Former UT and NFL player David Martin graduates
He caught his final Tennessee pass on a bitter cold New Year's Day 2001 in Dallas. It was a touchdown, one of few highlights in a Cotton Bowl loss to Kansas State.
Nearly 12 years passed until David Martin finally completed his mission at the University of Tennessee.
He walked his final route Saturday morning. It was a simple pattern, across the stage at Thompson-Boling Arena to receive a diploma.
Martin hasn't been idle since he cleaned out his locker at UT. He spent the better part of 11 years in the NFL.
But he had promised his mom and his wife he would one day finish his business at UT. This semester, he did, becoming the first in his family to get a college degree.
"I'm more anxious than when I got drafted,'' Martin said Thursday. "It's been a long time coming.''
Martin is another beneficiary of UT's RAC program that encourages former athletes to finish their degree.
"When they come back,'' said Dr. Georgia Caver of the Thornton Center, "they're ready to get it done. They are quite dedicated.''
That describes Martin.
He came to UT from Norfolk, Va., in 1997, in time to catch one pass from Peyton Manning.
Martin was around for some of UT's best days, playing in three BCS Bowls — including the 1998 national championship — and finishing in the Cotton Bowl.
Considering his extended NFL career with Green Bay, Miami and Buffalo, Martin appears under-utilized at UT, catching just 46 passes in his career.
The Packers saw enough to draft him in the sixth round and move him to tight end.
He played six years with Green Bay, won a lot of games and left with an indelible mark.
"One day in practice, I didn't have any shoulder pads on,'' said Martin. "Brett Favre threw a ball so hard it left an impression in my chest.
"It's still there to this day.''
By the time he moved to Miami in 2007, Martin was married to former Lady Vol track All-American Kameisha Bennett and was a father.
Early in his career he bought a house in Knoxville to give the family roots. It was in early 2011 during the Buffalo stint when he got seri
ous about finishing his degree.
"When I left I needed only 12 hours,'' he said. "When I came back they told me it was going to be 39 hours. I almost got up and walked back out.''
But he didn't.
"A lot changed from the time David left to the time he came back,'' said Caver. "That's the way it is for a lot of the guys.
"Sometimes it can be a shock.''
The RAC program pays tuition, books and fees. Martin dug in hard for three semesters and earned a sociology degree.
At 31, it was an adjustment to be back in the classroom. He bumped into current Vols, who weren't quite sure who he was.
"They see my physique and know I played football,'' he said. "A couple of guys look at me like they want to ask questions but they don't.''
Martin had to squeeze in homework with being a husband and a father to Darius, 9, and Devyn, 5. Darius has a form of autism but Martin said he's doing well in school at Rocky Hill.
Saturday, surrounded by family and several former teammates, 33-year-old Martin completed his mission. There will be a new diploma to hang on the wall next to Kameisha's.
"It's pretty tough coming back,'' said Caver, "but he hung in there. I'm proud of him.''