TAMPA — Doug Martin held a pingpong paddle in his right hand Monday when he was scooped up into the arms of defensive tackle Gerald McCoy in the middle of the Bucs' locker room, interrupting a doubles match of table tennis.
"Doug!' McCoy bellowed as he lifted Martin off his feet in a bear hug. "You're back!"
The hooting and laughter between teammates continued for a minute. Martin, who gets a lot of yards after contact, didn't try to break free of McCoy's embrace.
The Bucs running back returned to work Monday. Back after a four-game suspension (he sat out last season's finale, then the first three games this season) for violating the NFL's policy on performance enhancing drugs. Back a week later than originally expected because Hurricane Irma postponed the regular-season opener at Miami and the penalty was for games, not weeks.
Martin arrived at One Buc Place early Monday, went to the trainer's room and passed his physical, then waited for his blurry-eyed teammates to roll into the facility.
"Doug is just great, man," McCoy said. "He's always smiling. He brings joy. No controversy. He don't argue with people. He comes to work. He smiles, he laughs, tells jokes. He's competing in everything he does. Practice field, pingpong, pool, video games. He's just Doug, man. We just love him. We missed him. That's my guy. And he's a Superhero guy so you know I missed him."
Everybody knows Martin has played the hero on the football field. When he is motivated and healthy, he's one of the best running backs in the NFL. As a rookie, he rushed for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns. Injuries limited Martin to 17 games in 2014-15 and he didn't gain 1,000 yards combined. But when the Bucs failed to pick up his fifth-year option in 2015, he exploded for 1,402 yards and six touchdowns.
But there is more to Martin than meets the I-formation.
Martin has earned respect for his play. That happens when make the Pro Bowl twice and finish second in the NFL in rushing as he did two years ago.
But Martin represents much more to teammates. He gets along with every player. He almost always has a smile on his face. And he can outwork most of the players and coaches in the building.
"As a player, he's had a ton of success in the NFL, so anytime you can get a player like him back, he should help us out in the run game," tight end Cameron Brate said. "It's just he always brings a lot of energy. Pretty contagious in that regard. It's awesome seeing him when I walked in this morning, especially coming into a short week. We could probably use the juice."
Ask Martin what he brings and he laughs. "Fresh legs," he said.
Martin said he worked with a professional trainer in California during his suspension. "On Sundays, I would do a little heavier conditioning to try to simulate the game," he said.
The past three Sundays were difficult. His body told him it was time to play, but he couldn't be with his teammates. He couldn't have contract with coaches. Even surrounded by family, the solitude was difficult.
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"I had to go somewhere to see the game because you know, we don't show a lot of Florida games (in California)," Martin said. "I had to go somewhere and watch it with my family. It was weird. It was different. As I'm watching, my heart is going and things like that."
The carrot is in front of Martin again. He is fighting for his career. Had the draft fallen a little differently, had tight end O.J. Howard not still been on the board with the No. 19 pick, the team may have taken Florida State running back Dalvin Cook (who tore his ACL in Sunday's game for the Vikings) and Martin may not be still part of this team.
It doesn't matter how many times he will carry the football against the Patriots. He's already given the Bucs a lift.
"Ah, man. I'm happy to have Doug back!" quarterback Jameis Winston said. "You know, I've been texting him after games just to tell him, 'One more, one more. Hey Doug, you're going to be back this week. We're going to be happy to see No. 22 running around."
Contact Rick Stroud at email@example.com. Follow @NFLStroud