The memory hangs like a dusty portrait in Josh Martini’s mind.
He was at the black-tie, $100-a-ticket celebration for the opening of the Circle Centre mall, nine months after being named The Indianapolis Star’s 1994 Indiana Mr. Football. Seated next to him was Walter Payton. Martini was speechless at first, but by the end of the evening he was trading playful jabs with the Hall of Fame running back.
It was a time Martini will never forget. Two stars, side by side. Walter Payton, the past. Josh Martini, the future.
“Everything happened so fast,” Martini said recently. “It got better and better and better. What I accomplished . . . the people I was brushing shoulders with. . . . It hits me now and I think, ‘Wow.’ But not at the time. It was fast.”
And then it was over.
Martini never played again.
The former East Central High School star didn’t qualify academically to continue his career in college. He lasted a semester at Ball State and another at the University of Indianapolis and then dropped out of school. He has found success elsewhere, working as the general manager at Beyond Fitness, a workout facility near Cincinnati, after serving in the Marines for four years.
Martini’s story is hardly unique among Indiana’s family of Mr. Footballs — the 13th will be chosen Thursday based on a vote of the state’s coaches and media. Few have experienced the success the award would seem to predict.
Only four Indiana Mr. Footballs have succeeded athletically at the Division I-A level, and just one, Bloomington South’s Rex Grossman, spent a full season in the NFL. Two of the first seven honorees — Earl Haniford and DuJuan Daniels — graduated from college. By comparison, five of Indiana’s Mr. Basketballs during that stretch received degrees.
“If it hadn’t been for football, half of us probably wouldn’t have gone to college,” said Alex Smith, Mr. Football in 1992, the year The Star began giving the award, and the second-leading rusher in Indiana University history. “I probably could have graduated if I put all my efforts into it but I put every single ounce of time into football. We all put our eggs in that basket, hoping for the big payoff. Unfortunately, it’s a slim few who get it.”
It took one snap for Bo Barzilauskas to realize he wasn’t good enough to be an NFL lineman.
The 1993 Mr. Football from Bloomington South played two seasons at IU, quit for four years — “family problems,” he said, refusing to elaborate — then re-started his career at Division II Valdosta (Ga.) State and was invited to the San Francisco 49ers’ training camp in 2001.
Barzilauskas spent most of his college career on the defensive line but his 300-plus-pound body fit better on the offensive side in the pros. His first pass set was against All-Pro defensive tackle Bryant Young.
“He made me look (bad),” Barzilauskas said. “I think Mr. Football is exactly what it is, a great player while you’re in high school. Whether you have the academic ability or your physical (development is) capped . . . (being a great high school player) could be all your potential.”
There are several reasons the Hoosier state’s Mr. Footballs have struggled at the next level.
All but Barzilauskas were quarterbacks or running backs, and most were undersized compared to college stars. Clayton Richard, 6-5, 225 pounds, the 2002 winner, was the only quarterback with the size sought by big-time colleges. Richard was the No. 2 QB at Michigan this season behind freshman Chad Henne.
The biggest running back was Smith, at 6-feet, 200 pounds, no more than average size in Division I-A.
For others, the problem was getting stuck behind someone better, or in a system that didn’t match the player’s strengths. Haniford, the 1995 Mr. Football, was described by then-Martinsville coach Bill Siderewicz as “the Damon Bailey of football” and threw for more than 11,000 yards, winning state passing titles four years in a row. At IU he fell behind Antwaan Randle El on the depth chart.
“If he goes to Purdue a year later (with coach Joe Tiller’s passing-oriented offense), it fits his personality and type of passing,” Siderewicz said. “Some coaches work better with quarterbacks than others. It’s not just the kid. A lot goes into it.”
For another Mr. Football, the problems came off the field. James Banks, the 2001 winner who led Tennessee in receiving in 2003, was dismissed from the program Friday after he violated the school’s substance-abuse policy. Banks, who quarterbacked Ben Davis to Class 5A state titles in 1999 and 2001, had been suspended by the Volunteers three times previously.
‘LOOKED DOWN UPON’
Grossman, the 1998 Mr. Football, was determined to attend a Top 10 program that threw the ball, settling on Florida. He earned the Gators’ starting position as a freshman, entered the NFL draft after his junior year and signed a five-year, $7.6 million deal with the Chicago Bears before last season.
“Football is the ultimate team sport. It helps to have good people around you,” said Grossman, who was the Bears’ starter this season before injuring his knee. “I felt like (going to Florida) would make me much better instead of going to IU where they’re just not that good at football. It surprises me (that few of the Mr. Footballs have had success in college) but I think the No. 1 thing is none of those guys got on a good team.”
Several didn’t get the opportunity to make that decision. Martini, Israel Thompson (Mr. Football, 1996), Derrick Ellis (1999) and Otis Shannon (2000) didn’t qualify academically for scholarships at four-year schools.
Thompson continues to pursue a football career with the Indiana Tornados, a Carmel-based minor-league team.
Shannon spent one season at Harper Community College in Illinois and transferred to Western Kentucky, at which time he was diagnosed with dyslexia. He left school when his transferred credits left him a class short of qualifying for a scholarship, and has signed to play for the Evansville Bluecats of the United Indoor Football league.
“I’ve been looked down upon,” said Shannon, who plans to complete his degree. “The fans are fickle. When I wasn’t doing well, they were not around. I had to go through this thing alone. That’s how I grew up. I wasn’t the most mature high school kid and I wasn’t ready to handle the attention.
“It’s a tough thing when people expect a lot of things out of you and some people can’t stand up to that pressure. Some people fold. Some thrive. I’m going to play well (in Evansville), work hard and someday people are going to see me playing on Sundays.”
And then there are those who give something back.
DuJuan Daniels, the 1997 Mr. Football, went from Bishop Chatard to Boston College, but his pro hopes were dashed by a knee injury his junior year. He turned the disappointment into a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s — “that’s greater than the Mr. Football,” he says — and now works at Cathedral as a guidance counselor and assistant football coach.
Daniels’ mission is to make sure William Stubbs, the school’s star tailback, and players like him understand the importance of academics. Daniels hung two of his old No. 32 jerseys on the wall of his office, so Stubbs will see them when he looks up from his textbook during his studies.
Daniels wants Stubbs to put the concepts together, football and studying. He knows only slightly more than half of Division I-A football players graduate (57 percent, according to the most recent statistics).
“When William Stubbs comes in here and sees (the uniforms), he knows he’s working for something,” Daniels said. “We talk about it all the time. My goal now is to make sure these guys go to college and get degrees. The NFL is like Vegas — it’s a gamble. The biggest thing is getting into college, earning a scholarship, graduating and being productive afterward.”
The Mr. Footballs who failed to graduate from college expressed little more than minor regret over the lost opportunity. But asked what they’d say to today’s high school stars, all, to one degree or another, echoed Daniels’ message.
Said Alex Smith: “Now that I have kids of my own I want them to go to college. I don’t think it’s the book smarts as much as you mature and learn how to survive on your own. There’s nothing that compares to (college) as far as preparing you for life. Now that I raise my own kids, they’ve been getting prepared for college since Day 1.”
Call Star reporter Nat Newell at (317) 444-6182.