STILLWATER — Markelle Martin had been at Oklahoma State less than a year when he decided to quit.
He was going to leave Stillwater and return to Wichita Falls. He was going to find a job and take care of his son. He was going to forget a tough freshman season that culminated with an academic suspension from the Holiday Bowl.
He was going to leave football.
“There was just a lot going on for me,” Martin said. “I didn't know how to handle the stress.”
A little more than two years later, those struggles seem like ancient history. On a night the senior safety was honored with the Nate Fleming Award during OSU's annual Student-Athlete Academic Awards Banquet, no one fulfilled the honor's criteria better. It is given for excellence after overcoming personal obstacles.
Martin has overcome so well that his academic adviser almost didn't nominate him for the award.
“What's crazy is … I didn't even think about him,” said Terry Henley, the primary counselor for the football team. “I don't even look at him as being an at-risk kid anymore.”
That definitely wasn't the case when Henley first met Martin. The ballyhooed recruit from Wichita Falls, Texas, arrived as an alternative admission student. He didn't have the test scores and the high school grades to meet regular admission standards.
Henley saw right away that Martin was a good kid but that his attitude toward school was bad.
“Lackadaisical at best,” Henley said of Martin's academic approach. “It wasn't even an aptitude thing. It was literally, ‘I'll do as little as possible … and things will work out.' Not even a year before, he could've not turned in a paper in high school and the teacher would've said, ‘OK, as long as you get it in in the next couple weeks, you'll be fine.'”
That wasn't the case at OSU.
During Martin's freshman season, he failed to complete a class and was declared academically ineligible for the Holiday Bowl.
What was lacking was a paper that he had written but failed to submit.
It was the last straw for Martin. Even though he'd enrolled a semester early and practiced through the spring and the fall, he was struggling to get on the field. He'd bounced from offense to defense, from defensive back to safety. He'd injured his wrist and needed surgery. He'd played sparingly on special teams and defense.
Then during the season, he'd learned that he had an infant son back home.
Martin felt like everything was pushing him back to Wichita Falls.
“It kind of felt like being in the weight room; stuff just kept getting added onto my shoulders,” he said. “Eventually, I couldn't take it anymore.
“I felt like I'd had enough.”
That's when Martin decided to leave OSU. When he told to those closest to him, they balked. His mom wanted him to stay in school and earn a degree so that he could better support his son. He heard similar sentiments from his position coach, Jason Jones, and his academic adviser.
Henley saw potential but knew hitting rock bottom could do one of two things to Martin — jar him to his senses or break him to pieces.
“But Markelle since that time has been what I would call a model,” Henley said. “Super student-athlete.”
Even though OSU fans know what a success Martin has been — he's a mainstay in the Cowboy secondary and one of the biggest hitters in college football — what he's done off the field is even more remarkable. Henley used to text Martin all the time to make sure he was keeping up with his academics. Now, Martin seeks him out if he needs something.
He actually asked to be enrolled in as many classes as possible this spring. Martin is taking 18 hours and is on track to graduate in December with a degree in secondary education.
That's right — the guy who wanted no part of school a couple years ago wants to be a teacher.
“I think I'm way different,” Martin said. “I've grown. I've matured. I've become basically what a bunch of people on the football (field) call ‘The Old Man.'”
He's as likely to talk politics as football with Henley, as likely to watch The History Channel as play video games when he's relaxing at home.
His teammates not only sense but also respect that level of maturity. A couple weeks ago, Martin poked his head into Henley's office when he was on his way upstairs to study. A few freshman football players were hanging out there, and when Martin saw them, he raised an eyebrow.
“I know there's something y'all can be doing upstairs,” he said, “so c'mon, get up and let's go.”
They quickly grabbed their stuff and followed him out of the office.
Martin is proud of how far he's already come because of the example he can be for his son, Isaac. He takes his responsibility as a father seriously; he missed the awards banquet because the 2-year-old was sick.
Occasionally, Martin will strap Isaac into his car seat, drive around town and talk about life. Even though he knows his son doesn't yet understand what he's saying, Martin wants to teach him as much as possible.
“When mistakes happen, you can't just hope they'll go away,” Martin said. “You've gotta learn from ‘em. You've gotta build on ‘em.”
Martin is proof of what can happen when you do.
OSU Student-Athlete Honors
Here's a look at some of the top awards given Monday night during Oklahoma State's annual Student-Athlete Academic Awards Banquet:
Scholar Baller Trophy: Adrianna Franch (soccer) and Girma Mecheso (track/cross country)
Nate Fleming Award: Franch and Markelle Martin (football)
Director's Chair: Brandi Andrews (track/cross country); Neil Erisman (wrestling); Lakyn Garrison (basketball); Mariah Gearhart (softball); Shane Jarka (football); Mark Johnson (golf); Sarah Meghoufel (tennis); Mark Nelson (track/cross country); James Propst (baseball); Erin Prutow (equestrian); Nick Sidorakis (basketball); Whitney Wernimont (soccer)
Community Service Award: Andrews and Prutow
Senior of Significance: Prutow and Wyatt Swinford (spirit)
Athlete of the Year: Gearhart and Brandon Weeden (football)