Know your Vols: Ben Martin
Lessons learned over a tough season
The alarm goes off early each morning.
Ben Martin asks himself a simple question before getting out of bed for another trip to the training room at 6 a.m. and a practice that there's no certainty he will participate in each day.
But heading into the final week of the regular season and a trip to face rival Kentucky on Saturday (TV: WVLT, 12:21 p.m.), the Tennessee senior has rarely needed to debate the answer.
"I ask myself every morning is, 'Is it worth it?' " Martin said. "I think every time I get out of bed, I can honestly say, 'Yes, this has been worth it.' I'm glad I did it.
"It's been a great ride."
It certainly hasn't been without some turbulence, most notably the matching injuries to his Achilles tendons that forced him to take a redshirt last year and has led to plenty of maintenance to get him back on the field for the Vols defensive line.
But that doesn't mean Martin is ready for his roller-coaster ride at UT (5-6, 1-6 SEC) to end, not with the way he's been playing lately and definitely not with a chance to add one more game to his career. The Vols will be bowl eligible with a win over the Wildcats (4-7, 1-6).
Even if it means another month of wake-up calls and extra attention from the coaches and training staff during practice.
"You hear the stories about the 12-year NFL veterans that you have to watch how many reps they get in practice because of what he's been through physically," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "That's what we do. Whatever we've got to do to get him to the game and get as many reps as we can, that's what we're going to do.
"He's done an awesome job, and he's fighting through a lot. Some weeks you watch him on Monday and Tuesday, you say there's no way he's playing. He just finds a way and he stays in it mentally and he's helping coach the other guys. When Saturday gets here we'll get what we can."
There have been a few Saturdays where that's been limited to just a handful of snaps and no production at all on the stats sheet, including five games without a tackle.
There have been others where Martin has been able to get in the mix physically, though he's looked nothing like the pass-rusher who chipped in 3.5 sacks as a junior before the injuries sidelined him.
And then there was last week in his final game at Neyland Stadium. After the Vols again did all they could during practice to get him ready for Vanderbilt and a must-win game in the chase for a bowl bid, an emotional Martin poured it all into a four-tackle effort that was easily his best performance of the season to help spur the defense collectively into a dominant effort in a win.
"That means a lot," senior linebacker Austin Johnson said. "Ben has been banged up and hurt all his career and just had to struggle through these hard times. Just seeing him play good on Senior Night is unbelievable, and I'm just really happy for him.
"When those tough times hit, he's always positive and just keeps working hard all the time. When he is out there, he's having fun and enjoying it and cherishing every moment — that's a guy we know has been through it all. He knows what it's like not to be out there, and just doesn't want to be that guy out there not playing."
Martin sometimes doesn't have a choice when the Vols hit the practice field a couple hours after he's reported for treatment.
As his teammates go through their workouts, there have been plenty of mornings where Martin has little more to do than peddle an exercise bike and keep himself engaged mentally.
But another month of that doesn't sound so bad at all when the price is weighed against the potential benefit.
"It was a good night (last week)," Martin said. "I was excited, just happy to play. I was really ready to play for that game, really up for it. Now I have to approach Kentucky just the same way.
"It's been a challenge, you know, just getting treatment every morning — early nights and a constant grind. But it's just going to happen. It's football season."
The alarm is set for the last guaranteed day of it for the Vols. There's once again little chance of Martin hitting the snooze.