Heading into 2015, the Portland Thunder secondary will be depending on new faces, as two defensive backs, Eric Crocker and Dwight McLean signed to teams closer to their homes, and a third, Varmah Sonie, signed with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns.
Andre Martin, an Arena Football League rookie with some NFL experience and a FCS National Championship under his belt, hopes to help build a bridge from last year’s successful secondary to this season’s squad – after all, he and Sonie played together at the University of Northern Iowa as defensive backs.
“He was telling me even before he got with some of these NFL teams how much fun he was having up here, how glad he was to keep playing the game, how it was a nice city with great fans,” Martin said. It was Sonie’s endorsement of the Rose City that helped guide Martin here.
Then again, Martin has always been interested in connections with the past.
As a kid growing up in St. Louis, he remembers going to his great-grandmother’s house in Arkansas every Fourth of July for celebration, to unite with family, and to hear stories about his family’s history, which gave him a sense of place.
“She was a great woman,” said Martin. “She was 85 and still in charge – still walking, still cutting grass, still cleaning. She was a neat freak. It just amazed me how she’d taken care of so many people. She got everything accomplished that she wanted, and was just so loved.”
But when Martin returned after his sophomore year for his cousin’s graduation from Southeast Missouri State University, the dementia that had just started to wreak havoc with his great-grandmother’s brain when he’d last seen her had progressed quickly.
“I said ‘Grandma, how are you doing?’ – She couldn’t even remember who I was. It messed my mind up, because she was the one who always told me stories about the family.”
Without that connection to family history, Martin said, it’s difficult for people to have a sense of where they’re from and what they’re here to do.
It was at that point that Martin realized he was going to change his major from business to gerontology, the study of the biological, psychological, and cognitive aspects of aging. After graduating from Northern Iowa with a degree in gerontology and a minor in family studies, he went on to North Dakota State University as he pursued a master’s degree in gerontology while playing football for the 2012 FCS title winners.
After Martin’s football career is done, he intends to finish his master’s degree and work in retirement communities, helping elderly people exercise to help stave off the aging process (he’s also a personal trainer).
He’s also looking forward to authoring his own part of his family’s history. His wife, Nadia, a vaccine specialist, will be coming to the Portland area soon as part of her maternity leave. She’s working on getting a territory in Salem that she’ll be able to work while living with Martin in Portland as they raise their soon-to-be-born daughter.
At this moment, however, Martin is focused on football. Football is the reason he’ll have to go back to earn that degree, as St. Louis Rams’ rookie camp, where he was invited after the 2012 season, took place during spring semester at NDSU. He felt like he was competing well with the other invitees until plantar fasciitis eventually took its toll and turned him into a player he wasn’t.
Football is the reason he sacrificed his last opportunity to run track in college – his coaches expected him to run a 10.4-second 100m dash in the Summit League Championships, but Rams’ rookie camp started the same day.
Football has taken him this far in his story.
“He’s a great competitor,” said Thunder Head Coach Mike Hohensee. “It’s amazing how tight [the secondary] is already. They all understand they’re new to the game and that they have a long way to go to compete against some of the great receivers and great playcallers in our league.”
He’s also excited about the opportunity to play in the AFL.
“For right now, I haven’t even been thinking about playing in the NFL – I’ve just been having fun with this. I didn’t think the Arena game was going to be as fun as it is,” Martin said.
“Playing safety is the hardest thing out here. I feel like if I can guard [the motion man], if I can master that, then I can play anywhere. There are a lot of fast guys, a lot of guys that are underrated. I feel like I’ve been doing well against the competition…I just know it’s going to translate well to the next level.”
Thursday’s scrimmage was a spirited one, with players striving to separate themselves and become part of the 2015 Portland Thunder, but the man who spent his time studying aging in college feels like the clock is ticking backward when he’s on the field.
“Sometimes you get lost in the NFL and CFL, knowing that they like certain guys and you’re thinking about a lot of other things. Now that I’m here, I’m just having fun. It takes me back to my college days.
As he stood up to begin putting his equipment in bags before getting in a car going back to the Thunder offices for lunch, he added, “You come out here and you want to do your best and make a lot of plays, but just to have this opportunity to play ball…you can’t beat it. I’m having fun and I felt like I did well today.”