebraska’s projected to be as good as it is.
And yet, there’s still so much unknown about the sophomore. In local circles, the story is near-folklore at this point. The Tennessee commit whom Frost called mere seconds after accepting the Nebraska job. The quarterback for whom Frost flew across the country to solidify a commitment. The former four-star who rode his scooter across campus the weekend before the Akron game to receive the news he’d be named starter.
But Martinez has not been in the national spotlight much, if at all, since becoming Nebraska’s starting quarterback. The 4-8 tag hurts, but a year ago, even after winning the starting job, not only was Martinez not the face of the program, he wasn’t really a leader, he admits.
He walked into a locker room with three senior offensive linemen who were brash and loud, and a historic wide receiver who commanded attention.
“Obviously, when you’re a quarterback you take on responsibility, you take on a leadership role, but being a freshman you need to know, it wasn’t my team yet. It just wasn’t,” Martinez said.
The rules of the game have changed. The spotlight is squarely on the 6-foot-2, 225-pound quarterback.
Barry pulled Martinez to the side after the season and told him he couldn’t think of a national championship team in which the leader wasn’t the quarterback.
“He’s a humble guy, so he wants to earn it; he doesn’t want it just because of the position. He’s supposed to be the commander of the team,” Barry said. “He did it the right way. He’s earned everyone’s respect, and now I just told him, ‘Hey, command the team. It’s yours.’”
* * *
Because Nebraska’s success is so tied to Martinez, the intrigue of Frost’s second year and the potential of a former powerhouse resurrecting follows Martinez wherever he goes.
He walked into the ballroom for the first time at 2:28 p.m. Eyes of media and players followed him to the BTN set.
After the interview, Martinez made his way across the ballroom. When he entered a side room for his podium session, TV anchors scrambled to fetch tripods and sprinted down the room to get ready for the quarterback. National media stood up from seats in front of Michigan State players, gathered recorders and followed the sophomore.
At 2:51, Martinez gave Frost a thumbs-up as the coach finished up his podium session. Waiting for Martinez were seven tripods of TV cameras and nine reporters.
“How long? An hour, you said?” Martinez asked a Nebraska official. “Sweet.”
A phone recording audio sat in front of him with a Kevin Durant case.
“Whose phone is this? I’m not gonna lie to you right now, I’m not a big KD fan,” Martinez said. “It’s a cool sticker, it’s a cool sticker.”
He answered questions about expectations and leadership and Year 2. As he spoke, the crowd grew. By 3:14, more tripods were jammed together. The reporter count doubled. Martinez’s audience tripled that of Illinois coach Lovie Smith, who spoke at a podium right next door.
He answered questions with his usual cadence, beginning most answers with “Yeah,” cascading his tone from high to low. He downplayed the expectations of winning the West. Told the story of buying his first suit recently at JoS. A. Bank with his dad. Said he looked up to leaders like Frost and Drew Brees. The Heisman hype is cool, he said, but preseason prognostications?
“They don’t mean a whole lot of anything,” he said.
He repeated quotes from Frost and quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco. Frost said Thursday that he’s talked with Martinez about how to deal with the fishbowl and the attention, telling him cautionary tales of his time as a player in the 1990s. Frost told Adrian to be cognizant of his surroundings, no matter where he goes. Someone is watching. He has to be “on” all the time.
In a seat without turbulence, Martinez stayed cool. And, at times, he took the baton of the spokesmen of the team and ran with it.
“I think it’s special to be a Nebraska Cornhusker. This university is so special to me, and when you live in Lincoln, and you experience game days, you experience how much it means to people,” he said. “The opportunity to bring the program back to prominence is a special one and not an opportunity I take lightly.”
When he was done, three national media columnists walked over to chat more before an official could usher Martinez out of the room.
At 3:51, Martinez started up the stairs to leave. His first date with the national spotlight was over, and he disappeared down the hallway.
Eyes followed his every step.
Nebraska will go as far as Martinez can take it this year, Frost said.
The college football world will be watching.