College Sports

Why this game in Florida will be about more than just football for these players

N.C. Central defensive end Antonio Brown, right, is one of 14 Eagles players to head back to Florida this week for the first time since Hurricane Irma.
N.C. Central defensive end Antonio Brown, right, is one of 14 Eagles players to head back to Florida this week for the first time since Hurricane Irma. NCCU Athletics

Marcus Martin hadn’t heard from his mom in a week and he was past the point of being stressed.

His hometown of Miami was in the path of Hurricane Irma, and Martin, an N.C. Central freshman defensive back who had been in Durham since June, could only watch on television and hope his family was OK. When the storm hit Florida on Sept. 10 as a Category 4 storm, he lost communication with his mother for a week as thousands in the state lost power.

About 800 miles away, Martin started to worry.

“I was definitely stressed out,” Martin said. “I wasn’t sure if my family was going to be OK or anything like that.”

Martin wasn’t alone. There are 14 players from Florida on the N.C. Central football roster. This was the first time Martin had to experience anything like that while being away from his immediate family. But his football family, especially the ones from Florida, helped put him at ease.

“Just being far away from home, just knowing you have guys who can relate makes you feel comfortable,” said senior defensive end Antonio Brown, who’s from Jacksonville. “It’s nothing we can do about it being way up here, but I told the guys to just relax.”

Guys like Martin, Brown and others from the Sunshine State will relax a little bit more during their next road trip. The Eagles (2-1, 1-0 MEAC) will travel to Tallahassee to take on Florida A&M (2-2, 1-0) Thursday (7:30, ESPNU). While there is a football game to be played, the trip to Florida will be an emotional homecoming for some of the N.C. Central players.

Martin, who played at North Miami High School, is expecting 10 family members to show up.

“I just want to make sure they are OK,” Martin said. “I’m going to give them big hugs.”

Sophomore offensive guard Twishawn Glenn, from Daytona Beach, checked on his family daily leading up to the storm. Like Martin, he lost contact with his loved ones for a week. Fortunately, when he talked to his family the only damage done was a few trees and power lines down near his home. Martin said there was some flooding, but nothing major, a huge relief.

During the time of uncertainty, Eagles head coach Jerry Mack could tell it was bothering the players who didn’t know if and how their families had been affected. At various times, members of his team would come to the coaching staff and voice their concerns.

“We tried to ease their mind,” Mack said. “A lot of them, their families were pretty much taken care of. But you have to always be sympathetic to those guys to their needs and where their minds are. It’s really difficult because they have to try to focus and balance trying to play a football game and trying to go to class with still having their families on their mind.”

Last October, the Eagles defeated the Rattlers, 17-13, in Durham as remnants of Hurricane Matthew pounded North Carolina. Brown remembers Matthew, the 2004 tropical storm, as one of the worst storms he endured in Florida, where it dumped heavy rains. Sandy, a destructive 2012 hurricane that made landfall in New Jersey, was the first one that came to mind for Glenn.

Brown was concerned about his mom and niece during Hurricane Irma. His niece left Florida for Tennessee during the storm, but his mom rode it out at home. Glenn’s family was supposed to go to Atlanta, but stayed home as well. Martin said staying put stems from a confidence that comes from going through storms before, along with some wishful thinking.

“Every Floridian, what we think is the hurricane is going to turn right before it hits Florida,” Martin said with a laugh.

This one didn’t turn, so Martin was left to worry for a week. Then his mom finally called. They stayed on the phone for hours. Turns out, she was more worried about him than he was about her.

“When she finally called I was so happy,” Martin said. “Big smile on my face. She was asking me if I was OK. My mom doesn’t want me stressing a lot, so I try my best not to.”

Thursday at Florida A&M, Martin will be smiling, win or lose. The players don’t get a lot of time to spend with their families on road trips, but for those from Florida, seeing family, if only for a moment, after a week of uncertainty, is long enough.

“That’s what we talk about, that football is more than a game,” Mack said. “They get a chance to go back to their home state and see their family for the first time in a while. That’s going to mean a lot to them.”

Jonas Pope IV: 919-419-7001, @JEPopeIV

NC Central at Florida A&M

When: 7:30 p.m.

Where: Bragg Memorial Stadium, Tallahassee, Fla.