Mike McCombs

McCombs: Bluffton's Martin played for 1981 Tigers, thinks Clemson has a shot

Bluffton's Carl Martin played for Clemson's 1981 national championship team.
Bluffton's Carl Martin played for Clemson's 1981 national championship team. submitted photo

If you ran into Carl Martin on the street and didn't know him, you'd never guess he played football.

Slightly built but in excellent shape, the associate pastor at LowCountry Community Church in Bluffton is close to 5-foot-6 and there's no way he weighs 175 pounds.

But 34 years ago, despite his small stature, Martin stood tall on top of the college football world as a member of Clemson's 19981 national championship team.

"Five-five and three-quarters, 152 pounds is what the pro scouts measured," Martin said over a cup of coffee Friday. "So they put 5-7, 160 in the program just to make it look a little better."

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A walk-on from Enoree challenged by his lack of size and speed, Martin went on to letter in 1980 and '81 and play his role in the championship.

And he sees similarities in the version of the Tigers that will face Alabama on Monday night for the national championship.

THE CHANGE

Clemson's 1980 season ended with a 6-5 record, a winning record preserved only with a defeat of South Carolina at year's end in a game known for the debut of the Tigers' orange pants.

Head coach Danny Ford was on the hot seat, and no one outside of Upstate South Carolina expected much in 1981 from the Tigers.

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But Martin said the real issue on the 1980 team was a racial divide, just nine seasons after Marion Reeves became Clemson's first black player to play in a game.

"The leaders on our team got together (before the South Carolina game) and said we're not doing this anymore," Martin said.

Martin said that while the orange pants have become Clemson lore, it was the actions of team leaders like College Football Hall of Famer Jeff Davis that were responsible for the change.

"Once we came through 1980," Martin said, "Jeff Davis was very clear: Everybody is part of this team. He was an outstanding leader.

"Jeff made it clear that everybody had a role on this team."

Martin said after the South Carolina game, everyone around the team could see a change.

"We said 'Something's different on this team,' " Martin said. "The leaders started putting us under the gun."

The winter workouts got tougher. Ford decided to put only starters on special teams.

According to Martin, the coaching staff set clear goals, much like Dabo Swinney has done since taking over the Tigers in 2008.

"We were going to win the ACC championship. We were going to win the national championship," Martin said. "We believed that. Nobody else believed that. But we believed it."

Ford and the coaching staff pushed those goals relentlessly.

"When George Dostal, our strength coach, came in before the season, he put up a sign that said we were going to play in the Orange Bowl against Nebraska and beat them," Martin said. "I give him a lot of credit. Every day we went into the weight room, we had to look at that sign."

DOGGING TUTTLE

Faced with the prospect of losing his spot on special teams given Ford's move to using only starters, Martin knew he had to make something happen for himself.

And if not for himself, someone else.

"Perry Tuttle was the most elite athlete we had," Martin said. "One of the fastest, best athletes. But he didn't always work hard in practice. A prima donna-type athlete. And he was pretty arrogant."

Martin decided he would make his own way by refusing to let Tuttle slack off.

"The best thing to do is to stay on that guy's tail" Martin said. "Make him better, work harder. Play my role. I know if I did that, coaches would see that and something would open up.

Martin went to a local store and had a T-shirt made. On it were three lines.

"Too"

"S L S"

"PT"

"It stood for 'Too short, too little, too slow.' And Perry Tuttle's initials."

He wore it everyday under his pads at practice and never let up on Tuttle.

"One day, we were fighting so much," Martin said, "Danny Ford said, 'Get off the field!' "

Tuttle went on to have an All-America season. Clemson fans know him best as the only Tiger before this season to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated, his arms raised in celebration of an Orange Bowl touchdown against Nebraska.

The receiver didn't know of Martin's agenda until after the fact. The two have become close friends.

"A few years after leaving Clemson, he gave his heart to Jesus," Martin said. "The second person he called, after his mother, was me."

"The influence you had on my life helped me be all I could be," Tuttle wrote to Martin.

"God put me in some situations where I could earn some respect," Martin said. "I knew what I couldn't do. But I could make some things happen."

MARTIN GETS HIS CHANCE

Martin's harassment of Tuttle and hard work on special teams caught the coaches' attention.

Assistant Curley Hallman told Martin one Friday in August, "Tomorrow, we're going to give you your chance."

In a Saturday scrimmage, coaches put Martin on the end on first-team kickoff coverage and told him to "go straight to the ball."

He made both tackles on kickoffs in the scrimmage. Tuttle was the returner, of course.

Then when Ford called for a rare Sunday practice the next day, he repeated the performance.

As Ford made his way to dinner that evening, he ran into Martin's father on campus.

"He said 'Mr. Martin, your son just made first-team special teams,' " Martin said. "My father knew before I did."

Martin made the travel roster and went on to play in every game as Clemson ran the table, including wins over top-10 teams Georgia and North Carolina. After Pittsburgh's loss to Penn State on Thanksgiving weekend, the Tigers took over the No. 1 ranking and earned a date against No. 4 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl on New Year's Day.

"Some people were saying Nebraska was better than some NFL teams," Martin said. "Nobody knew who Mike Rozier was at the time, and Irving Fryar was one of the fastest human beings I'd ever seen on the field. They had Dave Rimington, a guy that now has a trophy named after him."

Martin said the work the two weeks before the bowl game was the toughest.

"We when I look back on it, they had us believing we could play with them, but they didn't know if we were going to be able to or not."

THE CHAMPIONSHIP

Martin played in the Orange Bowl. And it didn't take him long to have an impact. He made the first tackle of the game on the opening kickoff.

The returner was Rozier, the 1983 Heisman Trophy winner.

"Standing at the bottom of the Orange Bowl, there's no way to describe what I'm feeling. This thing is really happening," Martin said. "I'm nervous, overwhelmed, excited. I probably ran the fastest I'd ever run."

The Tigers beat Nebraska 22-17.

Like a lot of other athletes that win a championship, Martin said he didn't really grasp how big it was until much later.

"It took it a few years for it to sink in," he said. "We really thought we'd do it again quicker, sooner. So each year that goes by that you don't win a national championship, you can see what a big deal it is."

Martin misses the closeness of being on a championship team, but he doesn't miss it all.

"I miss the camaraderie," he said. "Do I miss the glory part? Well the practice goes along with that. I don't miss the workouts, I don't miss the practice. We worked our tails off. But I miss being around the fellas."

There are similarities between the 1981 team and this year's team, Martin said.

Of course, everything has fallen in place and the Tigers have gotten the breaks. But he also believes the passion of Swinney mirrors the passion of Ford, even though the two are quite different.

"Passion, love, respect came out when Ford would get in your face," Martin said. "That's why Dabo shows the passion. We knew Ford loved us, we knew he respected us, we knew he had the passion and he was teaching us how to win."

Martin will watch the game with a few friends in Ridgeland. He said he'd be surprised if Swinney didn't have the Tigers ready to play and he's confident they can beat Alabama.

When asked if he had advice for them, he said he'd already written a letter to Ryan Carter, a sophomore cornerback for the Tigers who wears No. 31 like Martin did.

He told Carter to be confident he will win and not to let the game define him. Instead, let his faith in Jesus define him.

"Just remember, there have only been two No. 31s that have ever played for Clemson University in a national championship game," Martin said. "Go win the ballgame.

"I just want them to believe that they can win. It sounds really simple, but they know what to do. I don't want them to give in to the mystique of Alabama. It's just football."

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