Published Friday, December 28, 2012 at 8:40 pm / Updated at 11:37 pm
FOOTBALL
Shatel: Skill is gold, but NU's Martinez fits no mold

ORLANDO, Fla. — Taylor Martinez shook my hand Friday.

For the record, the Nebraska quarterback has a firm handshake. And it came with a smile. What's more, he extended the hand.

Martinez's cool gesture caught me by surprise. It came out of left field, not unlike one of those lightning bolts he pulls out of his back pocket in a game. Or a quote he'll grab out of midair that has reporters rolling their eyes.

College football players don't shake your hand, unless they're planning on running for office one day. Meanwhile, here's Martinez, who can act like the media gives him allergies, ending an interview session Friday with a gesture and grip that any Nebraska rancher would be proud of.

The psychoanalysts among us can probably chalk this one up to Martinez's maturity as a leader, his growth as a guy who “gets it.”

Possibly. More than likely, this was Taylor being Taylor. You never know what he's going to do next.

And that's a good thing.

Maybe it's because it seems he's been around since 1978, but I'm learning to embrace Martinez. I wonder if other Nebraskans will do the same. Some will. Many, never.

I understand. Martinez is a complicated guy, playing a bottom-line game in a bottom-line state.

He does not go from here to there. He makes several stops along the way. Some Husker fans want to fit him into a box, the cut-out profile of the fundamentally-sound, picture-perfect Nebraska quarterback. Martinez won't fit into that box. Ever.

What fun would that be?

Martinez is one of the most fascinating players I've followed at Nebraska, or anywhere.

Whenever he sets foot on the field, anything can happen. And probably will. Yes, for either team.

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He drives the Nebraska purists batty with his maddening mechanics. But how many Husker quarterbacks, or players, can you think of who could do what he does? Score in a blink. Take away your breath. Roll the highlights.

Johnny Rodgers comes to mind. Not many others, in the mind-blowing category.

All of this struck me in the last few weeks, when a reader asked if Martinez's wow-factor touchdown scramble early in the Big Ten championship game was a lot like his career: a play that should live in infamy but will fall through the cracks of a blowout loss.

Decent point.

And that is, here's a special player we should remember forever — the school's all-time total offense leader as a junior, for crying out loud — who won't ever get the appreciation he deserves.

Until he wins a championship.

That's the rule of football. Quarterbacks are judged by championships. Not yards. Not “SportsCenter” appearances. Rings.

You know that. Taylor knows that. But I can't help but think how a title — maybe some more help from his defense Dec. 1 or his offensive coordinator two years ago against Oklahoma — would have changed how we view No. 3.

Instead of aloof or disinterested, the anti-quarterback, he would be the quiet, businesslike field general.

Instead of the fundamentally-challenged quarterback who makes up for mistakes with athleticism, Martinez would be the student of the game who grew with hard work.

And instead of wild and haphazard with the ball, he'd be the gutsy gunslinger, dripping with swagger, confident in his abilities and his teammates.

Nebraska coach Bo Pelini has said Martinez has some Brett Favre in him. Martinez is not Favre. But there's some truth in that. Martinez is fearless, like Favre. And he possesses a short memory, like Favre, that can help erase mistakes.

What Favre does have is a championship ring, which made him wildly popular.

Favre also had an aw-shucks personality and a rapport with the media, which helped his legend grow.

Martinez is still working on both of those. But the kid is in a tough spot: He's an anti-celebrity in a position that demands it.

“He's a very focused person,” said NU senior Eric Martin, who lives with Martinez. “He doesn't like to go out much, he doesn't really go out at all. He doesn't like the popularity. He doesn't even like people to know who he is. I think he'd just like to play football. He'd just like to be a normal person.”

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Martinez can't change that. Nor can he change the other golden rule of playing quarterback: The backup is always more popular. The calls for Tommy Armstrong to unseat Martinez will come with the first Martinez turnover next fall, if not sooner.

He won't let that happen. Martinez is a better quarterback than most of us give him credit for, a guy who has better mechanics, decisions and leadership than he did yesterday. But there are those times he can't help himself.

That's who he is, this kid from the left coast who grew up with his dad, who helped his dad get through a broken marriage. There are so many things to learn about Martinez, but he only gives us so many words.

His sound bites come in small bites. And they can be comical. Sometimes he comes off as brash, un-politically correct.

Like Friday, when he was asked about the prowess of Georgia's defense, and this is the part where most quarterbacks would gush about the opponent. Martinez said the Dawgs reminded him of a Big Ten defense, of Michigan State — the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl-bound Michigan State defense.

Gasps were heard all around the South, what with an SEC team being put in the same sentence as the lowly Big Ten. But the truth is, the Spartans are ranked No. 4 in total defense while Georgia is ranked 27th.

Martinez was paying his foe a compliment. He was also being honest.

A kid who can blow your mind on the field and speak the truth off it?

Sounds like someone you'd like to get to know. May Martinez and Nebraska continue to embrace each other, before this unique shooting star flies off. May he get that ring to solidify his memory. And may there be many more handshakes, in between.

Contact the writer:

402-444-1025, tom.shatel@owh.com; twitter.com/tomshatelOWH

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel

tom.shatel@owh.com    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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