Feb. 27, 2009
February is Black History Month, and nowhere in major-college athletics is that history richer than at Michigan State University. From Gideon Smith, the first African-America football player at Michigan Agricultural College in 1913, to Steve Smith, an All-America basketball star whose contributions have an impact each day, it would take many months to tell the full story. In a series of profiles, longtime Lansing-area writer and broadcaster Jack Ebling will present some of the best of all-time in 2009.
Michigan State didn't have to do much to recruit Blanche Martin in 1955. But 30 years later, it needed his help to land a university president.
That's probably appropriate. As good as Martin was on the football field until his left knee exploded in 1958, he was much more important to the campus community as an East Lansing dentist for 38 years and a member of the MSU Board of Trustees.
It was a love affair that began on his first visit to campus in 1951. But let's let the River Rouge native tell the story, as he has so often and so well.
"Our basketball team was coached by the great Lofton Greene," Martin said Thursday afternoon. "We lost in the Class B Final in '49. And when we made it back to Jenison two years later, I was on a fan bus. We came up for the semis, drove home late that night, then drove up and back again the next day. But I fell in love with East Lansing right away. I couldn't believe how nice it was. I'd never been north of 8 Mile Road. With one look at campus, I was hooked."
Martin was back as a junior and senior, as the Panthers won their first and second of 12 Class B championships.
"I got an opportunity to play a lot as a junior," he said. "I was a 5-foot-11 center. Coach called me 6-foot, but I wasn't. I was just a very good athlete. I could really jump and run the floor. We had a 6-10 guy, but you couldn't slide a piece of paper under his feet. Coach Greene would start him to make the other team nervous. Then, I'd come in.
"I played even more as a senior. I knew Coach Greene was all-business. He taught me discipline and how to be where I was supposed to be and when I was supposed to be there. Our other coaches in football, baseball and track weren't as stern. They didn't do as well, either. With Coach Greene, you knew when he said it, he meant it."
Before Martin made it official and said he'd become a Spartan, he was recruited hard for football by Iowa State and was offered an Alumni Regents Scholarship for academic excellence at Michigan. They never had a chance.
"After I met Duffy Daugherty and Biggie Munn, it was over," Martin said of his soon-to-be head football coach and director of athletics. "Plus, I was recruited to play basketball at State. Forddy Anderson told me, `You know, we have a chance to get Wilt Chamberlain here. If we get the two of you, we'll have a really good team.'"
If Anderson had landed Chamberlain and four tuba players, he'd have been successful. Instead, he was blessed with an amazing walk-on, the only 6-foot-5 leaper to consistently block Wilt's shot in the pros - "Jumpin' Johnny" Green.
"I played on the freshman basketball team, and this guy shows up in the middle of practice," Martin said. "He was kind of awkward-looking. I said, `Oh-oh, I'm going to have to deal with him.' But I used to make mincemeat of guys 6-7, so I didn't mind. Then, I saw him jump a foot over the basket and drop the ball in. I still wasn't worried.
"Finally, we had to scrimmage. I went high for a rebound, and Johnny soared way over my head and snatched it from behind. I said, `That's OK. Wait till I get the ball at the other end. I'll make a fool of him!' So I gave him a head fake. He bit all the way. And I was alone for a layup - or so I thought. Johnny came back and swatted that ball into the nickel seats. I never say I retired from basketball. I say Johnny Green retired me."
That was after Martin had played freshman football and seen the varsity win the Rose Bowl in Daugherty's second season. Martin still teases hero Dave Kaiser about a game-winning field goal he couldn't see.
As a sophomore, No. 31 saw limited action at left halfback behind All-American Clarence Peaks and back-up Dennis Mendyk. But Martin did enough to win the starting job as a junior in 1957 on an 8-1 team that shared the national title.
"Walt Kowalczyk was the right halfback and finished third in the Heisman balloting," Martin said. "I threw a lot of blocks for Walt. He'd gotten hurt and wasn't as great as he was as a sophomore. That year, he was really something."
Martin was something special, too. He rushed six times for 134 yards - better than 22 yards per carry - in a 42-13 win over Minnesota.
"You didn't get the ball a whole bunch in those days," Martin said. "All four backs carried it. If you got 10 carries a game, that was pretty good. Thirty years later, Lorenzo White carried 40 times in almost every game. I said to myself, `What a deal!'"
Martin's career changed forever when he tore his left knee to shreds in the 1958 spring game, a matchup with the alumni.
"I got hit from the side and thought my leg was gone," Martin said. "I was in a cast for eight weeks and on crutches for what seemed like forever. I came back the next year but was never the same. Before I got hurt, I'd run over anybody. After that, I protected the leg. I guess I lost my competitive edge." With Martin in uniform, MSU was 3-0 vs. Michigan, winning each of those games in Ann Arbor by a combined score of 78-14. The Spartans were also 3-0 vs. Notre Dame, scoring exactly 100 points and allowing just 20.
"I was Academic All-American three times, though it's only listed twice in the records," Martin said. "And the one thing I couldn't understand was why we couldn't play in a bowl game. We went 8-1 my junior year. It was all-or-nothing. You could only go to the Rose Bowl and couldn't go twice in a row. Now, all you have to do is win half your games, and you're in."
But instead of three bowl rings, Martin has memories. He loved his coaches. And at age 75, he still keeps track of several teammates.
"Duffy was the greatest," Martin said. "He was firm and fair. He had assistants who could get the most from you, guys like Gordie Serr, Bill Yeoman, John Polonchek and Bob Devaney. And we had a great bunch of guys on that team, some real characters.
"One of my favorites was Bobby Popp. Bobby was the scout-team quarterback. During the games, he'd be at the end of the bench, never expecting to get in. I think he was reading a book one day when Duffy hollered, `Bobby Popp! Bobby Popp! . . . Get down here!' Bobby thought he was going in the game. Then, Duffy said, `Earl Morrall broke his helmet. Give him yours.'
"But Bobby had a great sense of humor. We were beating Indiana pretty badly, and Duffy told him, `Take 'em down the field and score fast. We want to get more guys in the game.' Bobby handed off to me, and I went about 60 yards for a touchdown. When we got back to the bench, Bobby went right to Duffy and said, `Was that quick enough for you?'"
Martin's first pro football opportunity ended quickly when he was injured again, then cut almost as soon as he returned. But that didn't stop him from switching teams and playing in the first AFL Championship Game.
"I was the first player signed to a contract by the New Year Titans," Martin said. "I'd been drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in the NFL, too. Pete Rozelle was the general manager there. But the Titans offered a $2,500 bonus and $12,500 a year. The Rams offered $2,000 and $12,000. So I went with the Titans, then hurt my knee again in the first or second game. As soon as I got back from rehab, they cut me.
"Sid Gillman had drafted me for the Rams, then had gone to the Los Angeles Chargers. He called me the first night I was cut. I'd just flown my wife and two boys out East and gotten an apartment. And Sid said, `Come play for me.' He gave me more than the Titans would have. I played 10 games for him, including the championship. But we got beat by the Houston Oilers, 20-16."
Immediately after that game, Martin had to fly back to Michigan to register for graduate school. In the process, he dealt with racism for one of the few times since childhood.
"I gave myself a couple of hours to get to the airport - plenty of time in most situations," Martin said. "But when I tried to hail a cab, none would stop. Finally, a guy rolled down his window and said, `We don't tote no colored!' I said, `I've really got to get to the airport, and I'm willing to kick in a little extra.' I tipped him $20 for a $16 fare."
After two years of grad school in zoology and two more in biochemistry, Martin decided to enroll in dental school at the University of Detroit, where he was taught by a young John DiBiaggio.
"I was there till '67," Martin said. "John taught scientific writing and biology. When he asked what I planned to do, I said I wanted to get back to East Lansing. It was John who came with me and found the place where I practiced for close to 40 years - 201½ East Grand River, in that upstairs office."
When MSU needed a new president, Martin helped bring DiBiaggio back to East Lansing from the University of Connecticut.
"We had dinner, and I talked him into coming," Martin said. "I said, `John, we need your help. We have a few issues.'"
Long after DiBiaggio left for Tufts University, Martin practiced dentistry with a clear view of campus. A knee replacement helped considerably. But retirement didn't ease his pain after the death of another wife.
"I had the knee operated on in '58, again after pro ball and two other times," Martin said. "Finally, I had it replaced in '99, the best thing I've ever done. I wish I'd done it a lot earlier."
Martin was a serious runner for many years, which couldn't have helped his knee. And he's still running from job to job after a two-month break from work.
"I got bored and couldn't handle it," Martin said. "I'd lost three wives and a son. When I lost my last wife, I sold the private practice. Two months later, I was back to work. I practice dentistry two days a week at the prison in Coldwater, two more in Carson City and one in the Ingham County jail."
Remarried now, he has nine children, including two currently at MSU. Martin also has six grandchildren and four great grandchildren. And he leads in his battles against prostate cancer, high blood pressure and type-2 diabetes.
Martin gets up at 4 a.m. - 4:30 when he sleeps in - and works out daily at the Eagle Eye gym. If Greene or Daugherty ever return to coach a super-seniors league, he's ready.