Illini, football and family offer Martins a legacy
By Mike Pearson
Last Sunday, as the Cincinnati Bengals faced the LA Rams in their first Super Bowl appearance in 33 years, Illini grads Mike and Michelle Martin couldn’t help but think of their late son , Marcus. Mike, after an illustrious football career in Illinois, played seven seasons with the Bengals. Years ago, Mike promised his son, Marcus, that they would see the Super Bowl in person if their team made it to the big game.
So, in a Chicago tavern two weeks ago, after watching his former team upset the Kansas City Chiefs in the American Football Conference championship game, Mike was determined to keep his word. Unfortunately, Marcus, who died of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 25, would be only in spirit at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles.
Sport and football, in particular, played a big role in the Martin family. Michelle, who hails from Whitney Young High School in Chicago, has played the sport most of her life. She was a member of the Fighting Illini cheer squad during her undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois.
“I was a cheerleader from elementary school through high school,” she said. “When I came to Illinois (as a freshman in 1980), I really wanted to join the team, but I had never done stunts with a partner. I met Johnny Barnes, who I think was one of the first black cheerleaders in the Illini, and he worked with me. Looking back on it now, it was crazy because we didn’t have spotters. Johnny helped me learn some basic lifts that I should do to be able to try.
Michelle earned a spot in Illini’s team for the 1981-82 season, but injured her knee falling from the top of the pyramid before she could make it to the first football game.
“That’s when I knew Mike Martin really liked me because he came to our training facility before the ambulance,” she said. “I tore my ACL and couldn’t fall or jump or do pyramids, but at least I could clap.”
Mike remembers seeing his future wife, “this beautiful girl”, at Snyder Hall in Illinois. He cultivated the relationship in a political science class they both attended, proposed on Christmas Day 1985, and married in June 1986. Michelle then moved to Cincinnati where Mike was in his fourth season as Bengals receiver.
Martin came to prominence for the Bengals after his sensational senior year in 1982 when he led the Illini with a record 77 catches for 1,068 yards. Without a coaching change from Illini in 1980, Mike might never have had the chance to show off his passing skills. The fun started in the very first game of the season opener against Northwestern, coach Mike White’s rookie season.
“Just before the attack entered the pitch, the coach said ‘Hey guys, on this first play, let’s just go deep.’ It was an incomplete pass, but the crowd (Memorial Stadium) is crazy. And every time there was a game when the opponent was playing bump and run, I would look at Tony Eason and smile. Tony knew it was time to give the ball to Mike. I relished the opportunity when a guy was trying to play me man to man.
Mike fondly remembers Illinois’ 1980 game against Ohio State when quarterback Dave Wilson threw for an NCAA-record 621 yards.
“I just watched this game the other day on YouTube,” Martin said. “At half-time, when we hadn’t been able to run the ball much in the first half, Mike said ‘Hey guys, what do you think about running it every down? “Man, the whole dressing room just blew up! So we kicked the ball almost every time in the second half – we had a few draws there to keep the defense honest – but they couldn’t stop us .
What happened after time ran out will always remain in Martin’s mind.
“Never, never, did I leave the field being the opposing team… losing the game… and getting a standing ovation,” he said. “I led the team in yards with seven or eight catches percent and some yards (147 to be exact). It was a fabulous, fabulous day… not only for the spectators, but also for the team.”
Martin operated several nightclubs in Cincinnati after his NFL career ended in 1989, but was brought back to football to resurrect the program at Taft High. A Bengals favorite, Martin became a popular guest on Cincinnati’s 50,000-watt WLW radio and television as well.
In 2014, he and his family moved to Chicagoland to be closer to his daughter Morgan, who graduated in broadcast journalism from the University of Illinois in 2009. Like her mother, Morgan was a member of the cheering squad at Ilini. Illinois recruited her as a track and field athlete from Walnut Hills High School in metro Cincinnati, but since she had been engrossed in joy and dancing from a young age, she chose to perform on the fringes instead. Morgan’s trial with Illini’s team is often recounted when her family gathers.
“Cheerleading tryout weekend was also mom’s weekend at the U of I,” Morgan said, “so mom and I literally had nowhere to stay. We ended up sleeping in our car. So that’s a favorite story…my mum taking me to trials, her legacy there, and then me being part of the team.”
The fact that Morgan was a member of the Illini cheer squad when the Illinois football team traveled to the Rose Bowl in 2008 made his experience even more special.
“Being able to travel there with the team was such an exciting time,” she said. “And then, my dad being a former member of the Illini, my whole family was able to be with me. Being on the field at the Rose Bowl made it a complete family moment.”
Morgan, who lived in Los Angeles for a few years, now owns a fitness and nutrition studio on 95th Street in Chicago called The LAB (Live and Believe). The company’s mission is “to create a happy place for the community to live their best life by achieving results through nutrition, fitness and transformation.”
“Even though it’s a very different line of work from broadcast journalism, a lot of what I try to do is tell the stories of the people who are transforming through our space,” he said. she declared. “I started my own journey, and it led me to slowly but surely help other people. I’m happy to say that through our efforts, hundreds of people have lost thousands of inches and pounds .”
The tragic death of younger brother Marcus provided a major impetus for the development of Morgan’s business and the rapprochement of the Martin family in Chicago.
“Six years later, we’ve built this business together,” she said.
In 2016, the Marcus Martin Foundation has been established.
“We provide college scholarships to high schoolers and teach football basics to young people in the three cities he lived in, Cincinnati, DC and Chicago,” Mike said. “Marcus wanted to make sure other youngsters learned the basics of the game, because that’s how he started.”
And even though Sunday’s result wasn’t what the Martin family was hoping for, they knew Marcus would have been proud.
“Marcus was a home run,” Mike said. “He kept telling me, ‘Dad, one of these days they’re going to the Super Bowl.’ And when the Bengals won the AFC championship, emotions washed over me. All I kept saying was, ‘Marcus, your guys did it. We’re going to the Super Bowl.”
So Michelle and Mike took part of him to the Super Bowl.