QB Tate Martell begins long 'engagement'

Only 14, Tate Martell runs a 4.67 40-yard dash and already can dunk a basketball. Erik McKinney/ESPN.com

Tate Martell hated football.

He was 7 years old. He had just started his first season. He was ready to quit.

His parents, Al and Tafi, were celebrating their anniversary in Hawaii when they received the call that their son's football career was about to end before he ever played in a game.

But, if Martell was going to quit, he needed to tell his coaches in person, face-to-face.

"You don't have to play," Al told his son over the phone. "But you're going to walk in there with your grandma and grandpa and tell them you're not going to play."

Faced with the choice, Martell gave football another chance.

"I stuck with it and played," he said.

After that first season, he liked the game enough to sign up again. It wasn't until he worked his way into the quarterback position, though, that the game really grabbed him.

At the time, he was too young to know what was in store for him a few years later.

"I didn't really know too much about college then," Martell said. "I didn't really know that I was going to get recruited. I didn't really know I was going to be that good."

Now 14 and preparing for eighth grade, Martell made national news last week when he committed to Washington even though he won't be eligible to sign a letter of intent until 2017.

"I was in shock, because I wasn't really expecting a scholarship at this age," Martell said.

In the days since the announcement, Martell has received plenty of attention, both positive and negative. It doesn't seem to bother the 5-foot-11, 180-pound passer.

"There have been people who say negative stuff, but I don't really get fazed by it, because it's not that big of a deal," he said.

After talking with the family of quarterback David Sills, who committed to USC when he was 13, Martell's family knew what they were going to experience.

They knew there would be critics. They knew some would say Martell was too young. But that didn't detract from their decision. After watching the way their son has handled the attention, Al and Tafi remain confident they made the right choice.

"The way that he's handling it all is mature," said Al, who wrestled at Fresno State. "It kind of confirms that we made a good decision. He didn't let anything get under his skin. He acted mature about it. If anything, I think it served as motivation for him. The cake is being baked, so to speak, and now we've got a lot of icing to cover."

The timing of the decision was purposely planned to fall days before the start of the Olympics. The family knew that any attention, good or bad, would be overshadowed by the games in London.

In the days leading up to the decision, Al made sure his son knew he could change his mind. He could wait a month. He could wait a year. He could wait until he finished a few high school seasons.

But, after meeting with Washington coach Steve Sarkisian a few weeks after landing a scholarship offer during an unofficial visit, Martell told his father he was ready give a verbal commitment, ready to make a public announcement.

"The decision was easy after sitting down with coach Sarkisian," Al said. "I think the fit is perfect from just about every standpoint."

In addition to Sarkisian's reputation with quarterbacks, Martell said he established a personal connection with the coach.

"He's a really cool guy," Martell said. "He can be a guy that, in five years, I will be closer to him than I probably will with my parents. He's just a guy, if I really need to go tell him something, he would totally understand and explain how I should respond."

Martell attended a semi-professional football game Saturday and his name was announced over the stadium's sound system. People he had never met introduced themselves. While it was a surprise, Martell was more concerned with making postgame plans with his friends.

"I don't try to take it in and be like, ‘Oh my God that's me' and brag about it," he said. "You've got to stay humble and keep a level head."

With any young athlete who receives attention at an early age, the question always becomes, how much do they train? And how much is too much?

Outside of football season, Martell travels from his home in San Diego to Los Angeles an average of three Sundays a month to train with quarterback guru Steve Clarkson. The coach also travels south to train Martell every other week.

When Martell told his father he wanted to get faster, they found him a track coach. He trains three days a week during the offseason and once a week now that his football season has started.

Al said he is forced to coax his son to clean his room but, when it comes to football, he said there is no parental pressure.

"We're not trying to manufacture a prodigy," Al said. "I don't think there's any sort of machine here. He's got a normal life. The thing is, for us, he's an easy kid to parent. He's an easy kid to coach, because we don't push him.

"I really don't think it could be any more normal than the average family that is involved in their kids' lives."

He referred to the family's home as "Grand Central" with a steady stream of teenagers coming and going. Al recently caught his son and some friends rounding up all the toilet paper they could find. They were sneaking out of the house to cause a little trouble when Al caught them. "Come on," Al told the teenagers. "Back in. Nice try. "

"There is nothing abnormal about the circumstances in our household," he said.

Only 14, Martell already can dunk a basketball. He runs a 4.67 40-yard dash. He is a player Clarkson called a cross between Fran Tarkenton and Brett Favre.

A strong student in the classroom, he was held back a year in school to allow him to mature physically. His parents have yet to decide which school he will attend this year -- homeschool is an option -- and it has yet to be determined where he will play high school football.

"We had to narrow it down to schools that fit, really, the offense that he runs and the offense that coach Sarkisian likes to run," Al said. "It will be one progression after another, and academics has always played a big role in it."

When Martell steps off the field and away from his friends, he often can be found diagraming plays.

"He sits down, he'll spend 20 hours over four days writing an entire playbook based on the spread offense," Al said. "You want a playbook based on the wing-T. He will write 100 pages of plays. It blows me away."

His physical skills are impressive, and he has said all of the right things since his announcement, but his signing day is still years away. This lengthy "engagement" with Washington is just beginning.