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USF Senior Night and the families that lifted Mike Love

CHARLIE KAIJO   |   Times USF defensive end Mike Love (98) runs a drill during practice at the practice football field at USF in Tampa, Fla., on Saturday, Jul 29, 2017.
CHARLIE KAIJO | Times USF defensive end Mike Love (98) runs a drill during practice at the practice football field at USF in Tampa, Fla., on Saturday, Jul 29, 2017.
Published Nov. 15, 2017

TAMPA -- The sibling argument had escalated by the time Lisa Martinez returned home from the movies with her daughter.

Mike Love, the witty but wayward kid who recently had moved into the Martinez family's Safety Harbor house, was gone by the time Lisa got there. Left in his wake was Dalton, the youngest of Lisa's three biological boys and Mike's best friend since middle school.

"I had made a joke to a girl or something, and he thought I was like, calling him out," Dalton recalled. "So he was mad that I was talking about him."

It had been Dalton's idea to invite Mike to join this bustling family of six: three boys, a girl, Lisa and her husband Dave, then the Tampa Bay Rays bench coach.

Lisa and Dave agreed a change of scenery and paternal presence could benefit Mike, who had never met his own dad. Now, he was gone.

Moments later, Lisa got a call from Shalonda Love, Mike's biological mom who lived nearby in Oldsmar.

"Shalonda calls me and she's like, 'Mike's here, him and Dalton got into a fight. I'm bringing him back,'" Lisa recalled. "So we all had to have the talk (with the boys): 'You guys are siblings now. You're not leaving every time he fights. If you're here, you're here.'"

Tonight at Raymond James Stadium, Lisa and Shalonda will stand at Mike Love's side when USF's 23 seniors are honored before the Bulls' home finale against Tulsa.

For nearly a decade now, Love has been a son to Shalonda and Lisa; a beneficiary of two moms and —- for the last couple of years — even two dads.

"Since the day I moved in (with the Martinezes), everything was great," Mike said. "I got honor roll for the first time, and everything was just good. They kept me on the right track. And my mom did an unbelievable job."

And that movie Lisa and her daughter, Angelica, had gone to see that day? Lisa will never forget it.

The Blind Side.

"It's been one of the best experiences of my life," Lisa said. "I could not love the kid more."

SECOND CHANCE, SECOND FAMILY

Shalonda, employed by a medical company, struggled to raise four boys on her own. Mike, the second-youngest, often made it no easier.

Shalonda remembers driving down the road one day and noticing people in other cars staring at her — a few with mouths agape —- as they passed.

Looking in the rear-view mirror, she noticed a fidgeting Mike —- then only 7 or 8 — with a red bandana shrouding his face, and his hands tucked behind his back as if they were tied.

"He's kicking as if I kidnapped him," Shalonda said. "All you saw was his face with a big ol' smile up under the bandana. ... He was just like that. He thought it was the funniest thing."

That playful streak was accompanied by an obstinate one.

"He was wild," said Dalton, who befriended Mike in a sixth-grade P.E. class at Safety Harbor Middle School. "Wild and really, really funny. ... He liked to get attention on him."

Things worsened when Shalonda and the boys were forced to move in with her sister in Wesley Chapel after her landlord sold the place she was renting in Oldsmar.

She enrolled Mike at John Long Middle School. He didn't last the year.

He briefly played football before quitting. After getting into a fight during school, he was transferred to James Irvin Educational Center, a Dade City alternative school for students that haven't been successful in a regular school setting.

At that point, he and Dalton had become such close friends, Mike essentially was living at the Martinez house on weekends. It was Dalton who broached the idea of Mike moving in with the Martinez family full-time.

"Me and him were just talking, and he was pretty much just telling me, 'I don't wanna go down that route,'" Dalton said. "I was like, 'I know if you moved into my house, my parents won't let any of that happen.' He was all for it."

Dave and Lisa consented, and invited Shalonda and Mike over soon thereafter for some ground rules.

Mike would have his own room, but had to ask permission before going anywhere. He also would have to be involved in some type of school activity. He had to keep his grades up, and observe a reasonable curfew.

Mike moved in before his freshman year at Countryside High.

"(Shalonda) respected all my rules," Lisa said. "It takes an unselfish mother to pass her child off to somebody. ... I have so much respect for Shalonda."

The arrangement had its share of turbulence. Lisa recalls Mike being grounded "several times," and he was academically ineligible for football in the spring of 2011.

But by the end of that calendar year, he had made the honor roll in consecutive semesters, and had enjoyed a breakthrough season for the Cougars. He finished with 56 tackles, 15 1/2 sacks and three caused fumbles, and was named the Times Defensive Player of the Year for Pinellas County.

A season later, he had scholarship offers from Louisville, Mississippi State and USF.

He signed with the Bulls on Feb. 6, 2013.

"He decided what he needed to do, he got it done," Lisa said.

Said Shalonda: "(Living with the Martinezes) showed him that he has potential to be whatever he can be and accomplish anything in life."

GRINDING IT OUT

Freshman disorientation at USF arrived quickly for Mike, who suffered a micro-fracture in his right knee soon after arriving on campus in 2013.

He ultimately underwent three surgeries (both knees, right foot), barely creating a ripple his first three seasons in the program. Fortunately for him, Dave Martinez -— recently named Washington Nationals manager — had preached about persevering and grinding. So had his Countryside coaches.

"I had everyone in my head —teammates, coaches and family -— telling me to keep going," Mike said. "I kept praying. It was really them telling me to keep going. That's why I never gave up."

In 2016, he registered 20 tackles and three sacks, including one on the final play of the Birmingham Bowl to preserve the Bulls' 46-39 win over South Carolina. About three weeks before, he graduated with a degree in criminology.

Among those attending that ceremony: Grant Miller, the real dad he had met in 2015. Shalonda hadn't seen Miller -- whom she never married -- in years. A chance encounter at a Tampa restaurant set the wheels in motion for Mike to meet his real dad a couple of weeks later at Macfarlane Park in Tampa.

"I was nervous at first because...I didn't want to be like a stranger," Mike recalled. "But when I saw him, I just started laughing and smiling because he literally looked just like me, identical."

This year, Mike has flourished. His 5.5 sacks are tied with fellow senior Bruce Hector for the team lead.

"The thing I like about Love, he comes to work each and every day, has a smile on his face, a lot of energy," Coach Charlie Strong said. "I don't think I've ever seen him down."

Both of Mike's families will join him on the Raymond James Stadium field Thursday for senior night ceremonies. Lisa and Shalonda know the tears are coming.

They won't be blindsided.

"To say that I'm proud of him is an understatement," Lisa said. "I tell him all the time I'm just as lucky that he came into my life as he says he is of me coming into his life."

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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