A Jet Roars on the Gridiron

When Josh Martin ’13 was in Rome a year ago, like most tourists he visited the Colosseum. But he looked upon the ruins of the ancient arena from an unusual perspective, that of a professional football player with a degree in anthropology from Columbia.

a football play

courtesy new york jets

“We are the modern-day gladiators,” Martin says of himself and his colleagues in the National Football League. “Millions of people watch us battle every week, in the stadiums and on television. It’s interesting to me to look at the NFL and the interactions in the locker room, the traditions of the game and the different rituals we have.”

Martin, who turns 27 in November, is not your typical football player. He was an All-Ivy First Team defensive lineman for Columbia in 2012, and while he was not selected in the next year’s NFL draft, he received a phone call from Andy Reid, head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, saying the team would offer him a free agent contract. Martin, 6'3" and 245 pounds, spent his first four years in the NFL playing for three different teams, primarily on special teams as he transitioned from a college lineman to a pro linebacker. He enjoyed a breakout season with the New York Jets in 2018 when, in addition to continuing to excel on special teams — he ranks among the top 10 in the NFL in tackles since 2016 — he started nine games on defense and led the Jets with 12 tackles for a loss.

“Last year was a huge step forward for me. Not only was I able to maintain my status on special teams, but I was also able to contribute on defense,” he said this past summer, prior to the start of training camp. “Every year I’ve had a bigger role; now it’s a matter of building on my role. The key thing I have to do on defense is get to the quarterback, and I spent two weeks this off-season working solely on that. It’s a different mindset.”

Martin, who excelled academically as well as athletically at Cherokee Trail H.S. in Aurora, Colo., was set to attend the University of Wyoming until a guidance counselor mentioned “this Ivy League school in New York that I hadn’t heard of.” One recruiting visit to the Big Apple convinced him. “I liked that we were treated like regular students,” Martin says. “We slept in sleeping bags on the dorm room floor. At other schools they put me up in nice hotels and I felt like I was being played.”

a black man in a library

Courtesy Josh Martin ’13

It was playing of another sort that clinched his decision. “We went to Times Square on Saturday night and I stayed out later than I ever had in my life,” he recalls. “It must have been 3 or 4 in the morning, and we were walking by this side street or alley and there was this guy all by himself, wailing away on his tenor sax. Now, I’m a big music guy, it’s important to me to at least be around it, and that sealed the deal for me.”

Martin says he majored in anthropology because “it’s the study of social culture. I’ve always been interested in learning about people, why they do the things they do and think the way they do. It’s also something that has inspired me to travel, which I really love.” Martin took his first major trip in the 2017 offseason, visiting Japan and China, and last spring he went to South America — from the coffee plantations of Colombia in the north to the glaciers of Patagonia in the south — as well as to Italy.

Martin, who lives in Jersey City, has become active in community affairs in the metropolitan New York area. “I felt I was losing myself in football — I had all these other interests that I had put on the back burner,” he says. Martin is on the Board of Directors of the Harlem School of the Arts, which enriches the lives of children and their families, and works with Project Rousseau, a nonprofit founded by Andrew Heinrich ’13 that provides help to at-risk youth with the goal of enabling them to attend college. Martin was also selected by the NFL to be a personal finance boot camp ambassador, and speaks to hundreds of players about taking care of their money.

And he remains thankful to that street musician whom he stumbled upon during his recruiting visit, even though — as the only Lion currently competing in the NFL and one of only a dozen Ivy Leaguers who played in the league last season — he knows he “might be looked at a bit differently” by his pro football teammates. “I wear my Ivy League cap with pride,” Martin says. “It’s not the easiest thing to do to get to the NFL from the Ivy League, and I’ll always have that degree to fall back on.”