Feats of Clay

Feats of Clay

By Peter Jackel

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As the always dapper Clay Martin takes his seat on his team’s bench at the Frank Herald Fieldhouse in Jenks, Okla., what one sees isn’t necessarily what one gets. The 6-foot-4 coach of the mighty Jenks High School boys’ basketball team is a deeply spiritual man who speaks in strictly G-rated language, addressing everyone as “Sir” or “Ma’am.”

“That’s just the way I was raised,” he said.

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But Martin can instantly transition into a fierce competitor. Darned right he’s going to get into the face of any player who isn’t cutting it for the Trojans. Martin will certainly speak up when he feels an official has missed a call. As Shannon Martin, his wife of 22 years, notes, “People are surprised because he’s so calm and peaceful outside of sports, but you get him on a basketball court or football field and he has such a determination and competitive spirit. He will stomp and he will get in your face.”

The Martin Method has clicked for nearly two decades at Jenks, the third-largest program in talent-rich Oklahoma, with the Trojans going 277-128 and advancing to the 2009 Division 6A championship game under Martin’s watch. Up to 2,000 fans a game usually file out of the fieldhouse with smiles on their faces after games and that starts with Martin.

But all of this doesn’t approach conveying what this man is all about.

As Martin walks into another NFL stadium on game days, his sharp duds are replaced by a striped official’s uniform and a white hat he wears with enormous pride. Martin didn’t pursue football officiating until 2005 — just two years after he took over Jenks’ basketball program — but his sharp mind and cool disposition enabled him to rocket through the ranks. By 2015, he had reached the NFL and, within three years, he was a referee at the age of 43. You’d better believe this — he’s a fighter. Less than a month after testing positive for COVID-19 last Dec. 19, Martin was at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City for an AFC Divisional game between the Chiefs and Browns. Incredibly, he had been hospitalized with double pneumonia (bacterial and COVID-19) just 13 days before that game.

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But that still doesn’t approach relating what Martin is all about. Not even close.
For an express trip to the core of this remarkable man, let’s go to the seventh floor of St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa, Okla., in July 2014. McKenzie Martin, Clay’s then-14-year-old daughter, had developed sepsis after complications from an appendectomy and she was fighting for her life. As Martin recalls, “It was the toughest time of my life.” McKenzie was so weak she couldn’t even brush her teeth. Showers were prohibited because she was connected to medical equipment, making her feel grimy. The pungent smell of dirty laundry in nearby hampers hung in the air, darkening her disposition all the more. Even a welcome view of a local park below her room was obstructed by a broken window. But she never walked alone. Right by her side, literally step by step, was Martin. He practically lived at the hospital that month and was a pillar of strength for his devastated wife.
McKenzie recalls her father gently shaving her legs, just to help her feel clean. “Though it may seem insignificant, that act showed that my dad was willing do anything to ease my mind and establish as much normalcy as he could in such an abnormal time in our lives,” McKenzie said.

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Martin would guide McKenzie down a corridor, gently challenging her to walk far enough to see a view of a children’s playground at the far end as she leaned on him for support. When McKenzie’s long nights were at their most unsettling, her father would slide into the left side of her bed and stroke her hair. McKenzie could hear him gently murmuring as she drifted into a welcome sleep.

“I could not quite make out what he was saying, but I could hear the muttering of his lips as he prayed over me,” McKenzie recalled. “That alone was enough to calm my nerves enough to secure at least a few hours of deep sleep.”

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There you have the real Clay Martin. Without question, he has achieved a remarkable double as an official and a coach.

He is a born-again Christian who married his high school sweetheart and is a devoted father to their son and daughter despite the long hours his dual careers have demanded. The closest he has veered to uttering a four-letter word might have been when Ed Hochuli, his first NFL crew chief, once heard him defiantly ask, “What the heck?”
Even though he’s young enough to win countless more games at Jenks and possibly officiate some Super Bowls, the decency and genuine compassion this God-fearing man projects each day is what stands out most about him. Just ask a now healthy McKenzie, who keeps something from her hospital stay to this day that reminds her of the man her father is.

“One of my favorite lines that my dad delivered during that time was actually in a letter he had waiting for me before I got home,” McKenzie said. “In this specific letter, he closed his thoughts by stating that I am ‘as tough as nails.’ I likely would have brushed that comment off if it had come from someone else, but I cherished it coming from him. His perseverance is on another level. I have always wanted to be like my dad and I took his praise of my strength as a testament that I am on the path to do so.”

Anyone who converses with Martin for five minutes will likely remember him in the most favorable light. NFL officials who are about to walk into a stadium on game days tune into Martin when he clears his throat. Hochuli speaks from experience on that subject.

“Clay led our Sunday morning devotionals as a crew and he was a master at it,” Hochuli said. “It wasn’t by preaching the Bible, although Clay is a very religious Christian. His devotionals were not from the Bible, so to speak. They were stories and anecdotes that taught those same principles and he was extremely good at that. I was just immensely impressed by somebody who could take a fairly coarse group of people and get everybody on the same page and in that same mindset every Sunday morning like that before the game. It was a very cool experience.”

Martin was born to Gerry and Sharon Martin on April 29, 1975, in Pensacola, Fla., but only a quirk of fate allowed that to happen. Gerry had enlisted for the Vietnam War and served as helicopter pilot for the Marine Corps. During the first few months of 1970, a helicopter Gerry was originally supposed to pilot crashed into a mountain in Da Nang, killing everyone aboard.

“I remember him sharing with me that he was assigned a mission and the mission had changed the next day and he was taken off the mission because he was a higher-ranking officer,” Martin said. “The guy who ended up flying that mission didn’t come home and that’s pretty surreal.”

Once Gerry returned from Vietnam, he married Sharon and they raised three children who were born two years apart — daughter, Brooke, came first, followed by Clay and then Josh. All three children grew up in a middle-class home located at 9124 E. 38th Place in East Tulsa. The virtues that define Martin today were ingrained during a blissful childhood. Make that blissful with one caveat — Martin’s intense desire to succeed.

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“Mom and Dad were in the PTA and we were very active in church on Wednesdays, Sunday mornings and Sunday nights,” Martin said. “Whether it was Easter egg hunts or playing, people will tell you I wanted to win. And if I didn’t, I’d probably throw a fit. We’d re-do the Easter egg hunt until I found more. We’d replay the game until I won. My childhood was filled with a lot of family moments because we were together so much — all five of us. The older we got, most of our family trips revolved around youth sports. My folks never missed anything that we did.”

While at Nathan Hale High School in Oklahoma, Martin developed into an all-state player in football and basketball and his will to win was overwhelming by that point. There were countless occasions when Josh was awakened in the dead of night in the bedroom he shared with Clay as his brother mumbled plays in his sleep. Shannon says Clay has been doing the same with her since they were married in 1998. “I’ve woken up many times because Clay is talking in his sleep,” she said.

Martin started out as a wide receiver at the University of Tulsa in 1993 before transferring to Oklahoma Baptist. There he could concentrate on his preferred sport of basketball and became a four-year starter under Bob Hoffman. Martin was an extension of Hoffman on the court and he started for the Bison as a sophomore when they advanced to the NAIA championship game, a 73-64 loss to Life University. In his career, Martin averaged 9.2 points, 7.4 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 2.2 steals and he was inducted into the university’s athletic hall of fame in 2011.

“He took scouting reports to another level,” said Hoffman, who was OBU’s head coach from 1990-99. “He understood the game, he understood how to get opponents out of their game and he was just tenacious in everything he did. He played point guard for us even though he was 6-foot-4. His ballhandling skills were good, but that wasn’t what made him a great point guard. He just knew where everybody was supposed to be and he knew what other teams were trying to run.

“We used to meet as coaches to decide all-conference and we were voting on Coach of the Year,” Hoffman said. “One of the coaches nominated Clay for Coach of the Year even though he was a player. That’s the kind of respect he had among other coaches, even back then.”

By 2004, Clay was married to Shannon and they were the parents of McKenzie and Chase. Clay served as an assistant coach at the University of Texas-Pan American from 1999-2001 before deciding with Shannon that high school coaching was his true calling.

“So I kind of worked my way backwards at a young age,” he said.

After one-year head coaching stops at Tecumseh and Muskogee high schools in Oklahoma, Martin took over Jenks’ program in 2003. Any young couple with two children needs extra money and, in 2004, Martin was working a summer job at the Southern Hills Country Club, which has been the site of several major golf tournaments over the years.

“Man, it was the toughest work I ever did,” Martin said. “I was on the grounds crew and you’re talking about preparing greens, cutting rough, you name it. It was just the hours and the sweat and the heat. That next summer, I said, ‘Man, I think I’m going to look for something else,’ and that’s what opened the door to officiating.”

Enter Charlie Myers, a retired principal at Jenks who drove school buses in his retirement just to stay involved. Myers was a longtime high school football and basketball official who was among those who pointed Martin in that direction. With Martin’s extensive experience as an athlete, wouldn’t officiating be a way to earn extra income?

“We spent a lot of time on the school bus going to and from basketball games,” Martin said. “In the course of conversation, he would say, ‘You really ought to think about this.’ He said, ‘I think you’d be a really good official,’ and he was a man I trusted. He had actually officiated me in high school sports. He had been doing high school officiating for a long time and I trusted him greatly. It was like E.F. Hutton. When Charlie Myers speaks, you listen. It was, ‘If Mr. Myers thinks I can do this, I might be good at some level.’”

A future NFL referee was born. Even as a first-year high school official at the age of 30 in 2005, Martin had a presence that serves him well to this day.

“We began officiating together on a crew with four guys that had only two to three years of experience,” former crewmate Barry Stearns said. “Our crew chief, Don Thomas, was a veteran official with 40-plus years of service and several state championship games. He was fairly high strung and always a little anxious about being on the field with younger officials. Clay was able to figure out a way to keep Don calm mainly with his unique communication skills and calm demeanor.”

What Martin singles out as perhaps the biggest break of his officiating career came in 2007 following an encounter with longtime NFL official Gerald Austin, who was coordinator of officials for Conference USA from 2001 until this February. Austin can take credit for being instrumental in Martin’s career.

“I’ve had people who have taken chances on me and seen things in me beyond what I could,” Martin said. “I go to Gerald Austin, who hired me in Conference USA after two years as a high school official, and he took a chance on me. I worked at a University of Tulsa scrimmage in the spring of 2007, as a lot of high school officials do, and after the scrimmage, he introduced himself to me and said, ‘Hey, I just want to know why you haven’t applied,’ and I said, ‘Sir, I’ve only been doing this for two years.’ He said, ‘Listen, I like what I saw and I’d like to see your application.’ And I said, ‘Yes sir.’”
Needless to say, Austin was correct in his assessment.

“He has a good feel for the game,” said Austin, who was an NFL official from 1982-2007. “I think that’s always the first quality for being an excellent official — that you have a feel for the game and you understand the application of the rules. You don’t give a speeding ticket at 58 miles an hour in a 55 mile an hour zone, but if it’s 68, then you give a speeding ticket. Clay lets the players play and the coaches coach, but when they go beyond the line, then he’ll make the call. And he’s also a basketball coach and a school administrator, so he has that leadership quality.”

While Martin was developing his resume as an official he was developing the Jenks basketball program into a state power. His first two teams at Jenks went 12-14 and 13-12. The Trojans improved to 22-5 in his third season and, by the 2008-09 season, they went 27-2 and advanced to the Division 6A championship game, which ended in a 72-48 loss to Putnam City. Jenks stayed on the winning path until 2015, when Martin stepped away from coaching after being hired by the NFL. After Jenks suffered through successive seasons of 12-10 and 3-20 without Martin on the bench, he was convinced to return in 2017. Success has since returned to the Trojans, but that should be no surprise since the man running the show literally talks basketball in his sleep. Just how consumed is Martin with the task at hand?

“During timeouts, I hand Clay the dry-erase board to draw things up for the players,” said longtime assistant coach Kalin Dahl. “I have an eraser attached to the board. Clay was so into the game that he erased with his hand what he had drawn on the board. At some point, he wiped his forehead with the same hand that he had erased the board and he left a long green streak on his forehead.

“The game was intense and none of us assistants said anything,” Dahl said. “After the game, he looked in the mirror in the locker room and asked how long he had the mark on his forehead. He said that in the future, please tell him he has marker on his face.”

Martin’s intensity is still secondary to his compassion.

“He definitely did a lot of things for a lot of kids,” said Christopher “Ike” Houston, who started on Jenks’ first three teams once Martin returned. “He’s a nice, but winning, guy. He wants to win every possession and he always tells us, ‘That’s in basketball or your personal life,’ because he kind of treats it the same way.”

“He’s very charismatic as a man, he’s very disciplined and he does stuff the right way,” said 2007 Jenks graduate Nicky Sidorakis. “He’s a good leader on and off the court and he’s tremendously fun to be around. He can joke. His sense of humor can be dry at times, but it’s a funny dry and it’s not an uncomfortable dry. He instills character traits. I could go on and on, but he’s just a good man all around.”

Would Martin ever lie? Absolutely not. But would he sidestep the whole truth to work an NFL playoff game? Well that’s a different story.

It was on Dec. 31, 2020, when Martin, terribly sick with COVID, was taken by ambulance to St. Francis Hospital, where McKenzie fought for her life in July 2014. At that point Shannon, suddenly sleeping in an empty bed, had serious doubts whether she would ever see her beloved husband again. Two weeks later, he was on national television, working that AFC playoff game in Kansas City.

“I’ll be honest,” Shannon said. “His doctor was not really optimistic that Clay would be able to ref a conference football game. I told his doctor, ‘He thinks he’s going to be able to ref,’ and his doctor said, ‘It’s going to be six months before he’s going to be able to run up and down the field.’

“Clay had been released and they obviously called and offered him a playoff game. He got home on a Monday (Jan. 4) and he had a follow-up with his doctor that Wednesday and he was planning to leave Saturday for the playoff game. His doctor went over his labs and said, ‘I think I’ll release you on Friday.’ And Clay said, ‘OK, if you’re going to release me to go back to work, I’m just going to need that in writing.’ He never told his doctor he was going to ref a playoff game. He hung up the phone and I said, ‘You are so sneaky. You never told him you were going to ref.’”

Just as Clay willed McKenzie back to health in 2014, he did the same with himself to officiate at the highest level. But doing anything at the highest level is all the man knows.

“Everyone has their chosen professions and Clay has excelled in both of the ones he’s chosen,” younger brother Josh said. “He’s passionate about his faith, he’s passionate about his family, he’s passionate about his players. He not only coaches these players, he gives them life lessons that help them grow up into young men. And then he’s passionate about football.

“He is not just a brother or a father. He’s the person he sees in everything he does. I don’t know one thing that he has put his mind to that he has not excelled in.”

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