Here’s where years and years of hard work landed former Redford Thurston football standout Desmond Martin Wednesday afternoon: directly to the left of Detroit Lions signal-calling quarterback Matthew Stafford and just a few yards away from route-running Calvin Johnson during a seven-on-seven passing drill.
“I realize it’s every young football player’s dream to get to this point,” Martin said, smiling and wearing a Honolulu blue No. 40 jersey, moments after the middle practice session of the Lions’ three-day mandatory mini-camp ended. “But I also realize I’m not where I want to be yet.”
The former Eagle and Wayne State University record-breaking running back ultimately wants to be on the Lions’ 53-man roster, which won’t be decided until the team’s pre-season schedule is completed in early September – but he’s well on his way.
After piling up 2,791 rushing yards (fourth all-time in school history) during a brilliant four-year career with the Warriors, Martin acquired an agent, who hooked him up with a trainer, who worked the speedy 6-foot-1, 225-pound running back into the kind of shape that convinced the Lions to sign him to a free-agent contract in April.
It hasn’t taken Martin long to decipher the biggest difference between the college level and the NFL level.
“Oh, it’s definitely the learning curve that is involved,” Martin emphasized. “Everything is pretty short and limited in college, especially at the Division 2 level, so that everybody can understand it. At this level, the offenses are so advanced that you have to know this and you have to know that.
“Just one word in the play call can change a running back’s assignment. There are about 30 different plays for every install. So you have to know the playbook, and then go and regurgitate what you know when you go back out on the field.”
Every move a Lions player makes – especially first-year free agents like Martin – are videotaped during every second of every sesssion of practice, so mis-steps must be minimized to give yourself a fighting chance to make the roster, he said.
“That’s what this level is all about – evaluation and performance; they go hand-in-hand,” said Martin. “Their evaluations of you can be good, but if you don’t go out and perform, well….”
The turning point for Martin arrived during a mid-April indoor workout for the Lions at the team’s Allen Park headquarters.
“It was on a try-out basis, so the pressure was on,” he said. “But I like being in a position where I have to prove myself.
“Now, it’s like when I was a freshman at Wayne State – I’m at the bottom of the totem pole, having to prove to the coaches that I can perform.”
Martin doesn’t have to look far to find a perfect mentor during his summer workouts with the Lions. Former WSU running back Joique Bell went through a lot of what Martin is enduring these days before ultimately earning No. 1 running back status during the team’s playoff run last season.
The undrafted Bell was cut by two teams before catching on with Detroit, with whom he’s thrived.
“I talked to Joique in January and he kind of explained the whole NFL process to me,” Martin said. “The No. 1 thing he told me was no matter what happens, don’t get discouraged. Things are going to happen, but if you keep working, eventually it will work out for you.
“That’s means a lot coming from him because he’s been through it all, getting cut, bouncing back, becoming a starter.”
Like many current professional players, Martin’s path to the NFL has been filled with hardships and obstacles, but those have only made him stronger, he said.
“I wanted to play Division 1 football coming out of high school, but I had a few grade issues,” he said. “I saw Joique was leaving Wayne State to go to the pros, so I liked that opportunity because there was an opening and I thought I’d have a chance to play right away.
“But I ended up red-shirting my first year there, which turned out to be a blessing because that’s when I started transforming my body and getting it to where it is today.”
Amazingly, Martin only played running back for one season at Thurston, where he rushed for 1,500 yards as a senior.
Among the honors he earned at WSU were the Serxho Guralec Ultimate Warrior Award, which goes to the program’s top performers in the weight room, and an academic award that is presented to athletes with grade-point averages between 3.0 and 3.5.