Sam Martin goes from Pizza Hut to the pros

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Sam Martin received the call every college football player wants in April, one he never totally expected.

He’s a punter, after all, and punters are at best a once-a-decade draft proposition for teams. So the feeling he had when the Detroit Lions called and selected him, still hasn’t worn off.

That Detroit drafted him led to more excitement. His mother, Debbie, had grown up in the area. His father, Tom, said he spent seven years in Michigan.

So their son, inadvertently, was heading to one of their old homes.

“I just made sure I went into it with, 'I hope I get drafted,'” Martin said. “I could get drafted. I just want to get the opportunity. It wasn’t necessarily a surprise when I got drafted, but it was a good feeling.”

The whimsical, unexpected, surprising ride of Sam Martin from high school soccer player to NFL punter hasn’t slowed down. In Detroit, he set a team record with a 50.2-yard net punting average during Week 2 against Arizona.

Had he not turned down a full soccer scholarship and worked in a Pizza Hut, it might not have happened.

His sophomore year -- his redshirt freshman year, football-wise -- Martin needed a job. So he went into the Pizza Hut in Boone, N.C., and applied for a job.

Making pizza was one of the many odd jobs he encountered to help pay off student loans and training bills incurred from his initial half scholarship to Appalachian State. To fund the bill for the half semester before he accepted a full ride, he took out student loans in his name.

Through his whole college career, he worked. There were summers as a whitewater rafting guide and tubing boat driver. He said he bussed tables for a catering company, worked for an event planner, worked at Blowing Rock Country Club outside Boone, helped a landscaping company and moved furniture for a moving company.

“Dude, I had so many jobs,” Martin said. “I’ve worked my whole life.”

Most college athletes don’t have the time to work their way through college. All Martin did, seemingly, was find odd jobs. He is still paying off some of the loans, but he did it to afford the necessities of college along with his training for the NFL draft.

He also knew what he gave up.

Martin accepted then turned down a full-ride soccer scholarship to Georgia State. His senior year at Starr’s Mill High School in Fayetteville, Ga., the school’s football coaches finally convinced him to kick off and handle field goals.

He visited Auburn soon after, curious about football. The sport, still new to him, could become a college reality. Still, most of the schools in the SEC had already offered other specialists so the best they could do was convince Martin to be a recruited walk-on.

Appalachian State offered a half scholarship. Football became an option.

“I was like, ‘This might be a different route,’" Martin said. “I was kind of burnt out on soccer and I wasn’t set on Georgia State. It was more of it was a full-scholarship thing, which you don’t get in soccer very often.

“So I jumped on that. Football ended up working out. I wasn’t big on Georgia State. It was more financially why I was doing it.”

When he chose to give up the free education and take a shot at less money for a different sport, his parents were comfortable with the decision. Tom sensed his son wouldn’t have been happy at Georgia State.

Appalachian State? Tom didn’t know much about the school.

“All I cared about at that time was him going to a college, he was going to be happy at and growing to the next stage of his life,” Tom said. “It’s a big step, moving out of the house, on your own.

“Appalachian had a strong football program. I did not know that at the time. I knew they had beaten Michigan, unfortunately, because I’m a Michigan crazy nut, which I still am. I knew that, but I knew I liked what I saw. He did also. I was thinking one thing, myself and his mom, we just wanted him to be happy and go for it.”

Sam did, even if he didn’t know what he was really doing. He had been a kicker for a year. He still hadn’t punted.

At Appalachian State, they needed him to learn. One of the senior punters taught him technique to go with the raw power that initially had caught the App State coaches’ attention.

“He had an explosion,” said Dale Jones, the Appalachian State assistant who recruited him. “His kicks, he got the ball up when he was kicking and then his punts were explosive. Those are the things we felt we could really get a great player that nobody else was really going after.”

It worked.

Martin was an FCS All-American his senior season. What six years ago would have seemed impossible -- playing in the NFL -- turned into a possibility. Then came April, when Martin was one of two punters drafted.

His parents were pumped. So was Martin. So was Boone.

“It’s definitely pretty interesting,” said Aaron Manuel, a driver at Pizza Hut when Martin worked there and now the general manager of the store. “Especially when someone becomes a little bit bigger than maybe they, themselves, ever expected.

“It’s definitely really cool. It gives you a sense of pride within the community, that kind of thing.”

It’s a pride extending beyond his odd jobs and his unorthodox path to the pros.

“It’s a fascination with us right now,” Tom Martin said. “That he is actually out there and performing like he ought to, like a pro. We’re very, very proud of the whole thing that he’s done.

“It’s a huge accomplishment, I’ll tell ya. It is.”