Aaron Martinez played football for the Miami Hurricanes as a kicker before taking on various roles as a teacher for the past four years. Like the majority of college football players, he never saw the spotlight — most of his contributions came on the practice field. But he had a unique perspective of the game from the sidelines as a member of the team. His time as a Hurricane took him to some of the most exciting environments in all of sports — and also led him to question if it was all worth it.
We thought he would have some insight into what makes college football special, so we invited him to share his experience with us. We asked him what it was like to play in prime-time and about teamwork, leadership, and facing pressure — here’s what he had to say.
How would you describe the atmosphere around a big-time college football game from your experience on the sidelines?
In a single word: electric.
There is nothing in this world that comes close to a packed stadium of raucous fans who want nothing more than to see their team win on Saturday nights. I will share two of my most vivid memories.
First, in 2013 we played Florida at home. Up until that point, I had never witnessed 80,000 fans in a single stadium. I can still recall being in the locker room in the dank underbelly of what was then Sun Life Stadium, and being able to feel the vibrations and trembling of the concrete walls and floors.
As we peeled out of the locker room and made our way down the tunnel, the tension and excitement was palpable. Running out of the smoke to the deafening cheers from the Hurricane faithful is a moment that still gives me goosebumps — absolutely incredible. Each broken-up pass, forced fumble, or touchdown was met with a deafening roar. We ended up winning that game 21-16. That was one of the coolest experiences of my life.
Second was playing in Doak Campbell stadium (yes, that is Florida State’s home field). College Football faithful will be familiar with the cadence of the Seminole chant. And I have to admit: it is an amazing thing to behold when more than 80,000 fans are doing it in unison. It’s mesmerizing — hypnotizing in the best way.
I remember lining up field goals during warm-ups for the game and being disoriented because of how well synchronized it is. Unfortunately, we never beat Florida State during my tenure at Miami. Despite the current state of each program, those teams deserve to be in the conversation of greatest sports rivalries of all time, though.
How did you get involved with football and come to play for Miami?
I have vivid memories of watching the 2002 Rose Bowl with my family and dreaming of playing for the Hurricanes. A decade later, I had an irrational idea that I could play college football without ever having played before. So I went to Sports Authority, bought a single football, and had my friends record videos of me kicking at a local high school. I sent this tape to every coach’s email I could find at the University of Miami, and after three months of radio silence, I received a phone call offering me a preferred walk-on spot.
My college football career, admittedly, was not the glamorous experience that some of my teammates were afforded. And it certainly wasn’t what I anticipated. In fact, at certain times I felt continuing would be detrimental to my personal development. My lowest point was coming to the realization that sometimes hard work simply will not get you where you want to go. It was frustrating to work as hard as I could and see no reward. It was hard to find motivation to get up at 4 a.m. to compete and condition — all before my classmates were even awake.
But I came to view these times as opportunities for internal growth and development. I had to ask myself if I could continue to improve myself without the prospect of external reward — that is true intrinsic motivation, and I’ve learned it is a powerful tool to develop.
What makes football, as a sport, unique? Why did you dedicate so much time and energy to this sport, yourself? What do you miss about the game?
Football is undoubtedly the only true team sport. Just think of two of the greatest athletes of our time: Lebron James and Lionel Messi. In their respective sports, you hold out hope that in some way, each of them has the potential to take over a game and win no matter what their teammates might contribute. But consider this: in football, which player on the team has the ability to take over the game?
There really isn’t a position that is not contingent upon at least one other person doing their job. This is why the camaraderie of a football team is so important and so unique — it requires all 11 players on the field to do their respective jobs. If a running back is meant to bounce outside but the linemen don’t complete their down blocks, it’s not going to work. Even if you have a high-octane offense but your defense is constantly getting scored on, you might not win.
The mutual respect that comes from entrusting your teammates to do their jobs so that you can do yours to the best of your ability is what I miss most about the game. In a way, it is an amalgamation of 11 unique responsibilities that produce a single successful play. Which of the other team sports can lay claim to that?
Many other sports have much smaller teams — there are so many people involved in a football program. How would you characterize the connections and relationships that make for good teamwork?
There are innumerable egos and personalities in a locker room. Power-5 football teams generally carry more than 100 players on a roster. That means that you are going to have more than 100 different origin stories, families, histories at play in team dynamics. The best programs in the country all share the fact that each one of their players can find commonality with their teammates and learn to respect one another despite their differences. Granted, you cannot be friends with 100 other players in any real meaningful capacity, but mutual respect goes a very long way.
Not being a marquee player thrust me into a sort of no-man’s-land. How can I find meaning in being an athlete when my name isn’t called when the game is on the line? I remember being moved when a couple of my more famous teammates (whom I won’t name, but their numbers were on the jerseys in our bookstore) would call me by name to sit alongside them in the dining hall or on one of our quad benches. It seems trivial, but being in a situation where teammates saw me as an equal really motivated me to help them — and by default, the team — succeed in any way I could.
What did you learn about leadership from playing football?
I shared a locker room with guys who were in a similar situation to me: busting their asses day-in and day-out with the hope of getting on the field for even a single play. I found these veterans to be the greatest leaders in the locker room.
These are the players I refer to as the “try guys” — the blue collar workers, the guys who get the poster players ready for Saturdays. They are colloquially referred to as the “scout team.” In some ways, their jobs have an added amount of pressure. Did we prepare our defense for the offensive schemes they’ll see this weekend? Did we show the coverages that our quarterback will have to face? Their roles have major implications — and more often than not, are thankless.
Despite this, they were still the guys showing up to the weight room 15 minutes before the rest of the team. They are dutifully studying not only our playbook, but film from the other team. They are the core group of guys who lead by example. Their actions speak so loudly that you cannot hear what anyone else is saying. It reminds me of a quote that is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “The deeds you do may be the only sermon that someone will hear today.” His words beautifully encapsulate my experiences with soft-spoken leadership.
As a kicker, you faced a specific kind of competitive pressure. How did you approach moments when the game was on the line? How did you deal with failure?
I always wanted to be that guy everyone looked to when the game was on the line. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to see that dream come true. But it comes down to your ability to compartmentalize and understand that a single play, for better or for worse, does not define you.
There were times in my football career that I failed — like genuinely failed. We had inner-squad competitions between the kickers: a series of 10 kicks each getting progressively farther away. I still remember the first one I participated in. Our special teams coordinator was there to watch. I went 4-for-10. All were good for distance, but I was hooking the ball left with each kick. When something so natural starts to go awry, you begin to question everything you know in order to find a fix. The issue with this line of thinking is that you begin to question what got you there in the first place. Being able to understand when you’re just having a “bad day at the office” is imperative to mental fortitude.
Failure is an unfortunate part of life, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the road. Being able to look at failure and understand its role in developing you as a person is how you learn. Can you overcome this experience of adversity and persevere? It’s not easy to pick yourself up when you fail. Plenty of people walk away from their first encounter with failure, but those who persevere are generally the same people who ultimately succeed.