Written by Stephen Alexander
Growing up as one of the big boys, always playing on the offensive and defensive line, John Martinez is now living “a lineman’s dream” playing fullback and scoring touchdowns for the Portland Thunder.
“The kid is a professional,” Thunder coach Mike Hohensee says. “If we put him on defense, he’d play there. It doesn’t matter where we put him. The kid would do the best job he can. I wish we had more kids like that.”
Martinez, who will turn 24 on July 23, grew up in Salt Lake City. He was born to Tongan parents, then adopted at birth. He has a relationship with both his adopted parents and his birth parents.
“I feel blessed,” Martinez says. “I feel honored and excited at the same time that I’m fortunate enough to have two sets of parents that are very loving and supporting.”
Martinez was not raised Mormon, but Salt Lake City had a large Polynesian community that helped get him into rugby and football. After his high school career, he decided to leave Utah because of then-USC coach Pete Carroll.
“Pete Carroll came to my living room and told me he was going to take care of me,” Martinez says. “So he got me there, but then he bounced to the Seahawks.”
Martinez played under USC coach Carroll in 2009, then was coached by Lane Kiffin from 2010-13. Martinez started 30 games at right or left offensive guard and was honorable mention all Pac-12 in 2012. He was part of the bowl-ineligible USC teams, which still does not sit well with him.
“It was one of the darker ages of USC, not being able to go to bowls, not being able to have that publicity for your school,” Martinez says. “The only upside was that you had a longer Christmas break. But you still had that bitterness of wanting to play in a bowl.”
One of Martinez’s best memories playing college football was when the Trojans came to Autzen Stadium in 2011 and beat Oregon in overtime, ending any hope the Ducks might have had of playing for a national championship.
“It was one of the louder stadiums I’ve played in,” Martinez says. “That place gets rocking. It felt great to ruin someone else’s season.”
When he was finished with college, Martinez signed with the Seahawks, but was not able to make the team in Seattle.
Martinez briefly considered giving up football, but that was short-lived.
“There was a time when I thought about (not playing football), because the more time I spend in football the fewer opportunities I have getting a job or career somewhere else,” he says. “But right now, I feel like I’m at the age where I can go have some fun and do what I can do as long as my body holds up.
“I’m living the dream of playing football.”
Martinez came on with the Portland Thunder late last season. Hohensee was not the coach at that time, but he was unimpressed with what he saw of Martinez on film from the 2014 Arena Football League season. After an offseason of playing rugby, though, Hohensee says Martinez did a 180.
“Last year, he came in late in the season, he was out of shape, and he really didn’t look that good on film,” Hohensee says. “But he went out in the offseason, played some rugby, got himself into unbelievable shape, and it paid off for him.
“He’s a tremendous fullback. He’s done a great job for us in protection, and he’s done way better carrying the football than we ever thought he would. And that’s because he’s worked at it. It’s nothing we’ve developed. I don’t think we’ve blocked particularly well for him. But he’s his own blocker with the ball in his hands.”
This season, Martinez, 6-2 and 325 pounds, has carried the ball 37 times for 58 yards (1.6 per carry) and 12 touchdowns. He also has caught six passes for 54 yards (9.0 average) and one touchdown. Those are good numbers for arena football.
Martinez, who has played rugby off and on most of his life, agrees with Hohensee that the cross-training was a catalyst for his success at fullback.
“I felt comfortable at rugby, so I was comfortable running the ball, without pitching the ball backward,” he says.
Having played on the offensive line also helps Martinez have a better grasp of running the ball.
“Having an offensive line mind-set helps you to know how things are going to develop,” he says. “You have to be more patient as a fullback in this league because the big boys have to move the guys out of the lanes before you can start running.”
Martinez is usually called upon to plow through the line, but at times he has shown an ability to make tacklers miss.
“He’s agile enough for what we do here,” Hohensee says. “We want him to punish people with the football. We want him to get one yard when we need one yard. Anytime he can catch the ball in the open field and make somebody pay for it, that works for us, too.”
Things are not all glamorous for a fullback in the Arena Football League, though. While he does get to carry the ball occasionally and get into the end zone, Martinez’s main duty is to step up as a blocker and take a ton of punishment to keep the quarterback safe.
“As a fullback in this league, you’re head-banging every play,” Martinez says. “Whether it’s stepping up into the ‘A’ gaps or coming onto the outside with the D-ends, guys are flying. You’ve got to be able to stop that momentum of that huge 300-pound nose guard coming at you.
“Fullback in this league wears and tears on your neck, on your shoulders and all that kind of stuff.”
On June 28, in a road game against the Las Vegas Outlaws, Martinez had his best game as a fullback, only to see it end with his worst play. Martinez was a lightning rod for the Thunder, scoring four touchdowns. On Portland’s final series of the game, though, the Thunder gave the ball to Martinez to try to run out the clock. Martinez fumbled, and the Outlaws were able to capitalize on the turnover with a touchdown on the final snap and steal a 48-46 victory.
“I felt like my back was on the ground,” Martinez says of the play, which originally was not ruled a fumble but was overturned after an official’s review that lasted about five minutes. “At the end of the day, though, they called it a fumble. That sucks.”
Hohensee’s reaction to the play was to make sure Martinez knew the Thunder would not have been that close to winning without him.
“I said, ‘I understand how devastating that was for you,’” Hohensee says. “’It was devastating for all of us. But understand we wouldn’t have even been in that position to be killing the clock if it wasn’t for your efforts earlier. His effort kept it close for us and, unfortunately, the ball came out.”
While the play may always bother him, Martinez says he has been able to move on by having a short memory.
“I believe in having a short memory, and then it’s on to the next (play),” he says. “There’s nothing I can do about that fumble.”
Martinez bounced back nicely on Saturday. He ran eight times and gained 15 yards, scoring the Thunder’s first and last touchdowns on runs of 4 and 5 yards in a 72-48 victory at Moda Center against the Jacksonville Sharks.