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Bucs' Doug Martin relying on strength from drug rehab to power his return

Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin participates in an "open OTA practice" at One Buc Place, the team's training facility, in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, May 23, 2017.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin participates in an "open OTA practice" at One Buc Place, the team's training facility, in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, May 23, 2017.
Published May 26, 2017

TAMPA — He would not talk about the drug he abused. He would not identify the rehab facility he entered in January or how long he was there.

"I was there long enough. I was there to point where I'm strong now," Doug Martin said Thursday. "Mentally strong and physically strong."

But one thing the Bucs running back seemed eager to share was that his substance-abuse problem, which earned him a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, is a thing of the past.

"No, it's behind me. It's definitely behind me," he said.

Anyone who knows Martin wants desperately to believe him. His teammates want to believe. His coaches want to believe. His fans want to believe.

When Martin is healthy, he's among the league's best backs. A year ago, he signed a five-year, $35.75 million contract. No wonder he felt as invincible off the field as he had been on it. If defensive linemen and linebackers couldn't find a way to stop him, how could anything else?

But last season, the wheels came off. Martin sustained a hamstring strain in Week 2 against the Cardinals. A few weeks later, he aggravated the injury during workouts and wound up missing seven weeks. He was never the same, averaging 2.9 yards per carry. Then on Christmas Eve, coach Dirk Koetter, perhaps recognizing Martin had more important things to worry about than football, made him inactive in a critical game the Bucs lost at New Orleans.

The next week, Martin was suspended and announced he was checking into rehab, suspended for the finale against Carolina.

"It's tough. I wanted to be with them, but it's a decision I had to make for myself as well as for the organization," Martin said, speaking for the first time publicly about his ordeal.

"It was a journey these past few months. You know, with the statement and I had to get help. It was a journey of self-development. I learned a lot about myself. I've had the support of my family, my friends and teammates all around, and I'm happy to be back here."

Martin appears to be in outstanding shape. He's clear-eyed and determined. But many who have been through his situation insist recovering from drug or alcohol addiction is a day-to-day struggle.

While Martin might believe his problems are behind him, the Bucs are taking a wait-and-see approach.

They strongly considered drafting Florida State running back Dalvin Cook with the 19th overall pick in the draft, but they took advantage of an unexpected gift when Alabama tight end O.J. Howard fell to them in the first round. They re-signed running back Jacquizz Rodgers and drafted Boise running back Jeremy McNichols in the fifth round to compete with returners Charles Sims and Peyton Barber.

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Martin couldn't be counted on during the final two games of last season. He will miss the first three games of 2017 serving the remainder of his suspension. Another positive test would result in a 10-game suspension.

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Koetter said he is encouraged by the way Martin has practiced. He also knows it won't be until October before anyone can be sure whether the running back will make it back on the football field.

"I think just from my own experience, when Doug is practicing like this, when he's finishing plays, when he's got that burst, when he's got that pep in his step, it's carried over to the field," Koetter said.

"We have a ways to go. We've got to get through preseason, we've got to get through preseason games healthy, Doug's got to stay healthy. You know, there's more things that have to happen. Again, time is on our side.

"I know everyone wants to know, they're anxious to know. There's just nothing to know right now. We've just got to wait this out."

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Martin was asked what he would like fans to know.

"That I'm a stronger person individually, mentally and physically," Martin said. "You know, better on and off the field."

Like any good running back, he's focusing on where he's headed and not the path he has already traveled.

For Martin, October can't get here fast enough.

Contact Rick Stroud at @NFLStroud.