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Baltimore Ravens assistant coach Tee Martin dreamed of training Black quarterbacks. Now he’s guiding Lamar Jackson.

Martin sees the future of football in dual-threat quarterbacks

OWINGS MILL, Md. — Long before he met Lamar Jackson in person, Tee Martin became a guardian angel of sorts for the young quarterback.

The year was 2014. Martin was the wide receivers coach at USC and Jackson was a hotshot quarterback prospect at Boynton Beach Community High School in Florida.

“We were recruiting him, but the staff wanted him to play another position,” Martin recalled recently. As a student of the history of African American quarterbacks in the NFL, Martin knew that a talented athlete like Jackson still faced obstacles.

Martin, a former college quarterback, decided that he would not be one of those obstacles.

“So, I flew down there and watched him at practice one day and I knew he could play quarterback,” Martin said. “And I know the pride that I have in guys like him staying [at] quarterback. So, I just went to his coach. I said tell that man to go wherever he can go and play quarterback. And I didn’t even bother him.”

Martin left without ever speaking to the young quarterback.

“I never said a word to Lamar, ever,” he said.

Eight years later, Martin and Jackson are reunited in Baltimore, where Jackson has become one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks and Martin is in his first year as the Ravens quarterbacks coach. As the Ravens prepare for a major showdown with San Francisco on Dec. 25 (8:15 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN+), Martin reflected on the journey that has led him to what he calls the opportunity of a lifetime.

“This was something I had been preparing for since I’ve been a player, and I finally got the opportunity to look at a player like Lamar, who was the reason why I wanted to coach,” Martin said. “… to have an opportunity to go, ‘OK, we’ve been preparing for this. Now is your opportunity to help someone take their game to the next level.’ ”

Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin looks to hand off the ball in the third quarter of the Fiesta Bowl against Florida State on Jan. 4, 1999, at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona.

Eric Draper/AP Photo

Vice President Al Gore (right) and President Bill Clinton (left) hold up jerseys presented by Tennessee team captain Tee Martin (center) as they welcomed the national champions during an East Room ceremony at the White House on Aug. 17, 1999, in Washington.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

After that visit to Florida in 2014, Martin continued to monitor Jackson’s progress. Jackson ultimately chose the University of Louisville because the coach at the time, Bobby Petrino, promised Jackson and his mother that he would play quarterback and nothing else.

In 2016, when Jackson became the youngest player to win the Heisman Trophy, Martin was still coaching receivers at USC. When Jackson won the NFL’s MVP award in 2019, Martin was the wide receivers coach at the University of Tennessee.

Marrtin and Jackson were finally reunited in 2021 when Martin joined the Ravens staff as wide receivers coach.

“At our first practice on grass, I’m coaching the wideouts and someone grabs me from behind and hugs me,” Martin recalled. “I looked over my shoulder and it was Lamar. And that’s the first time we had met.

“So, we hit it off from the beginning.”

Although Jackson and Martin would not work together for two seasons, Martin had instant credibility with the Ravens star. Like Jackson, Martin had been a great college quarterback.

After starring at Williamson High School in Mobile, Alabama, Martin decided to attend the University of Tennessee because the in-state schools that pursued him, Auburn and Alabama, had not committed to allowing him to play quarterback. Tennessee, on the other hand, had a history of African Americans playing the position going back to Condredge Holloway, who became the first African American to start a quarterback in the SEC in 1972.

After playing behind quarterback Peyton Manning for two seasons, Martin took the SEC by storm. While Manning was the quintessential dropback quarterback, Martin was the harbinger of what was to come: a mobile quarterback who could defeat defenses passing and running. A season after Manning left, Martin led the Volunteers to a 13-0 record and the school’s first national championship in 47 years.

Unlike Jackson, Martin’s pro career never matched his college career. He was drafted to the NFL in the fifth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2000. The Steelers had already drafted the versatile Kordell Stewart five years earlier and still had not figured out how to use the “athletic quarterback” as anything more than a gimmick. In 2001, Stewart led Pittsburgh to the AFC Championship Game. With two similar quarterbacks on the roster, Martin became the odd man out.

He spent one season with the Steelers, a year in NFL Europe, short stints with the Philadelphia Eagles, who had Donovan McNabb, and the Oakland Raiders. He ended his career in the Canadian Football League.

As his playing career wound down, Martin decided that, at age 27, it was time to begin his career as a quarterback coach.

The problem was no one was willing to extend that first opportunity.

“No one would hire me,” he recalled. “I sent out so many letters just to get an opportunity to coach.”

The first school to offer Martin an opportunity was Morehouse College in Atlanta. Coach Terry Buford spotted Martin working out and asked if he’d be willing to work as the team’s quarterback coach as a volunteer. Martin jumped at an opportunity to begin his coaching career, even though it was unpaid. Eventually Buford paid Martin $800 out of his pocket. Sometimes Martin spent the night at the stadium, occasionally joined by his wife and sons, sleeping on a blow up mattress.

Martin was committed to coaching quarterbacks because he believed the game was changing and he wanted to help coach the change. He sensed that the dual-threat quarterback was the future of the league but that athletes so designated were done a disservice by inadequate coaching.

“Guys like us were kind of put in a square and made to do something that was the least of what we could do,” Martin said. “Being under center, throw on a three-step drop, throw a stick route to the tight end, throwing a hook route was, like, boring.”

There was exciting development in the Canadian Football Leage and even in football at historically Black colleges and universities, where his father had played at Mississippi Valley State.

“I loved watching HBCU football, I loved watching CFL football because I felt like the quarterbacks played free,” he said.

“So, I just felt that the timing was right to be in a position to help young men that not only looked like me playing the quarterback position but had similar playing styles.”

After the Morehouse job, Martin took two high school jobs where he was the quarterbacks coach. He took a job at the University of New Mexico as quarterback coach, then accepted a string of jobs as a wide receivers coach, first at the University of Kentucky, then at USC beginning in 2012. In 2015, Martin was promoted to offensive coordinator for the Trojans. Although he had the experience of calling plays for the first time, it wasn’t all positive. He had playcalling duties stripped from him and after a 5-7 season in 2018, the coaching staff was fired.

Martin was hired in 2019 as the University of Tennessee wide receivers coach. Even as he worked with receivers, Martin developed quarterback drills on the side and never lost the quarterback coach instinct. He created the Dual Threat Quarterback Camp when he was coaching high school students.

“I still wanted to coach quarterbacks, I still felt that was my rightful place,” he said. “The whole time I’m coaching wide receivers, I’m looking at the evolution at quarterback and I’m creating drills and doing them with my sons.”

Even when Martin joined the Ravens as receiver coach, he never lost sight of coaching quarterbacks.

His career came full circle last spring.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (right) warms up with team quarterbacks coach Tee Martin (left) before the game against the Seattle Seahawks at M&T Bank Stadium on Nov. 5 in Baltimore.

Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

After the Ravens parted ways with offensive coordinator Greg Roman and hired Todd Monken as his replacement, Harbaugh asked Martin if he wanted to interview for the quarterbacks coach job.

“I said, ‘yeah, I want to interview for the quarterbacks’ job,” Martin recalled. “Who wouldn’t want to coach a talent like Lamar Jackson?

“The fact that I got the interview was a blessing I had been preparing for since I stopped playing.”

Harbaugh said he wanted a quarterbacks coach who would help Jackson reach that next level by instilling the repetitive nature of great fundamental quarterback play in him. “I was with him for two years and I knew him,” Harbaugh said of Martin. “I knew what kind of coach he was. I knew what kind of guy he was. I watched him every single day — his demeanor, his temperament. As good a coach as he’s been at other positions, he’s even better as a quarterback coach. That’s his thing; he’s great at it.”

Martin said he approached his presentation like he was preparing for the Super Bowl.

“I stayed in the office till about 3 in the morning, putting it all in a presentation, because I had so much to talk about, so much to cover,” Martin said. The presentation lasted five hours and represented a compilation of everything Martin thought about dual-threat quarterbacks, about his own experiences and what he had seen from Jackson.

“I talked about what I saw in his game, from stance to footwork, ball placement accuracy,” Martin said. “Not only did I talk about this, I spoke about the diagnosis: This is what I see, this is how you approach it, and if I had the opportunity to coach him, this is how we’d start. It’s not going to be an overnight deal. It’s through reps, it’s through time, but this is where we’re headed.”

Harbaugh said he was blown away by the presentation. ​“When he showed me what his plan was for Lamar, I was impressed,” Harbaugh said. “I thought this is just what Lamar needs.”

The question was how receptive Jackson would be to Martin’s coaching. He was a Heisman Trophy winner, an NFL MVP and had just signed a whopping new contract.

Jackson was all-in.

“I told Lamar that we were going to work hard but that he was going to love it on Sundays,” Martin said. “He’s just accepted everything, and he’s been working his tail off.”

Some challenges, like health, are out of Martin’s control. Jackson has missed games with injuries in each of the last two seasons. What Martin can do is help Jackson combine the craft of playing quarterback and all its nuances to elements of genius that Jackson possesses and cannot be taught.

The greatest part of the relationship between Martin and Jackson has been trust. They share similar backgrounds and are driven by a lingering deep-seated burden of proof.

“I would say my source of strength and perseverance was very similar to Lamar’s life, in the sense of growing up in a single-parent home in relatively humble beginnings,” Martin said. “Lamar having his father pass at a young age, being raised by his mother, being the oldest sibling where you had to lead, you have to step up at a young age and make decisions be a leader, lead by example, and win.”

Jackson plays with the proverbial chip on his shoulder that comes from being overlooked and doubted — still.

“You’re as good as he was in high school, but then you have Miami, Florida, Florida State, they all say, ‘Oh, I don’t think so,’ ” Martin said. “So, he ends up at Louisville and playing quarterback because it’s the only place they said we actually really believe in you to do it. To win the Heisman, do all the things he did and still be doubted …”

Martin said he coaches with the same kind of motivation.

“I kept all those letters that I sent to all the colleges asking them if I could be a coach on their staff, and people [were] telling me, ‘Oh, you could play quarterback, but you got to coach wide receivers,’ ” Martin said. “So, I think there’s this chip that you wake up with. It’s not anger. You know what it is. They don’t have to say it to you every day, but I know what it is, and I feel it; it’s in the air when I sit in this room. So, you play the game with a little bit more motivation.”

Tee Martin continues to climb a steep hill. Now, he’s finally living a dream whose time has come.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.