The Untold Story Of John Martinez

On his bedroom wall over a king-sized bed hangs a single framed letter dated March 9, 2007, that evidently holds significant value to the young man it is addressed to. Beneath the concluding words "With Honor" is the signature and printed name of Bronco Mendenhall, the head coach of BYU's nationally-ranked football program.

Welcome to the private domain of 16-year-old John Phillip Martinez, one of the top-rated 2009 offensive lineman recruits in the country – whom his offensive coordinator believes will receive upwards of 70 Division I scholarship offers by the time he signs his binding letter of intent in February next year.

Interestingly, the BYU letter is the only one of seven formal football scholarship offers the 16-year-old high school junior, who is not LDS, has chosen to frame and hang on his wall.

His other prized scholarship offers so far - from Oklahoma, Stanford, Utah, Oregon State, Kansas State and Oklahoma State - sit in a special binder in his room. Also on his wall hangs several Cottonwood High School posters, a University of Colorado poster and BYU football pictures, the latter highlighting the Provo school's conference championship.

"[Mendenhall's letter] means a lot to me because it's the first one I received and I really like BYU," Martinez said, adding, "When [my parents and I] met with the BYU coaches, I wasn't expecting an offer and I was really excited."

Commenting on her son's lone framed offer, his mother, Lori, remarked: "John has a special place in his heart for BYU because they recognized his potential first. John's pretty level-headed and always says BYU is in his top three."

The passages in the letter, John pointed out, that stood out to him read: "As you know, Brigham Young University is an institution unlike any other in the world. The university is based on the spirit and seeks only those willing to live a life of honor. The values of our great institution are represented in the football program's mission statement: To be the flag bearer of Brigham Young University through football excellence and to embrace truth, tradition, virtue and honor as a beacon to the world."

The letter continued: "John, we have evaluated your character, intellect, honesty, spirituality, work ethic and athletic ability and have determined BYU is where you deserve to be.

"I can tell you with conviction that BYU is the only place in the world where spiritual, academic, athletic and social needs can be met collectively as a unique standard of excellence. Live a life of honor, be true to your faith, excel academically, maintain your health, thrive on the football field… and we will be waiting to welcome you into the greatest football program in the country.

"We look forward to…helping you on your personal quest for perfection. With Honor…"

"I felt really good," his mother recalled, "about the BYU coaches when we talked to them. Bronco was open and straight forward. I didn't feel like he was doing a sales pitch."

John's father Steve added: "To me, [Bronco is] easy to talk to and not like a used car salesman trying to sell a bill of goods. He absolutely believes he's doing the right thing and is doing it the right way. You can't argue with that or the success he's had so far."

BYU's preparatory research on her son prior to their offer, Lori said, impressed and surprised her: "Before Bronco and the other BYU coaches met with us, we didn't know they had already talked to his coaches, school counselor, students at his school and the bishop of the local LDS church where we live, even though we're not church members. They really did their homework on him before they decided they were going to offer a scholarship."

Scholarship letters and football aside, John's physical and academic measurable are: a height of 6 feet 3.5 inches, a weight of 262 pounds, forty time of 4.84, 375 pound bench press, 455 pound squat, and an ability to clean 295 pounds. He also reports a 3.0 cumulative GPA and is scheduled to take his first ACT test on Feb. 9.

Following his junior season, John was selected to First Team All-State by both The Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune, Utah's two largest daily newspapers; All-Region as a sophomore and junior; First-Team Offense at the All-American combine in San Antonio, where only the top 500 juniors around the country were invited; Top 100 prospect for 2009 on both the and national recruiting databases; and recipient of Cottonwood High's "Decleater Award" for a team-high 80 pancake blocks he registered last season – while grading consistently in the high 90 percent range as a pass blocker, along with three fumble recoveries and two tackles after interceptions.

Harking back to their earliest beginnings, Lori told TBS, "Steve and I adopted John as a baby in Phoenix. It has turned out quite nice. He was two or three days old."

Unlike most adoptive parents, however, they readily encouraged John to get to know and learn more about his ethnic Tongan family and cultural heritage.

Lori said her son is "pretty close to his birth family. John's birth mother is [BYU defensive line coach] Steve Kaufusi's cousin. I love her to death because she gave us the ultimate gift in John. He sees his birth mother on his birthday and other special occasions and we encourage John to get close to them. How can you argue with more people loving your kid?

"We have stayed quite close to John's birth family, the Kaufusi's. My husband became close friends with John's grandfather. As John got older and more involved in sports, we got more involved with the Kaufusi family."

Lori pointed out that "John is our oldest. We also have a 12-year-old, Nick, that we also adopted and we have a 17-year-old Cambodian boy, Ninna, who has lived with us for a couple of years."

John revealed to TBS that "I'm very thankful and very proud I was adopted. I probably still would have succeeded in football, but I might have got into trouble and probably would have been a couple of steps back [in other areas of my life] if I wasn't adopted.

Asked whether the constant attention he receives because of his sports achievements have caused any frayed feelings with his younger brother Nick, who is not athletically inclined, John paused and quietly admitted, "He sometimes feels like he's left out, but I always try to make him feel comfortable and include him in a lot of my stuff. Also, I drive him everywhere he wants to go and I'll always keep him part of my life."

Mother Lori says she is just as proud of son Nick. "He's my skater boy. I love him so much." Father Steve said he feels the same way and noted that Nick is interested in getting involved in the production side of the movie industry, adding he will work just as hard to help Nick achieve his goals.

John said he learned he had an older birth brother, Keni Kaufusi, and met him for the first time when he was eight-years-old. "It was weird because I never knew I had a [birth] brother." Keni has lived with the Martinez family on and off for a number of years and John said they are extremely close.

He also commented that Ninna, though not adopted, is just like his own brother. "Ninna always sticks up for me and he's always got my back. Whenever I need money, he always says, ‘Don't worry bro, I got ya.'"

Martinez saved his most laudable comments in a simple and honest statement about his parents: "My mom is the best thing in the world to me and I don't know what I'd do without her. My dad has always been there for me all my life, especially with my sports activities. I'm very comfortable talking to them about anything. We're just one big happy family."

Lori responded: "My biggest aspiration for my kids is to get a good education and find work or a job they really enjoy doing. Football is how we can afford for John to go to college. It's also wonderful for us that someone else will be feeding him," she joked.

Encouraged by his parents, Martinez displayed a natural talent for sports early. "My first ‘Aha' football moment with John," his father noted, "was when he was nine-years-old and he was playing in the championship game for the Murray Youth Conference Little League. John blew up the center playing as a defensive lineman and moved him to one side, and then he blew up the quarterback on the next play. It was like, wow, where did that come from?'"

Added Lori: "When he was young, John was always twice the size of the other boys he played with. I was always telling him to be gentle, kind and not to hurt anybody because of his size. But when he was 12, coaches told him to really let go and you could tell he was really comfortable in his own body.

"I keep hearing that he's a nasty player on the field, but he's not a nasty kid at all. He's a teddy bear. As a mother, I am very proud of John. I try to keep him grounded and tell him not to forget other things that are important. Fame is fleeting. Sometimes, I feel like I'm always the downer. With all the recruiting attention John is getting, it makes me overly protective. I want to keep him focused on school."

She continued that "John wants to play in the NFL and I hope he stays healthy, but I also know anything can happen to anyone."

Lori recounted a poignant story that hit close to home.

"A good friend of ours, Phillip Matuaoto from Hawaii, played football at SUU [Southern Utah University] and signed to play for the San Francisco 49ers as a free agent. In fact, we named John [middle name is Phillip] after him.

"He was diagnosed at his 49ers spring camp physical with Leukemia and he passed away less than a year later. You have to focus on what's here and now," she stated somberly. "It's great to have dreams and aspirations, but sometimes dreams get diverted.

"We talk to John about how fragile life can be. If his goals are not where they're supposed to be, nobody will care whether you play football or not…"

For his part, Steve noted: "I want John to live his life in a good way, be happy with who he is and help others, but I'll do everything I can to help him achieve his highest aspiration to be a professional football player. As a parent, you want your kids to grow up and be happy with their life."

BYU's unique stature as the flagship university of the LDS Church presents an intriguing dilemma for a coveted non-Mormon recruit like Martinez and his parents.

"I'm Catholic and my husband is not anything," Lori told TBS. "Actually, Steve's father was Catholic and his mother was LDS, so he got a taste of both. We don't regularly go to any church, but I've taken the kids to a lot of different religions and they can decide for themselves.

"We both know BYU is a good school and a great environment. We know their standards are very high and have no doubt John could fit in.

"John has always followed Utah and BYU and cheers for both schools. Because the Kaufusis have played at both BYU and Utah, nobody in the Kaufusi family tries to influence him at all in any direction," she said.

Steve added that "BYU has done the flat-out best job of recruiting John, period. [BYU assistant coach Brandon] Doman has sent him handwritten letters every week since September of last year, the soonest they could write to him. Stanford is the only other school sending handwritten letters, and they just started."

Both parents also commented on BYU's unique Honor Code that prohibits students from consuming alcohol and participating in premarital sex. Students admitted to the Provo school, consistently ranked No. 1 in national "stone-cold sober" university polls, must also attend church. Non-LDS students must attend any church of their choosing. These stringent requirements are used by rival coaches to recruit against BYU.

Steve admitted "part of me is nervous [about the Honor Code]. On one hand, it's a benefit because John would have to go out of his way to make that connection [break the rules]. On the other hand, he loves his Chai tea from Starbucks. But I certainly appreciate the safety of BYU."

"We're not Mormon and are not regular churchgoers, but the fact John has to find a church to go to is probably not a challenge. I'm sure he'd find someone on the team he pals around with and go and sit with them [in church]. I remember talking to Coach Jeff Grimes [former BYU offensive line coach who is now assistant head coach at Colorado] and he said he didn't regularly attend church before going to BYU and he settled on a Seventh Day Adventist church while he was there."

"BYU has done a really good job of educating people of who they are. If you want to be part of it, you have to mold yourself to fit in, not vice versa," he said.

Lori added: "I don't have any real concerns about BYU's Honor Code. You have to do what you have to do. I have no question John could do it. He drinks water instead of soda, anyway. He doesn't party and he's just not like that. Then again, maybe that's just my mom glasses.

John told TBS he would have "no problems" living BYU's Honor Code.

Both son and father say one of the two most important factors in choosing what college John will play for "is not so much the head coach, but John's position coach and the strength/conditioning coach. Those are the guys John will be living with for five years," Steve said.

John mirrored his father's thought: "The main thing is getting along with my position and strength coach. I'd like the environment I live and play in to be peaceful and pleasant. Academics also weighs in a lot because I really want to make sure I get a good education."

Steve pointed out he was "very comfortable with o-line Coach Mark Weber after meeting him at [BYU's] Junior Day. I talked to him a little bit and he seems like a solid guy. I'd like to spend more time with him."

"I really like [BYU strength and conditioning coach] Jay Omer. We spent a couple of minutes with him alone. Omer said he was impressed with John when he first saw him at a linemen camp as a 14-year-old."

Another positive factor for BYU in Steve's mind is "I love having an offensive coordinator [Robert Anae] that's a lineman. You have to know what you can do [up front] before you have your schemes set. Not only did he play in college as a lineman, he coached the o-line position at different colleges for many years as well. Coach Anae does a good job and he's growing into the position [as a play caller] really well.

"[Anae] told Coach Doman in front of us at the Junior Day, ‘You have to make sure you get John Martinez. He's got everything we're looking for in a lineman; he's fast, he's quick, he's strong and he's smart.'"

Steve further remarked the other main decision-making consideration is "I'm looking for a school with a history of placing guys [at John's position] in the NFL."

"BYU has always done a good job of getting offensive linemen in the NFL, even with the negative of some of these kids being two years older because of LDS missions. That's a huge thing in the NFL because the lifespan for athletes is so short, but I think [incoming BYU senior starters] Ray Feinga and Travis Bright will definitely play at the next level."

Asked whether the fact BYU does not play in a high profile BCS conference puts them at a recruiting disadvantage against national football luminaries like LSU, USC, Oklahoma and others, John said he is not close to making a final decision, but that "BYU not playing in a BCS conference is not a disadvantage for me.

"The way they are recruiting me gives me a warm feeling. I always look forward to going up to BYU with my friends Percy [Taumoelau] and Isi [Sosele]. I don't really think playing in a big conference is that important, but I'm not going to lie, because I'd like to win a national championship.

"Whenever I think about college, BYU is always on my mind, no matter what. I just think it would be a privilege for me to play for BYU."

His father added: "It's not a huge factor one way or another that BYU is not in a BCS conference. Whenever you go through two years of conference play undefeated is amazing; I don't care what conference you're in."

BYU, Steve continued, has "finished 14th and 15th [in national postseason rankings] the last two years and they're at a stage where they'll probably crack the BCS. No matter how well they play, I don't think they'll play for a national championship because the BCS system probably won't allow for them to do so."

As far as BYU being lucky to win several games last season, he noted, "You get luckier the harder you work."

John and Steve's latest exposure to BYU was when they attended the school's Junior Day reception for recruits.

"BYU's Junior Day was quite similar to last year," Steve said. "What stood out for me was when they took all the kids they had offered to the stadium and gave them a different video presentation. It was great feeling to be there on the field watching the movie from the press box, knowing what you were seeing happened on the field you are looking down at."

As to whether having a lot of other Polynesians playing with him may impact his son's college decision, Steve said, "Honestly, he's such a white Polynesian, it doesn't really matter how many Polynesians there are on the team."

John's high school head coach at Cottonwood, Cecil Thomas, was also asked about his thoughts and impressions of BYU's resurgent football program.

"I'm an ex-Ute myself [played as an offensive lineman at Utah], but I'm real impressed with what they're doing down there [in Provo]. I was intrigued and went the last two years to BYU's coaches' clinic. I took my entire coaching staff this past year. I was very impressed with the organization and structure with coaches outside Utah involved in the presentations. It was definitely first class all the way. Bronco definitely has a plan that he's carrying out and it's going pretty good right now."

National recruiting interest will undoubtedly ramp up considerably for Martinez after the 2008 National Letter of Intent Signing Day on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, John Martinez is focused on doing everything he can to help the Cottonwood football team achieve their goal of winning the 4A state championship this year, improving his academic standing and preparing for football camps this summer.

Last year, John participated in the Notre Dame, USC and Florida camps. This year, he and his father will possibly go to the Wisconsin, Ohio State, USC, Oklahoma and LSU camps.

A versatile and gifted athlete, Martinez also plays basketball and baseball for Cottonwood, "but football is his favorite sport, by far," his father said.

Scott Cate, Cottonwood's offensive coordinator, added: "He's just a great athlete. He can kill a baseball and he plays basketball for us."

Steve recalled, with a chuckle, when he and John first met Coach Thomas: "When Cecil [who also coaches the offensive line] first met him, he just looked at him and said, ‘You're an o-line guy, you're a [offensive] tackle and you're mine."

As a college recruit, Thomas said "John will be right up there with Stanley [Havili, former Cottonwood running back who started last season at USC as a redshirt freshman], Lynn [Katoa, No. 1 rated recruit this year from Utah, a linebacker who recently enrolled at Colorado] and Alex [Cate, former quarterback now at Oklahoma State].

"He's everything an o-line coach wants at the next level and he has a bright future in front of him. He deserves everything he's getting.

"John's a great athlete and he has the whole package. He competes every day. This kid does not like to lose. That's good to see. If everything goes right for him, he has the potential to play beyond college. He has an unbelievable work ethic. He's a great leader in his own quiet way. He helps younger kids in our summer camps and he leads by example on a daily basis in the weight room, helping other kids in a quiet kind of way. He has a great competitive drive," Thomas remarked.

Though John earned top all-state honors last season as an offensive tackle, Thomas plans to switch him to the position he will likely play in college.

"We'll probably move him to inside right guard this year so we can do some other things scheme-wise, but he can play all three [line] positions really well. He has the versatility to play well anywhere on the line [in college]. He just turned 16 and he's still growing. He has the potential to be great.

"What makes him so special is his competitive drive and he's nasty as an offensive lineman. He's a smart kid; he can pick up anybody's offense and I expect him to be even more nasty this year."

Coach Cate was even more succinct: "There's only one word that I'd use to describe John and that is ‘finisher.' He closes and blocks so well. More than anything, he finishes everything with abandonment. He's just a finisher. He's the best o-lineman we've ever had."

He continued: "He's one of the nicest kids you'll speak to, but he's also one of the nastiest kids to play against. He absolutely kills people. He really is a special kid. We try not to get into the [national recruiting] hype, but I don't see that he'll be anything but a humble kid. He'll probably get upwards of 70 Division I offers. He's that good," Cate said glowingly.

Coach Thomas paid John perhaps the biggest compliment that had nothing to do with football: "I trust him. He babysits for me sometimes. He has great character; he's very respectful and he's never been in trouble."

Cate offers another equally insightful observation: "No question, it's all about [John's] parents at the end of the day. I can tell you that much."

So, at the end of the day, when his football glory days are in his rear view mirror, what would John Phillip Martinez really like to do for the rest of his life?

"I'm thinking about being a writer or journalist. I just love writing. When we have to write essays [at school], the other kids groan and they hate it. Not me, I love it."

Enough said.

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