Standing before his players in the halftime locker room, Kirk Martin isn’t quite sure what to say. Earlier in the week, he’d scoffed when Temple’s coach vowed during a radio interview that his team would show Manvel “what it was like to get hit in the mouth.”
But that’s exactly what happens in an opening half that concludes with Preston getting gang-tackled in his own end zone for a safety that leaves the Mavericks down 11-7—the first time all season they’d trailed at halftime.
Martin removes his red baseball cap, rubs the back of his head and speaks gently. He is determined to remain upbeat. “That was about as bad as we could play offensively, and we’re only down by four,” the coach says. “Keep your head up and go unbuckle somebody.”
Throughout most of the school’s existence, Manvel has done just that. The Mavericks are 94-23 since becoming a varsity program in 2008, with this year’s undefeated squad winning its first 13 games by an average score of 50-12.
Much of that success can be attributed to Martin, the 47-year-old former college tight end. Standing 6’3” and still able to bench-press more than 300 pounds, the goateed Texan is imposing and gruff only to those who have never met him.
On any given weekday in late April and May, as many as 20 college coaches watch from the Mavericks sideline as players go through spring practice. Nick Saban, Jim Harbaugh, Bob Stoops and Mark Dantonio have all made stops in Manvel in recent years, along with almost every Division I head coach in Texas. In the past five years alone, 71 Mavericks players have signed college scholarships, leading one opposing coach to label Martin's program as a "clone factory."
A year ago, the attention the Mavericks receive created a problem within their own locker room. Martin says players became so consumed with recruiting rankings and scholarship offers—safety Deontay Anderson announced his commitment to Ole Miss in a video published by B/R that involved him jumping out of a plane—that they lost focus. Manvel still advanced to the state quarterfinals, but its three losses were the program’s most since 2010.
“When a guy tries to encourage a teammate and that teammate responds by saying, ‘How many scholarship offers you got?’…that becomes poison,” Martin says. “That’s when teams start to crumble within. It can’t be about that.”
At a meeting of seniors the Sunday before the start of August two-a-days, Stokes stood before the squad and said he “didn’t want to hear one word about a scholarship.” Apparently, the speech resonated, as the Mavericks now list unity—not talent and athleticism—as the biggest reason for their success.
“We’re getting these kids when they’re at a very influential age,” Martin says. “We have a chance to help mold their character and their work ethic and their personality. We’re in this to change lives.”
It’s a passion Martin carries into his own home.
“When a guy tries to encourage a teammate and that teammate responds by saying, ‘How many scholarship offers you got?’ … That’s when teams start to crumble within. It can’t be about that.”
On Christmas Eve in 2012, an eighth-grader named London Harris and his mother, Natasha, knocked on the coach’s front door. Natasha told the Martins she was having surgery to remove a tumor on her ovary and needed someone to watch 13-year-old London for a few weeks. London was no stranger to the Martins, having lived down the street from them for a semester as a third-grader, when he became close friends with Martin’s son, Kason.
Since then, London had attended nine elementary schools. His father, Manuel, was serving a 10-year sentence in federal prison for money laundering, and Natasha often left London and his older brother with various friends and relatives for months as she struggled to balance her role as a mother with her job at UPS.
The Martins took London into their home that evening, hurrying to the store to buy him last-minute Christmas presents and giving him a bed in the same room as their eldest son, Koda, who is now an offensive lineman at Texas A&M.
After weeks turned into months, Kirk contacted Natasha and told her he’d like London’s stay to become permanent. She agreed.
“Coach Martin became a father figure,” London says. “He gave me someone to look up to.”
The life lessons he has learned from Kirk have paid dividends on the football field, where London—a 6’2”, 210-pound linebacker with 4.4 speed—leads Manvel in tackles.
London has maintained a relationship with Natasha, whom he still sees multiple weekends each month. He’s also reconnected with his father, who received an early release from prison in August and now lives in a halfway house in Houston.
“I’m glad they’re in my life,” London says, “but I know that I’m where I am today because of God and Coach Martin.”
That explains London’s decision last spring to commit to Texas State in nearby San Marcos. Even though bigger schools are beginning to show interest, London is reluctant to venture too far from the family that shaped him.
College, though, is the last thing on London’s mind as he jogs back onto the AT&T Stadium field for the second half against Temple, determined that this game won’t be his last as a Maverick.