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'I keep my game alive through them': How Tay Martin's path through adversity led him to great place with OSU

Jacob Unruh
Oklahoman

STILLWATER — Moments before every Oklahoma State kickoff, Tay Martin kneels near the goal line and bows his head.

He focuses on those he’s lost.

Martin speaks to his mom, April. He talks with teammates Tyler Hilinksi and Bryce Beekman.

Martin then moves his hand in the motion of a cross on his chest and points to the sky.

“I pray to them,” Martin said, “and hope they hear me and hope they get my message.”

These moments give him peace during the game. He can lock in. He can bear down.

Football is his escape, but it’s also his hope.

When No. 18-ranked Oklahoma State hosts No. 24 Baylor at 6 p.m. Saturday, there will be no player inside Boone Pickens Stadium who has been tested any more in life than Martin. None who has more on the line, either. 

He grew up with little, tragically lost loved ones, became a father and is now on the cusp of stardom.

In his final college season, this is his opportunity to secure a better future for himself and his family.

“Honestly, I’m just grateful that I’m in this position, because I’m going to make the most of it,” Martin told The Oklahoman. “I knew I was going to get a shot in the NFL. It was just making it to that point, because with all the adversity I have in my life, I wanted to make sure everything was good until then on.”

For possibly the first time in his life, Martin is in a great place.

Two complete games into his fifth season — his second at OSU following his transfer from Washington State — he’s the Cowboys’ premier receiver, a dynamic 6-foot-3, 186-pound athlete who has been nearly unstoppable.

Martin turned adversity into his advantage. Hardships drove him. They made him stronger. They humbled him.

Misery prepared him for the spotlight.

“He’s got a great heart,” OSU coach Mike Gundy said. “He’s a good person, and he wants to do the right things for all the right reasons, so that gives him a chance.”

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‘God had a plan for her’

April Martin often faced impossible choices.

Some weeks, electricity was unaffordable. She and her four children would often shower elsewhere.

She worked two jobs, sometimes three, in an effort to just get by.

Life in Houma, Louisiana, was far from easy.

“I was used to not making it,” Tay Martin said. “It was hard growing up. But the way that she carried herself, you would never know anything was wrong.”

She was outgoing and beloved. And she worked to not show the stress. She did not miss Tay’s athletic events. She took her daughters to dance events. She was always there for her family.

Suddenly, that stopped the morning of April 11, 2016.

Tay awoke in the living room. He went to get April up. She was unresponsive. He tried and tried. He called 911, but emergency officials were unable to revive her.

April died overnight due to cardiac arrest. She was 34 and less than a month away from heart surgery.

In an instant, Tay’s world was flipped upside down. 

At the time, his father, Brian Ross, was serving a five-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in a hit-and-run case. Without his father around, Tay went from being a high school junior to man of the house. He had two sisters and a brother to look after. 

“I grew up pretty young,” Tay said. “But that was where I came from. We all grow up pretty young and have to make sacrifices. We grew up without sometimes. We just had to step up.

“That was common to me. But my whole situation wasn’t common.”

Tay and his siblings did not want to stay in the trailer that was home. They moved in with April’s sister Gusta. 

The burden couldn’t fall entirely on Tay; he had a future to make.

“I needed support,” Tay said.

It was Gusta who helped Tay break out of a funk. 

For nearly a month after April’s death, Tay lost interest in just about everything. But Gusta sat him down. She told him he had to be strong. His family needed him.

Tay tried to shake it off. He put on a brave face publicly and for his family. 

He still often cried in the shower.

“I knew what my mom would want me to do,” he said. “I looked at it in that aspect. She didn’t want to leave so soon, but God had a plan for her. She would want me to get my education and do what I had to do to help my siblings.

“I was trying to be the best big brother I could at the time. I was numb to the pain. I had a lot of questions, but at the end of the day I had younger siblings. I knew if they see me any certain way then I’d be setting a bad example for them.”

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Oklahoma State receiver Tay Martin is pictured with his daughter, Reign, following a game at Boone Pickens Stadium in the 2020 season.

A lionheart mentality

Gusta Martin had never met a college coach before. She had no understanding of the recruitment process.

But her living room was soon full of men hoping to bring her nephew to their campus.

She knew Tay Martin was a great athlete. He starred in basketball — going viral with some of his early dunks, leading to a brief early commitment to University of New Orleans — and was dynamic on the football field. He even excelled in track and field.

Recruiting was just crazy.

“I didn’t know what to say,” Gusta said.

Gusta had three daughters of her own. Two had already grown up and moved out. Adding four more children to her home was like starting over.

Tay was still coping with everything even as recruiters started calling. Then as recruiting picked up, one of his younger sisters was diagnosed with epilepsy.

Now, Gusta was the one who sought help.

Travis Ward, Tay’s AAU coach, stepped in to help Tay. Just a day before April’s death, he promised her that he would help, a moment of kismet.

“We’re bound for life,” Ward said. “I’m going to take that to my grave. I don’t look at him as a player, but as a son.”

And new Ellender Memorial High receivers coach Jordan Arcement became a saving grace. He played at Nicholls State and immediately recognized Tay’s unique talent. He first saw it at a 7-on-7 game when Martin exploded for four touchdowns, ending his day with a 50-yard score leaping over a defensive back.

“I thought he could go to the NFL,” Arcement said. “I told him that, and I think he really believed it.”

While grieving, Tay became inseparable with Arcement. They talked about life. Arcement lost a parent at a young age as well.

Tay grew stronger when the weight of everything could have been too much.

“I think that’s kinda what makes him special, man, is that he was able to handle that much and I guess that burden that he still carries,” Arcement said.

Tay committed to Tulane for both football and basketball. But one day Arcement asked Tay an important question.

“Do you want to be the man at Tulane and play two sports?” Arcement asked. “Or do you want to go to the NFL?”

“I want to go to the NFL,” Tay responded.

Ultimately, Washington State — though far from his family — was the best path.

A new journey began.

“He’s got that lionheart mentality,” Ward said.

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April Martin, center, stands with her daughters Salae, left, and Angelay, right. April was the mom of Oklahoma State receiver Tay Martin. She died in 2016 from cardiac arrest. She was 34.

‘I play for them’

Tay Martin fights back the emotions when he looks back at his time at Washington State.

In three years, there were plenty of high points. He became a star receiver after scoring six touchdowns as a true freshman, tying a program record. He became a father with his high school sweetheart when their daughter, Reign, was born in February 2019.

But there is no masking the pain from that period of his life. Losing two teammates in three years is devastating, even to the strongest person.

“I don’t know,” Martin said.

He paused.

“It’s one of those things, it's just weird. Honestly, like …”

He paused to fight back tears.

“I don’t know how much a person can take as far as adversity. It’s one of those things you don’t realize what someone is going through, as well. Those were my boys. I worked out with them. We slept in the same crib. They were my brothers. 

“It’s just one of those things there’s really nothing positive out of that, honestly.”

On Jan. 16, 2018, Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski committed suicide. An autopsy later revealed he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Hilinski was a workout partner with Martin. They were roommates for road games. The two connected for two touchdowns in the Holiday Bowl, just 19 days before Hilinski’s death.

Two years later, safety Bryce Beekman died from an accidental overdose from a combination of fentanyl and promethazine.

Beekman and Martin had bonded simply because they were both from Louisiana.

“I play for them,” Martin said. “I play for my mom. I keep my game alive through them. By me knowing that they’re still with me still motivates me to this day.” 

Martin planned to finish his career at Washington State. But the COVID-19 pandemic put that in doubt. The Pac-12 Conference considered not playing last season.

It was time to move on.

Getting closer to home was the goal. Martin wanted to be near Reign and his family. He wanted a chance to make the NFL.

He had opportunities to transfer all over the country. But OSU was a program known for receivers. He had watched James Washington blossom into a star. Martin could do the same.

And the distance to Houma went from 2,370 miles to 723.

“When I had the opportunity, I didn’t hesitate at all,” Martin said.

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Oklahoma State's Tay Martin (1) reaches for more yards as Kansas State's Julius Brents (23) defends in the second quarter of hte Cowboys' 31-20 win Saturday at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater.

‘He is so strong’

Tay Martin wanted to know more about his coach. He wanted to grow.

So, he stopped by Mike Gundy’s office one day last winter.

And again two weeks later. 

The pattern continued for the better part of the offseason. Meetings with Gundy became routine. They got comfortable with each other. They discussed football but primarily focused on life. They talked about parenthood.

“Basically, I needed — I wouldn’t say a reality check — some guidance,” Martin said.

Martin spent last season catching up. He played in just eight games — the result of his late arrival, conditioning and his grasp of the playbook. Backing up Tylan Wallace, Martin’s NFL dream would have to wait a year.

That was tough to understand at first.

Initiating meetings with Gundy helped on and off the field.

“This was a whole new world for him,” Gundy said. “The structure, the discipline, the accountability. It took him a period of time to adjust. Essentially, he’s a self-made guy.

“In my opinion, he needed to work on life skills as well as football to improve on areas that at some point if his daughter ever asked why this happened he could give her an answer he’s proud of.”

These days, Martin beams with confidence and pride.

On the field, he’s scored twice and totaled 100 yards or more through the air in the two complete games he played. An ankle injury knocked him out in the others.

He’s seen Reign multiple times. She even spent time in Stillwater this season, attending multiple games.

“I know God has a plan for me,” Martin said. “He blessed me with my beautiful daughter. It motivates me a little more than usual. It takes some getting used to, for sure, because I’m still a growing man.”

His younger brother, Zavean, even came on an unofficial visit. A freshman in high school, he’s becoming quite the athlete. 

And Martin is set to graduate in December with his bachelor’s degree, fulfilling his mom’s dream.

“He is so strong,” Gusta Martin said. “This is what my sister wanted and he kept going. I am so proud of him.”

There has been a remarkable amount of adversity. But Tay Martin is stronger from it. He’s determined.

Each day, he wears a gold necklace featuring a picture of April and a No. 1 representing his jersey number. It’s a reminder that he cannot fail. He has to carry on.

“Her legacy for me would be to make sure before I’m gone, all my siblings and all my family is well taken care of and have whatever they need as far as comfort, peace,” Tay said. “I feel like she wants me to make sure everybody has a healthy, peaceful life without any drama.

“She knows I’m going to take care of my business on the field. But I also feel she would want me to focus more on off-the-field things as far as my family and not forgetting where I came from.”

Jacob Unruh covers college sports for The Oklahoman. You can send your story ideas to him at junruh@oklahoman.com or on Twitter at @jacobunruh. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.

OSU vs. Baylor

KICKOFF: 6 p.m. Saturday at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater (ESPN2)