CLAYTON — Running back Isaac Martin has been the face of the Cleveland High football program for the past three years.
His football numbers tell part of the reason why.
• 5,451 career rushing yards.
• 81 touchdowns.
• 31 varsity wins.
His academic numbers, a 4.3 overall grade point average, tell another part.
But numbers alone don’t review how much Martin has meant to the Rams’ program. The way he has done things has helped create a culture at the school.
Today, he’ll represent Cleveland High again as he plays in the Shrine Bowl Game of the Carolinas in Spartanburg, S.C. The game pairs a high school all-star football team from North Carolina against a similar team from South Carolina in a 1 p.m. game at Wofford College.
“I’m definitely looking forward to it, and I finally get a chance to do my best in front of a big crowd,” Martin said. “I’m just ready to play and show everybody what I’ve got.”
He has done that for the past three seasons at Cleveland.
The Rams fielded their first varsity team in 2011 and Martin, as a sophomore, rushed for almost 1,200 yards and helped carry the Rams to the state semifinals. He stood out from the first time the coaches saw him.
“He’s a physical specimen,” said Joe Capps, the Rams offensive coordinator. “Even as a tenth-grader our first varsity year, he was a true varsity player.
“What he did for our program was show everybody this is the level that everybody needs to play at, and that made everyone else try to catch up and play at his level. He helped us get better early because he was so far ahead of everybody.”
It didn’t take long for other teams to take notice of Martin and the upstart Rams. The 5-foot-10, 195-pound running back with 4.4 speed in 40 yards soon became the primary focus of opposing defenses.
“I don’t think that was a big deal to him,” said coach Marc Morris. “I think he understood that he was our go-to guy, and I think he knew it wasn’t just him doing everything. I think he had a great understanding that it was about our team offense in general more than it was just him.”
The extra attention just seemed to help Martin become a better player. He followed his sophomore year with a pair of 2,100-plus-yard rushing seasons to lead Cleveland into the state playoffs the last two years.
With the power and speed that Martin has, it’s easy to overlook what might be the senior’s greatest asset: his drive.
“He’s been our back for four years,” Morris said. “He was kind of the guy we built our program around, and fortunately for us, he was a real hard worker.”
And not just in games. His coaches say Martin worked equally hard in the classroom, at practice and in the weight room.
“His work ethic has been inspirational to everybody,” said Capps. “He will work his butt off to accomplish something or to get over something; he’s everything you want to coach.”
Martin said he focused on getting better every day because he grasped the importance of his time spent at Cleveland.
“I view myself as a leader on the team,” said Martin, the 2013 Two Rivers 3A Conference Offensive Player of the Year. “I try my hardest all the time because I know I’ll look back on this one day and I don’t want to have any regrets about anything that I’ve done.”
Martin rushed for more than 100 yards eight times this season and always seemed to play best in big games.
He had 263 rushing yards and three touchdowns in an early-season victory over Garner and 247 yards and three more scores in a pivotal conference game against Triton that propelled the Rams to the league title.
Martin has committed to Coastal Carolina University and Morris believes Martin will help the program.
“We’re proud to have coached him for four years and proud to say he helped start the program at Cleveland High School,” Morris said. “More than just as a running back, but to watch him grow as a person and a student athlete has been a pleasure.
“I know he’s going to be successful at the next level no matter what he does.”