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North Carolina A&T’s Jah-Maine Martin is working and waiting for the spotlight

‘The toughest part right now is watching everybody else play’

For as long as he can remember, football in the fall has been part of Jah-Maine Martin’s routine. So this is understandably an odd time for the North Carolina A&T redshirt senior — who also happens to be the nation’s top FCS running back — to spend his Saturdays in front of a television watching games of the many college teams that have returned to action.

“The toughest part right now is watching everybody else play,” Martin said recently. “I feel we could be playing. If high schools are playing, why can’t we play?”

Welcome to sports during the coronavirus pandemic, where outbreaks across professional and college football teams have proven that playing sports outside of a bubble comes with tremendous risks. As several conferences decided to start the season without pause — eventually joined by conferences that made late decisions to play — the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) has stuck to its guns to delay the start of the current football season until February.

While that decision was made by the MEAC and Southwestern Athletic Conference to ensure the safety of student-athletes, Martin still finds it an adjustment to have his usual football routine thrown off-kilter. After rushing for 1,446 yards last season and scoring a school-record 23 touchdowns (breaking the record of former Aggie Tarik Cohen, who now plays for the Chicago Bears), Martin had his eyes set on big numbers in his senior season.

“My goal this season was to work on my game to become bigger, stronger and faster,” Martin said. “My expectations were to rush for 2,000 yards.”

It’s almost certain that won’t happen as teams are currently playing abbreviated seasons with the number of games altered by COVID-19-related cancellations and the elimination of pre-conference schedules. There won’t be the possibility of the Celebration Bowl to conclude the season for North Carolina A&T with the cancellation of that contest as well.

Martin described last year’s Celebration Bowl win by the Aggies 64-44, as one of the highlights of his career. He had 15 rushes for 110 yards and two touchdowns in the game that’s been won by North Carolina A&T three straight years, and four of the five games played.

“A lot of my family was in Atlanta. It was a big game,” Martin said. “It would have been nice to play in it again, and I’m sure we would have won. If not us, who?”

Just before last year’s Celebration Bowl, Martin was named to the Associated Press FCS All-America second team, one of two North Carolina A&T players to receive the honor (offensive lineman Marcus Pettiford was the other). Martin, known for his explosiveness out of the backfield, led the nation in yards per carry in 2019 (7.73).

The highlight of last season was the game where he rushed for 299 yards in a come-from-behind win over Charleston Southern. That’s a performance that, incredibly, ranks as just the third-best single-game rushing game in North Carolina A&T history.

“He’s a very powerful runner. He’s very agile with very good speed,” North Carolina A&T coach Sam Washington said of Martin before last year’s Celebration Bowl. “And I think that’s what makes him special.”

While Martin was a first-team FCS All-America running back on several teams announced at the start of the current season, those honors don’t require a bigger hat size.

“It’s a good feeling, but I didn’t come for the accolades,” Martin said. “I came to win football games. And we’re not able to do that right now.”

That time, Martin hopes, will come in late February.

“The weather will be different and it’ll be a time we’re not used to playing,” Martin said. “Will we have fans? The fans play a big part in our games. We may not like having no fans. But if that’s what we have to do, we’ll do it.”

Having a season where he was compared to Cohen has placed Martin on the draft boards of NFL teams. Martin has maintained a close relationship with Cohen, who was one of the NFL’s best multipurpose players as a running back and kick returner before being lost for the remainder of the 2020 season with an ACL tear.

“He’s been a huge influence on me,” Martin said. “He’s shown me that someone from this school can go to the league. If you’re good, regardless of where you come from, they’re going to find you.”

The best advice Cohen has extended to Martin?

“Stay focused,” Martin said. “Keep it real, and don’t hold anything back.”

Some NFL prospects have opted out of the current college football season due to the pandemic, and that’s crossed Martin’s mind.

“I’m still thinking about it,” Martin said, quickly adding, “but I’m coming back.”

That comeback happens in February — if the MEAC is able to restart football — when scouts will have a chance to further evaluate the Aggies’ biggest offensive threat.

Martin can’t wait to return to his normal routine.

“On Saturdays, it’s that gut-wrenching feeling you have before a game, going out on the field, having everybody yelling and celebrating with my brothers,” Martin said. “It’s a great feeling, and something I definitely miss.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.