STILLWATER — Mike Cabrera surveyed the huddle as his third-grade students started circling around him for the first day of practice.
The pool of students donned crimson and cream T-shirts, the school colors of Owasso where Cabrera was coaching, but one player stuck out like a sore thumb.
The new kid — who had traveled from Oologah because the school district didn’t have youth football at the time — was wearing orange and black.
“Here comes Brock Martin, rolling up in an OSU football jersey,” Cabrera recalls, more than a decade later. “It was pretty comical at the time, because I was quite a big OU fan, and I ran a pretty tight ship there. I told them boys on our first meeting that we’ll have full-pad practice every night, this is what we’re going to wear, and Brock you can’t wear that OSU jersey on my practice field ever again.
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“He absolutely lost it. He gets these big ole crocodile tears and of course, I followed up with, ‘I’m just joking, you can wear whatever you want to wear as long as you’re making tackles.’”
Fifteen years later, Brock Martin no longer wears a replica Oklahoma State football jersey to a practice field on the outskirts of Tulsa. Instead, he wears an official one on Saturdays at Boone Pickens Stadium.
Entering his sixth year with the Cowboys, Martin has become a stalwart on defense, with the 23-year-old edge rusher amassing 137 tackles, 36 tackles for loss and 16 sacks throughout his career.
And as his career with OSU dwindles down, with Martin playing in his final Bedlam game Saturday at 6:30 p.m. on ABC, Martin’s crafted a legacy on grit, leadership and toughness.
And while the passion for OSU started earlier, the love for football began as a third-grader on those practice fields with Cabrera.
“He got it all started for me,” Martin said. “He ran us like a military program. He really set the tone for my love of the game.”
Martin wasn’t allowed to drink soda. Teammates couldn’t spend the night at each other’s houses the night before games, after one was bucked off a horse and the other ran into a barbed wire fence at Martin’s house.
“There was no more being allowed to stay at Brock Martin’s house,” said Martin, reflecting on Cabrera.
Martin’s youth team lost only two games during his four-year stint, both in championship games. Toward the end, Cabrera was even letting Martin call plays on defense.
He noticed Martin’s potential. He witnessed the grit and tenacity Martin played with.
He knew Martin was going to be special.
So one day after practice, Cabrera approached Martin with a football and a pen.
“Hey Brock come here, I want you to sign a football for me,” Cabrera said to the Martin, then a fifth-grader.
“You’re going to be famous one day, so I want your autograph early.”
‘What in the hell was I thinking’
Martin was always a wrestler who played football, his mother, Penny Martin, remembers.
Her son was enamored with the sport, starting early with his older brother and becoming a force in the state. He placed fourth in the state tournament as a freshman and would go on to win three consecutive state titles to round out his high school career.
But things changed the summer before his junior year. On paper, it looked to be a promising one for Martin’s future. There were summer camps with Oologah’s football team and he was planning on competing in wrestling with Team Oklahoma at nationals in Indiana. A July visit to Fargo, North Dakota, for the USA Wrestling Junior and 16U National Championships was also on the table.
But issues arose days before Martin could ship off to Indiana. At a football summer camp in Claremore, Martin suffered a knee injury.
“I remember my husband calling me and saying, ‘Brock just hurt his knee,’” Penny said. “Coach wouldn’t let him back in, and of course, Brock was mad because he said he was fine.”
Later that night, Martin reassured his parents the injury was nothing. But the next morning, it was swollen and discolored, leading to Penny taking him to the doctor.
“The doctor immediately said, ‘I’m going to give him an MRI, but I think he tore his ACL,’” Penny said. “Brock just looked at him and goes, ‘I didn’t tear my ACL. I didn’t.’”
That was the stubbornness Penny had grown used to with Martin.
Martin indeed had torn his ACL, confirmed by the scan. Penny remembers her son storming off to sit in the car. “I knew he was devastated,” she said. “He was obviously in tears, but he was very quiet.”
If all went right with rehab, Martin at best could return to the field in four months. Surgery was booked for the next day, “June 1,” Martin recalled, years later.
The window was open for him to return in October. But Penny noticed her son getting distant and depressed. She started to worry about him. “He was like, ‘It’s all over,’” she remembers.
Until Martin received a message from a recruiter. All these years later, he can’t remember who it came from, but the tone still resonates.
“We’re sorry this happened, but we’re all waiting to see how you come back,” the message read.
So Martin made it a priority. He grinded through his physical therapy to ensure he could return in the four months. He made it his goal.
“Brock is a person, he was a kid who would tell me, ‘If you visualized it, I can make it happen,’” Penny said. “Like that was the way it was supposed to end.”
Sure enough, Martin achieved that. Four months after the surgery, he was ready to return to the field. There were some stipulations. He was only allowed to play in the first half of the game against Cascia Hall, and his physical therapist, Bradford Boone, who also served as the team doctor for Cascia, would be watching closely from the sidelines.
On his first play, Martin recorded a sack.
“He had the game of his life,” Penny said.
The Mustangs ended up routing Cascia, and Martin would go on to complete his junior year with 96 tackles and 17 sacks despite missing five games.
“After the game, we went to say hello to Dr. Boone and he said, ‘What in the hell was I thinking letting him come back against Cascia Hall?’” Penny said.
That grit is still a trait observed in Martin today at OSU. Cowboys coach Mike Gundy compared Martin to baseball greats like Don Mattingly and Keith Hernandez who could “burn one in the dugout and go hit a double to opposite field.”
“They get beat up,” Gundy said, talking about Martin and former defensive lineman Brendon Evers. “They’re like 10-year vets in the NFL. They come over and smoke a cigarette and go back out.”
Martin would receive offers from Baylor, Kansas State, Texas Tech and a handful of mid-majors before receiving the one he had always dreamt of: an OSU offer.
And exactly one year to the day after undergoing surgery, Martin officially committed to the Cowboys.
“I told him, ‘Remember in life, that no matter how low the low is, in one year you’re at the top, the pinnacle,’” Penny said. “It makes me cry. I said, ‘Even as hard as it was for you at the time, look where you are today.’”
On a cool September evening in 2020, Martin’s phone rang.
The incoming call was from Gracie Bross, a woman Martin met at a bar while spending Memorial Day at the Lake of the Ozarks and had been dating for three months.
In that span, they had met each others’ parents and Bross was planning to come to Stillwater that weekend to see Martin play in OSU’s home opener against Tulsa.
Bross had urgent news to deliver to Martin. She had contemplated not saying anything to him until she saw him Saturday, but she couldn’t keep it from him.
She was pregnant.
“We both didn’t know what to say,” Bross remembered. “Or what to do. We were both nervous, being that young and not being together for too long. But he was very supportive and took leadership in that as well, you know, ‘Everything is going to be OK, we’re going to be the best parents,’ so on and so on.”
Martin was going to be a father.
“He said, ‘Mom, I don’t want you to be disappointed in me,’” Penny said of when Martin told her the news. “And I said, ‘I would never be disappointed in you son, and guess what? There’s only one thing to take out of this. You’re about to be a dad.’”
Bross noticed the change in maturity from Martin during her pregnancy.
Just like Martin had done for all his football teams before, he became a leader. Growing up, if a teammate had shown up late, Martin would run the field with them. “If they have to do it, I have to do it,” he always tell his coaches.
He helped lead the Cowboys to an 8-3 season while supporting Bross in whatever way he could. She moved from Missouri to Oologah, living with Martin’s parents before giving birth to the couple’s son, Maverick, in May 2021.
“He really took to being the father figure in a great way,” Bross said. “I’ve seen him mature at home, just helping out. When I need the laundry done or when I need the trash taken out, you know when you’re just a college boy you don’t want to do that. So when you have a family to help out with, I think that also pushed him to work harder.”
That leadership began translating to the OSU locker room, too. While players don’t see Martin as a father, he’s often jokingly referred to as an “old uncle” by some of the younger players.
Fueled by competition
Over the past six years, Martin has dealt with injuries.
Just last season, a gruesome dislocated elbow against Kansas State looked like it could keep Martin out for weeks. He ended up missing just one game.
This season, Martin has missed only one game with an undisclosed injury.
He takes pride in his toughness, which is fueled by his competitive drive.
In high school, Martin sustained a friendly rivalry with his teammate Jimmy McKinney, who played college football at Kansas State, over who could tally the most tackles.
“Brock would literally come home and be like, ‘Jimmy got 10 and I only got nine’ and ‘Now I’m behind and I’ve got to get him next week,’” Penny said. “Then the next week he’d be like, ‘I got 15 and he only got 10 so I’ve caught up.’
That competitive nature allowed Martin, despite being undersized, to play his freshman year. It’s the reason why after losing in the wrestling state tournament as a 14-year-old, he swore never to lose again and went on to win three straight titles.
“We’re not allowed to talk to him for about 24 hours, because when he loses anything he’s just like, ‘Don’t speak to me,’” Penny said. “He had to process it in his mind.”
After he processes it, he uses it as motivation.
But things have changed for Martin recently. The wins and losses aren’t his biggest motivator anymore. Now with a family, he says that is his why as his college career begins to dwindle.
His son and girlfriend are the first people he seeks out after games. Spending as much time together during a hectic chapter in their lives is what motivates him.
And as a family man, the rugged and competitive side of Martin gets put on hold at times.
“He probably wouldn’t like me saying it, but he’s a giant teddy bear,” said Bross about Martin when they are at home. “He’s just super sweet.”
But, the hard-headedness still shows up.
“It’s funny, because a lot of people, they say like all of Brock’s friends and all of my friends, they always say that I am the female version of Brock,” Bross continued.
The end is near
The future is uncertain for Brock Martin.
As his time with the Cowboys draws close to the end, decisions will need to be made by Martin. But, the constants remain.
He’s a father. He’s a fighter. He’s a leader.
And locked away in a chest in Mike Cabrera’s home with other memorabilia from former players, is that football Martin signed more than a decade ago, the signature still bright as can be.
And Cabrera still knows Martin will be famous one day — whether that be on the football field or in life.
“He was pretty much born with persistence,” Penny said.
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