(EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part of a Louisiana Sports Writers Association series of stories on the eight 2006 inductees in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. The 2006 Hall of Fame Induction Celebration is June 22-24 in Natchitoches. Tickets are $25 for the induction dinner and ceremonies on Saturday, June 24, with reservations required. For information on all activities, visit www.lasportshall.com on the internet or call 318-357-6467.)
By Sheldon Mickles
Baton Rouge Advocate
After clocking a pedestrian-type time -- for a wide receiver -- of 4.65 seconds in the 40-yard dash at a pre-draft workout in 1985, Eric Martin heard all the jokes about his speed. Or, the lack of it.
Of course, he constantly heard the one about having to be timed with a sun dial. And there weren't many sportscasters or sportswriters who could say or write Martin's name without inserting the word slow in front of it.
While it's true the former LSU and New Orleans Saints wide receiver lacked the blazing speed that make pro scouts drool, he more than made up for it with size and strength, precision route-running and soft hands.
It didn't hurt that the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Martin was fearless as well.
All of the above contributed to a stellar four-year career at LSU, including the final three as a starting wide receiver, and a productive nine-year stint with the Saints. He also played one year with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Martin's college and pro careers made him an easy pick for enshrinement in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. He and seven other state sports greats will be honored in Natchitoches June 22-24 during the 2006 Induction Celebration (www.lasportshall.com), culminating in the Saturday evening, June 24 induction dinner and ceremonies.
In Martin's case, speed was overrated.
“The scouts always look at the 40 (time),” said Martin. “It just never registered to me, from a mental standpoint, because all I wanted to do was go out and get the job done.”
“I've seen guys run a 4.2, but they couldn't play football,” he said. “It's tough to see what's inside of a person. But the jokes and the talk about being slow never bothered me, that's human nature. I just wanted to be known for what I did on the field.”
More often than not, Martin got the last laugh. A seventh-round draft pick of the Saints in 1985, he was the 179th overall selection and 27th wide receiver to come off the board that year.
But right away, the converted running back became a favorite target of Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert -- who was inducted into the Hall in 2000.
They formed a formidable pass-catch duo while leading the franchise into uncharted territory -- the NFL playoffs.
During his college and pro careers, Hebert threw passes to the likes of Mark Duper, Anthony Carter and Andre Rison. But for all their flash and dash, Hebert said, they couldn't match Martin in one area.
“In a 15-year span, I saw very few receivers who wanted to go across the middle,” Hebert recalled. “Eric would always say that it didn't matter. If he knew the safety was coming down, he'd say, ‘I'm bigger and stronger, I'm going to run over the guy.”
“Mark Duper, Anthony Carter, Andre Rison -- they never told me that,” he added. “But Eric had a different physical makeup. He was so strong and physical, he would break tackles and make the tough catches.”
In addition, Hebert said Martin was supremely confident -- another important trait that isn't measured by a time in the 40-yard dash.
“He knew his abilities and he had a lot of confidence in his abilities,” Hebert said. “If I put the ball anywhere around him, he was confident that he would go and catch it.”
Martin did it time and again for the Saints, leading the team in receiving from 1987-93. In that seven-year stretch, he caught 460 passes for 6,657 yards and established himself as one of the NFL's elite receivers.
He went on to set several club records that still stand -- including receptions (532), receiving yards (7,854) and receiving touchdowns (48). He's also second in career touchdowns (48). For his NFL career, he had 553 receptions for 8,161 yards and 49 TDs.
Martin was voted to the NFC Pro Bowl squad in 1988 when he caught a career-high 85 passes for 1,083 yards and seven TDs. He also had at least one reception in 105 consecutive games -- which at the time tied him for seventh place on the league's all-time list.
He did it all while never missing a game because of injury, starting 117 of the 143 regular-season games he played in with the Saints. Martin, a native of Van Vleck, Texas, also started four playoff games.
His career numbers made him a bargain compared to most of the wide receivers picked ahead of him in the 1985 draft.
With the exception of the incomparable Jerry Rice, who was also knocked for his lack of speed, Martin had more catches and receiving yards than the other seven wide receivers taken in the first two rounds that year -- a list that included Al Toon and Eddie Brown and forgettable names like Chris Burkett, Stacy Robinson and Chuck Scott.
Because he didn't have great speed, Hebert said Martin had to use his size and strength to get open. He often did that by overpowering smaller cornerbacks who attempted to bump him coming off the line.
“That's what makes a good receiver,” said Hebert. “I don't care how fast or how slow you are, it's all about getting open. It really doesn't matter who's covering you. It can be the fastest defensive back around, Eric's going to win because of his power and leverage.”
Hebert said Martin's patented route was the quick slant over the middle.
“He was great at doing that,” Hebert said. “Eric was so physical, he would just beat the coverage off the ball. He would get body position and be like a rebounder in basketball, he would keep the defender on his hip. I would just drop the ball in there and he wouldn't lose position.”
While it was a productive play for the Saints for a number of years, Martin also knew he was going to get hit. While he dished out a few over the years, he remembers taking his share -- including one on a brutally cold day in Pittsburgh in 1987.
“I was going for a ball and realized I was going to get hit,” Martin said, still trying to laugh about it years later. “I caught it and (All-Pro linebacker) Greg Lloyd knocked the hell out of me. He looked down and said, ‘Nice catch.' But I couldn't tell him thanks because the wind was knocked out of me.”
That shot probably took Martin all the way back to his freshman season at LSU, when he was the Tigers' third-leading leading rusher with 290 yards. He also returned 18 kickoffs for 526 yards -- including one for 100 yards against Kentucky.
Going into spring practice the following year, LSU had lost Orlando McDaniel and had no experienced wide receivers returning. But they did have an outstanding crop of running backs coming in with Dalton Hilliard, Garry James and Karl Bernard having signed that winter.
So then-LSU coach Jerry Stovall and offensive coordinator Mack Brown made the decision to move Martin and Herman Fontenot, another running back, outside.
While Martin had never played receiver in high school, Stovall thought he was a natural for the position.
“Eric had the softest hands of any high school athlete I've ever seen,” said Stovall. “He had great hand, foot and eye coordination. He was also tall and long-legged, and he was a tough, tough kid.”
“At the time, we needed some depth and quality receivers who could break a ball game wide open. I'm not sure he wanted to do it, so we asked him to try it the first half of spring practice. And if he didn't like it, we would move him back (to running back) at some level.”
Much to Martin's surprise, he found out it wasn't a big adjustment.
“I hadn't played wide receiver at all in high school, but being an athlete and a football player it wasn't a big adjustment for me,” he said. “It was easier than I thought, but I always had a lot of confidence in my abilities.”
“Deep inside, I had a gut feeling that I could perform well at whatever situation they put me in, and handle it and do a good job,” Martin said. “It was an opportunity for me.”
Stovall was certainly impressed with how quickly Martin picked things up.
“He amazed me and my staff,” Stovall said. “He caught the ball everywhere we
threw it -- high, low, behind him.”
“When Dalton would break through the defensive line and get by the linebacker, he was looking for Eric to give him a block for a long run. It was a great story, and the rest is history.”
In three years as a starting wide receiver for the Tigers, Martin had 45, 52
and 47 catches -- setting a Southeastern Conference career record with 2,625 receiving yards. In his junior year, he had 52 receptions for 1,064 yards and five TDs.
But his career really took off when he joined the Saints. He instantly formed a bond with Hebert, who had signed with the team from the USFL, and quickly became his favorite target -- and close friend.
“He always joked with me about my Cajun accent,” Hebert said with a laugh.
“He called me Red -- short for Redneck -- so I'd look at him and say, ‘Yeah, I'm country, look at where you're from.' We played around like that.”
But, Hebert said, it was all business on the field.
“As a quarterback, all you want is a guy to get open,” he said. “It takes much more than a 40 time to be a good receiver. And if you got the ball around Eric, he would make plays for you. I always knew that.”
So does Stovall.
“Eric Martin was one of the finest receivers and route-runners I have ever seen -- college or pro,” Stovall said unequivocally. “He became a masterful route-runner. He didn't run a 4.3, but he ran his routes precisely.”