TAMPA — Bucs running back Doug Martin smiled as he was surrounded by cameras Monday afternoon. To the humble and soft-spoken rookie, it's still sinking in that he's the toast of the town and talk of the NFL after his historic performance Sunday in a road win over the Raiders.
Martin, who grew up outside of Oakland, racked up a club-record 251 rushing yards in front of 60-plus family and friends at the Coliseum, making for an extra exciting homecoming.
"I couldn't have scripted a better one," said Martin, 22. "It happened perfectly."
To his high school coach, Martin's story is more special because of the inauspicious way it started. Stockton (Calif.) St. Mary's High coach Tony Franks was in the stands Sunday, sitting next to Martin's proud parents, Leslie and Doug in a club-level section with Bucs No. 22 jerseys sprinkled all around.
As Martin etched his name into the record books with highlight-reel runs, Franks couldn't help but reminisce how it felt like just a short time ago the league's newest star was a football newbie. Martin didn't play until his freshman year of high school, having spent most of childhood days shooting hoops or starring in the childhood game of tag — "keep away."
When Martin arrived at St. Mary's, Franks said he had to learn everything about football, from how to put on pads to how to carry the ball. In Martin's first game, he fumbled the opening kickoff.
"Needless to say, he got better," Franks said.
But even after 1,000-yard seasons in his final two years at St. Mary's, the 5-foot-9 Martin wasn't heavily recruited.
He landed at Boise State and played some defensive back early on, and was a good special teams player before eventually getting his shot. He blossomed into a first-round NFL draft pick after piling 43 career rushing touchdowns in college.
"That's why it's such a neat story, it's a story of persistence," Franks said. "It's the biggest question people ask, 'Gee, did you ever think?' Well no, we're dealing with a mystery of human development. Sometimes it comes together perfectly, and sometimes it doesn't. Everything came together for him and he's never looked back."
Martin has immediately become a workhorse back, ranking third in the league in rushing (794 yards) and emerging as a candidate for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah predicts a race between Martin, Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall pick.
"He's as a complete a back as I've seen," ESPN analyst Merril Hoge said of Martin. "He's been rock solid all year. He's gotten better and better, and has been a cornerstone for that offense."
Martin learned about the position in high school by watching YouTube videos of Hall of Famers Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith, hoping to emulate Sanders' elusiveness and Smith's physical running style. And Hoge said there are some similarities between Martin and Smith, the league's all-time leading rusher, in terms of build and ability to change direction.
Jeremiah, a former NFL scout, said the comparison with Ravens running back Ray Rice is the most fitting, as they can run away from, bounce off of and drive through defenders.
"We've seen it the last couple years, look at Maurice Jones-Drew and Rice, the powerful lower center of gravity (backs) have found a spot in the league," Jeremiah said. "Those three — (Jones-Drew), Ray Rice and Martin — you're talking about powerful little guys."
Martin said that as he has grown more comfortable in the league, the game has slowed for him, giving him the ability to trust his track and hit the hole with decisiveness. He credited the offensive line, and coaches.
"Overall, it's just clicking," he said.
That was especially true Sunday, when Martin became the first NFL player with three rushing touchdowns of 45 yards or more in a game, and he'd sometimes point into the stands to his special fans.
"It was unbelievably exhilarating," Franks said. "It became surreal, like, 'Are you kidding me?' This is our guy."