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Road to the Celebration Bowl

For N.C. A&T’s Jah-Maine Martin, redemption is in running the ball

He’s making the most of the second chance he got after he was arrested and suspended

GREENSBORO, N.C. — It all started on a cold fall day in Huntsville, Alabama. Jah-Maine Martin was geared up in his purple-and-gold jersey to play defensive end for his recreational league football team, the Continental Vikings. But the game had to be stopped because of a shooting nearby.

When the game resumed the next day, Martin’s coach, Kevin McGuire, put him at running back instead. McGuire put him there just that once in the title game because “he liked how physical I was and I was one of the fastest on the team.”

“It was a moment I never forgot because it was like it was the start of my RB career,” Martin said. “But I just didn’t know it yet. I never thought then that I would go on to make an impact by playing that position today.”

North Carolina A&T’s Jah-Maine Martin (right) breaks away from Duke’s Tre Hornbuckle (left) during the second half of an NCAA college football game.

Karl B. DeBlaker/AP Photo

Martin, the 21-year-old running back from North Carolina A&T, is now a 1,300-yard rusher this season, an all-conference player and a finalist for the Black College Football Player of the Year. And the junior liberal studies major from Conway, South Carolina, is one of the most talented running backs to come through the Aggies football program.

He has broken records, received awards and has dreams of making it to the NFL someday like Aggies alum Tarik Cohen. His journey to be a great running back started way before he came to A&T.

Helping mom any way he could

In Huntsville, Martin lived with his mom, Stacy Martin, and two of his siblings, Jah-Reise and Jaz-lyn Martin. There, his family struggled and did not have a lot of extra money to do anything besides attend school.

When he was 12 years old, Martin realized that and wanted to help his mom any way he could. He found a job in the neighborhood, picking up trash so that he could make a little money.

“After that, I really tried to not ask my mom for too much because I knew she had enough going on,” Martin said.

At the end of Martin’s fifth-grade year, his mother moved him and his siblings to Atlanta, where her band, The KSS Show Band, was based.

Despite the struggles, the five years he spent in Atlanta were his favorite.

“I’d move back,” Martin said. “I learned a lot of lingo living in Atlanta and culture. I just learned a lot there. I had met a couple friends in Atlanta and still have a lot of close friends out there and we just got through it.”

Martin attended Banneker High School, where he played defensive back on the junior varsity team his freshman year. He started on varsity his sophomore year and transferred after the season to Conway High School in South Carolina, where he stayed with his dad.

Aggie pride built N.C. A&T into a championship football program

He went to live with his dad, Jomaine Bellamy, after his mother moved back to Huntsville.

One reason Martin made the move was because his closest cousin, Martwain Bellamy, had been diagnosed with leukemia. Martwain lived in South Carolina with Martin’s uncle, Jomar Bellamy, his dad’s twin brother.

Martin switched to running back permanently to pay homage to his cousin while he battled the sickness. Martwain died at the age of 17 in 2015.

“Ever since then, it was history,” Martin said. “We were like brothers. We grew up together and he passed away and ever since then it was just like, ‘I gotta get right from him.’

“I never really played running back until he got sick,” Martin said. “He played running back. I played safety and when he got sick, I moved to Conway, so I just started playing for him and it got me here [to N.C. A&T].”

At Conway, Martin racked up back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. As a senior, he ran for 1,143 yards and 19 touchdowns. He also recorded 206 yards receiving and three touchdowns, and led the Tigers to a 9-3 season. He eventually was selected to play in the South Carolina North-South All-Star Game.

“It could’ve been better but that was my first time playing RB, so,” said Martin as he reflected on his high school achievements.

Trouble ahead

After finishing high school, Martin considered attending several schools such as South Carolina State, Gardner-Webb, Old Dominion and Western Carolina.

He decided to attend Coastal Carolina in Conway in 2016, about 20 minutes from his home. Once there, Martin started out as a redshirt freshman but was needed to play because the team’s top two running backs were injured. Martin played in only three games but rushed for 175 yards on 27 carries and two touchdowns, but a mistake ended his future at Coastal.

Martin was arrested on July 10, 2017, for unlawful carrying and possession of a pistol and possession of a stolen pistol. He said he was driving a car that contained the weapon, but it was not his. Martin was released the next day, and the charges were quickly dropped. However, he was suspended from the team and school.

During that time, Martin took classes at Horry-Georgetown Technical College to stay on track with school, and it was not long before Martin was allowed a second chance.

At the end of the fall semester, Martin was at home when he received a call from N.C. A&T’s offensive coordinator Chris Barnette, asking him if he was still looking for a college home.

“It was a great feeling,” Martin said. “I was at the crib and it was the end of the season and fall was about over and I still hadn’t really heard from nobody but when they calling, it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m going regardless.’ ”

A Second Chance to prove a point

N.C. A&T head football coach Sam Washington vividly remembers the first time he met Martin.

“I knew something was special about him then, because he was genuine,” Washington said. “He admitted that he made a mistake and he wanted a second chance … You know sometimes in life you deserve a second chance and I think he was one of those who deserves a second chance.”

Martin’s position coach agrees and says he’s a “character guy.”

“He’s honest, which you don’t run into a lot,” said Shawn Gibbs, N.C. A&T running back coach. “He’ll tell you what he really thinks. You don’t have to worry about him trying to sugarcoat things or lie to you, you’ll know exactly where he’s coming from at all times, which I respect more than anything.”

Not only does he make an impression with his coaches, but also with his peers.

“With me and him, it’s always joking, but if we were serious, I’ll probably tell him just keep working on his craft,” said Richie Kittles, Martin’s roommate and a junior safety from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “With his cousin passing away, I felt that story and he wear that on his sleeve, and he represents [him]. So, I’d tell him just keep going and keep perfecting his craft and nobody not going be able to stop him. He the only person who could stop him.”

Asked to describe himself, Martin, at 5-feet-10 and 215 pounds, says he’s just a good football player trying to get better.

“You know, most running backs have either one of the other,” Washington explained. “They are either very powerful or very agile and fast; he possesses both. He’s a very powerful runner, he’s very agile with very good speed and I think that’s what makes him special. And now he’s learning how to read defenses, which is only going to make him much better. Another thing he does is protect the football. We put a lot of emphasis on turnovers and not turning the ball over and he has done a tremendous job of not fumbling the football.”

Martin also plays well without the ball. “Most running backs are only effective when they have the football in their hands,” said Washington as he explained that Martin is consistently good at blocking.

As soon as he got to Greensboro in 2018, he took every advantage of his second chance.

During his first season, he rushed for 656 yards and seven touchdowns on 98 carries for 6.7 yards per carry and had his first career 100-yard rushing game (118 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries) in a 35-10 win at Bethune-Cookman. Performances like that helped earn him third-team All-MEAC honors after the season.

Coming into 2019, he wanted to build off that momentum.

North Carolina running back Jah-Maine Martin (center) is tackled by Bethune-Cookman linebacker Devin James (second from left) and Bethune-Cookman defensive end Jamarquis Reeves (right) during first half of an NCAA Football game.

Romeo Guzman/CSM via ZUMA Wire/AP Photo

So on Nov. 15, against rival Bethune-Cookman, Martin scored his 19th touchdown of the season, breaking the record of 18 held by Cohen. Martin added to that single-season record by scoring three touchdowns against North Carolina Central University in the Aggie-Eagle Classic on Nov. 22.

His efforts have helped lead the Aggies back to the Celebration Bowl and an 8-3 record this season.

“He brings that energy and everyone else feeds off it,” said redshirt sophomore center Dacquari Wilson. “He’s having a magnificent season this year and making the whole team look good, even the offensive line, so we’re glad to have him. He’s a wonderful talent. He’s a perfect back behind us, glad to have him, and he’s an excellent person off the field as well.”

From being on the Walter Payton Award Watch List and a finalist for the Black College Football Player of the Year, Martin has plenty to take pride in. Yet, he hasn’t put himself on a pedestal.

His main focus now is playing well in the Celebration Bowl in Atlanta on Dec. 21.

“Celebration Bowl. I just want to go to the Celebration Bowl. However, many yards or however many touchdowns that is, I just want to go to the Celebration Bowl,” said Martin, as he explained the goals he set at the start of the season.

Martin, a consensus All-MEAC selection this season, could go from picking up trash to talking trash, but that’s not his way.

“I feel like it’s exciting, but at the same time I know I can do better than that,” Martin said. “There’s still more work to be done.”

East is a former Rhoden Fellow (2019-2020) and a senior multimedia journalism student at North Carolina A&T. She is from North Carolina (“the 336” to be specific). She is the creator of On-Screen w/ East Laureen, a visual podcast where she interviews various people within the sports & entertainment industry.