One of the many overused sports-related catch phrases that are haphazardly thrown around is “mental toughness”. It’s used when an athlete needs a little something more to overcome adversities; when his/her body breaks down, the weather is unbearable or circumstances may point to defeat, “mental toughness” is employed to rise above these hardships. Most times, coddled and protected collegiate football players never get to experience hard times, so their mental toughness is never developed. When they are then thrown into a playoff game in a snowstorm, with a sore knee and asked to lead a 4th quarter comeback and fail, there are then called “mentally weak”.
Are they really? How can we grade someone on a test that we didn’t prepare them for?
Enter Martez Wilson. He stands tall not because he’s a lean 6’4″ 250lbs., but because he overcame a crippling injury, 2 surgeries, media assassination and sentiments of being a “bust” to being a projected 1st round draft pick.
Highly recruited out of Simeon Career Academy in Chicago, Illinois, Wilson enjoyed all the accolades and awards one could handle. He was a USA Today All-American, #6 on ESPN’s Top 150 and was a 5 Star Recruit on Rivals.com, just to name a few.
After an illustrious HS career, he shocked many when he turned down Notre Dame, USC, Ohio State, Miami (FL), Florida and Michigan to stay home and attend the University of Illinois.
To him, the choice was simple, “The decision involved my parents a lot. My parents felt that the Illinois coaches showed me the most love and was the most honest with me, as well. We all felt more confident about it. It was close to home, too. Notre Dame is close too, but (Illinois) is closer. The coach is what really made me commit. Coach Zook talked to me and I felt that he was the one I really wanted to play for.”
Unbeknownst to him, these 3 years in Champaign, is where his “mental toughness” would be developed, disciplined and championed.
During his sophomore year in 2008, Wilson was hospitalized after being stabbed while breaking up a fight. It was his testimony that he stepped in to help a defenseless former teammate and current friend, as a group of men were punching and kicking him. He was stabbed in the back twice and received surgery that night.
The media dubbed him as a “thug” and “trouble-maker” that has “off-field” and “character” issues. Martez took more positives out of the situation than negatives, “Laying in the hospital bed, a lot of things changed for me mentally,” Wilson said. “I could have easily been taken away, off the planet Earth. I tuned in real close to myself and said, ‘I really have to focus. Take advantage of my scholarship and football. Take it real serious.’ “
Wilson said the thoughts came to him as he woke up in the hospital.
“It just happened,” Wilson said. “I was just shaking my head, catching myself crying a little bit, and saying, ‘I know I can’t let this take me down. I’m going to bounce back from this.’ ” (Asmussen, IlliniHQ.com, 2009)
Then, after moving over to Middle Linebacker before the 2009 season, he suffered a neck injury in the season opener against Missouri, that required season ending surgery.
This had to have been crushing to Wilson. After appearing in all 13 games as a true freshman and amassing 73 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries and a forced fumble in ‘08, he’ll miss the remainder of the 2009 season.
First the “incident”, now the “injury”. This is when the “bust” sentiments began circulating.
Yet, Wilson still remained strong.
He put into motion the promise he made to himself while laying in a hospital bed a year ago – he will make the best of his opportunity by working hard. Outworking everyone else; in the weight room, on the track and in the film room.
The result? Dick Butkus Award watch list, 2nd in the Big Ten in forced fumbles, 4th in the Big Ten in tackles and led all Big Ten LBs with 15 tackles for loss, all on his way to being named to the All-Big Ten Second Team.
And most importantly, an invite to the NFL Combines.
Not bad for a guy who had 2 surgeries in 9 months.
Looking back, Wilson is thankful and grateful for his time at Illinois. When asked if he had lived up to his hype coming out of Simeon, with a smile he replied, “Yes. I’m in a wonderful situation. I’m here training for the combines. That’s a big accomplishment because not anyone gets invited. That’s a blessing to be recognized as one of the best in the nation to play college football.”
Unlike coming out of high school, Wilson didn’t garner a lot of hype when he declared for the NFL draft. Not showing up on any Top Ten or Players to Watch list, he has taken being under the radar with maturity and professionalism, again finding positivity amongst negativity.
Humbly, he planned to “take everyone by surprise”.
And he sure did.
He was the fastest LB at the Combines, running a ridiculous 4.49 (unofficially at 4.44) and was at the top of all LBs in the Broad Jump with an astounding 10’4” leap. He used that big, yet ripped and lean 6’4”, 250lb. frame to further impress in the position drills.
Highly respected Mike Mayock of The NFL Network, exclaimed that Wilson is “blowing up athletically”.
Still standing tall.
He may have surprised NFL scouts, coaches and GMs everywhere, but his trainer Billy Miller of Elite Sports Factory saw it coming.
“He’s a phenomenal athlete. I expect him to be one of the best LBs at the Combines. He’s gonna bench in the 20s (23) and have the fastest 40 (4.49).
In fact, the only surprise that Miller got, was the size of Wilson when he first entered the facility, “his frame is a lot bigger than I expected”.
Miller and the staff at Elite Sports Factory (that includes 4-time Olympic gold medalist and former World’s Fastest Man, Maurice Green) improved an already athletically gifted Wilson and turned him into a head-turning machine.
“We noticed that his weaknesses were his stiff hips, footwork, quick steps and flexibility. We implemented these into his workout. He is now loose, with great feet.”
Working at Elite for 3 times per day for 12 weeks, Wilson gained 12 lbs. of muscle and dropped to a miniscule 2.2% body fat.
With his improvements courtesy of Elite Sports Factory, Wilson is standing taller and stronger.
Martez absolutely dominated the NFL Combines. Scouts everywhere were blown away. Stating that he may have been the biggest Combine gainer, they called his performance ”impressive” and Mock Draf writers have him being the first LB taken off the board. With another solid performance at his Pro Day, Wilson is poised to solidify his #1 LB ranking by NFL Network’s Mike Mayock and creep into the 1st round of the upcoming NFL Draft.
It has been a long and windy road, with more than a few potholes and speed bumps. But, Wilson was strong enough to steer his way through it all. He admitted that he learned and grew every inch of the way, noting that his leadership, mental toughness and drive for the game were areas that were most affected. “Being away from the game for so long, I watched people. Watched their motors, energy levels, watch film and studied me. I was the hardest person to critique myself than anyone. That is one of my biggest advantages.”
And this is how you Stand Strong.