By nearly every conceivable measure, the odds were long and sketchy.
Josh Martin was an undrafted rookie from Columbia, an Ivy League program that plays its home games in a 17,000-seat stadium on the northern tip of Manhattan. And the Chiefs weren’t necessarily in need of another body at linebacker. All training camp, Martin had mostly blended into the background, a low-risk long shot who fills space on the practice field, only to be pink-slipped when the roster judgments come down.
So on Saturday, after surviving the length of the preseason, Martin went to a local 24 Hour Fitness with fellow rookie Mike Catapano, another Ivy League product, and hoped to sweat out some nervous energy. As the afternoon faded into evening, Martin kept checking his phone. The phone never buzzed, and the cut deadline passed, but Martin held his emotions in check: What if the “cut” call was just late?
“Then I received a phone call from (Chiefs general manager) John Dorsey saying that I’d made it,” Martin said. “And that was kind of a big exhale, a sigh of relief at that point.”
As the Chiefs trimmed their roster down to the 53-man limit on Saturday night — and continued shaping it with more deals on Sunday — Martin’s inclusion was perhaps the most surprising development.
In the short term, Martin can serve as insurance at inside linebacker for rookie Nico Johnson, who is battling a high-ankle sprain. The Chiefs also traded linebacker Edgar Jones on Saturday, creating space for a player that can also fill in on the outside.
“He earned the spot,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “He was a great player at Columbia, and he comes in and he just kind of carried that over here. He’s big, he’s fast, he’s strong; (he) made plays. He was able to cover and he’s got some pass-rush ability, which is important.”
According to Reid, Martin was on the Chiefs’ radar early in the draft process. Dorsey had mined the Ivy League, identifying Martin as a player that could be a fit in Kansas City. And in the moments after the draft, when Martin had solid free-agent offers from Houston and the Chiefs, Dorsey’s persistence paid off.
“The Chiefs just seemed like they wanted me more,” Martin said. “And my agent said: ‘Go where they want you.’ And so that’s what I did.”
If Martin’s presence on the Chiefs’ 53-man roster is unlikely, it seemed even more improbable five years ago. This was a kid who started just one year for Cherokee Trail High School in Aurora, Colo. And when it was time to look for a college, his most prestigious offer came from Wyoming. No matter. Martin was all set to stay close to home, anyway — until Columbia stepped in and showed some interest.
“I was a good student in high school,” Martin said. “I knew I’d have the grades, and I knew I’d be good enough to play football at Columbia. I just heard there was an Ivy League school in New York City. It sounded like fun, so sign me up.”
Now in Kansas City, Martin joins Catapano, a Princeton-bred linebacker, as a rare Ivy League duo on an NFL roster.
“It shows that the Ivy League is an up-and-coming league,” Catapano said. “Like I say all time, it’s just smart guys that love to play football. And I think that having a good education and a good intellectual mind behind a hard-working, athletic body only adds to your performance.”
Martin, of course, is still living on the edge as a rookie on the fringe of the 53-man roster. He had his moments in the preseason — recording two tackles for loss against New Orleans and a sack against Green Bay — but the NFL can be a cruel beast. Martin could simply be a placeholder for a healthy Nico Johnson, but if nothing else, he now has more time to prove his value to the Chiefs brass.
“Josh Martin is a big, athletic guy,” Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “He’s a guy who gives us depth at outside linebacker ... he’s a smart, young athletic guy who can maybe help us down the road. He makes our linebacker room look smart.”
On Sunday morning, in the moments after a light practice, Martin was still smiling when asked about his Saturday. He had spent the day in silence, the nerves building as the day went on. But when the call from Dorsey finally came, breaking the silence, Martin had to admit: It was a pretty good feeling.
“I knew I was a long shot,” Martin said. “but I had the support of my coaches and family. They all said I could do it, so I knew in the back of my mind, that if I worked hard enough, I’d be good enough to make a team.”