As Troy linebacker Carlton Martial approaches the tackles record in college football his legend shrinks

He may be only 5-foot-8 but Troy linebacker Carlton Martial is only 41 tackles away from the college football tackles record. TroyTrojansFB/Twitter

TROY, Ala. -- Legends grow. Just ask your uncle about the fish he caught once upon a time. It gets bigger with every retelling.

This legend, about the would-be tackling king of college football, is different. Because Carlton Martial has been shrinking ever since he got to Troy. He first showed up on the roster in 2017 as a modestly undersized linebacker at 5-foot-11. But a year later, he lost an inch. And two years after that, he lost another.

When Martial walked into a conference room last month, he was even smaller. Truth be told, coaches admit, he's closer to 5-foot-8 -- or about 7 inches shorter than the average height of Mel Kiper Jr.'s top five inside linebackers.

There's been no investigation into this worrisome decline because everyone here is in on the white lie. It turns out, the public relations staff was simply being kind in the beginning. Martial was a walk-on and they couldn't give him a scholarship, so they gave him a few inches in the media guide.

But then he went out and earned a scholarship, and they inched closer to the truth. And then something improbable happened: Martial not only won a starting job, he finished second on the team in tackles and became an All-American. Reporters took notice, and being the wise PR folks they are, they realized the story of a 5-foot-9 former walk-on had a better ring to it.

Why they haven't listed his true height of 5-foot-8 and some change, no one knows. Maybe they're tired of updating the roster. Maybe they believe in rounding up. Whatever the case, the legend of Carlton Martial must begin with the truth, and it's this: Doubted and dismissed his entire life because of his size, Martial walked on at Troy where he's already a local legend and is poised to break through on the national stage as the FBS leader in career tackles.

He currently needs 41 tackles to reach the top spot, with at least five games left to play. Next up: South Alabama on Thursday night (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU).

How Martial got here, chasing football immortality, he can't explain. Truth be told, he said, he was supposed to follow in his brother's footsteps and take a scholarship offer from Division-II North Alabama. But his parents told him to take money out of the equation. The night before signing day, they laid out several hats on the kitchen table and offered their son some advice.

"You can play it safe," they said, "or you can bet on yourself."

CALEB ROSS, OFFENSIVE coordinator at McGill-Toolen High School in Mobile, heard about Martial before he got to the school's campus in 2013. Short, stocky and powerful, he was the ringleader of a talented freshman class. Plus, he had good lineage. North Alabama had taken a flier on his older brother and hit the lottery. Philbert, a defensive back, returned a punt for a touchdown in his first game in college, had a pick-six two games later and went on to become a two-time All-American.

Ross remembers Martial's first action on the kick return team as a lead blocker. And while Ross can't testify under oath that he saw Martial lay a hand on anyone, he can attest to the impact he made.

"All of the sudden, we're starting to run the ball out to the 50-yard line," Ross said. "We called it the Carlton Martial Effect. I was like, 'I don't know. There's something about that kid, man.'"

Ross took over as head coach the following season and Martial took over as a starter, making an instant impact. He had a proverbial nose for the football, racking up double-digit tackles practically every game. It got to the point reporters would question the stats. But Ross told them to look at the home-away splits; opposing coaches came up with the same numbers. In addition to 15 or 16 tackles per game, Ross said, "He would affect another 20 plays."

Ross compared Martial to boxing heavyweight champ Mike Tyson -- compact and violent at the point of attack. Ross said to watch him take on 6-foot-4 linemen. "He's knocking 'em off and these guys are all adjusting their face masks," he said. "Like, yeah, you weren't expecting that."

Ross believes Martial is the best player he ever coached. And it should be noted Martial's teammates have included Jalen Tolbert, a third-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys; Marlon Williams, who played at UCF and in the USFL; and Bubba Thompson, who had FBS scholarship offers but instead signed with the Texas Rangers as the 26th pick in the MLB draft.

People around Mobile eventually learned to look past Martial's height and trust what they saw in games. But college coaches weren't as easily convinced. Ross couldn't get most recruiters to listen about a sub-6 foot linebacker. And the high-profile coaches who did entertain the idea -- they were already there to see Tolbert, Williams or Thompson, so why not? -- left without hope of a scholarship offer.

Ross recalled Charles Kelly, Florida State's defensive coordinator at the time, coming into his office and demanding to see Martial. Ross said Kelly told him, "I ain't never seen a linebacker like that. That kid's incredible." But then Kelly asked, "What is he, 5-10 or 5-11?" Ross said Kelly kept a straight face when he finally met Martial, but he could tell Kelly was disappointed.

Ross said then-Auburn coach Gus Malzahn loved Martial, too, sending linebackers coach Travis Williams to the school multiple times.

Ross said Williams told him initially "Gus says if he's 5-11 we can offer him."


Ross said Williams came back and told him, "Gus says if he's 5-10 we can offer."

Sorry again.

Williams came back a third time and encouraged Martial to try out.

A couple of SWAC schools offered Martial scholarships, plus North Alabama. But big-time offers were out of reach. The only FBS school that kept showing interest was Group of 5 Troy, which was pitching a spot as a preferred walk-on.

The Trojans' linebackers coach at the time, current head coach Jon Sumrall, was in charge of recruiting Thompson. But every time he came to visit, he made a point to check in on Martial.

Martial's size didn't bother Sumrall. He said he keeps a hand-written list of the most important traits of a linebacker, and nowhere near the top is height.

Of course it helps to be tall when it comes to maintaining leverage. And having long arms helps to disengage with blockers and bat down passes. But Sam Mills was 5-foot-9 and went to five Pro Bowls. Sumrall said some of the top qualities he looks for are "instincts, awareness, communication." But it gets even simpler than that.

"The No. 1 job of the linebacker is to tackle the guy with the ball," Sumrall said. "And when you make a tackle, they don't give you more or less credit based upon your height."

Sumrall watched Martial dominate during the playoffs his senior season. During one game, he guessed Martial had 18 tackles. That's when it crystallized, Sumrall said, "Woah, this guys not just good, he's real good. Like, he's the real deal." His next thought was selfish: "I hope nobody else sees what I'm seeing."

Martial said he was torn about whether to follow his brother's lead at North Alabama's scholarship or take a risk and walk on at Troy. Nudged by his parent's advice and after a fitful night's rest, he decided.

"I thought, 'I can make my own legacy, my own story,'" he said. "I just felt like Troy would give me the best shot."

On signing day, Sumrall was inundated with calls from Division-II coaches Martial had turned down. They were angry, Sumrall said, "Telling me we were wrong and he would never play here."

"They were mad for a reason. Because he's really good."

AS SOON AS he got to campus, he felt the looks.

Martial was used to it by then -- the double-takes, sideways glances and not-so-subtle questions about whether he was really on the football team. No one confronted him exactly. But coaches weren't as diplomatic behind the scenes.

"I'm not going to name names," Sumrall said, "but there were a couple guys on the staff that were like, 'Hang on, what? This is the guy?'"

Sumrall told them he was.

"They're like, 'Come on man, really?'" he recalled.

Sumrall shook his head.

"Just wait," he said.

Martial put on a brave face, but that first year at Troy wasn't easy. He had to completely remake his body, losing the baby fat that caused Sumrall to refer to his shape as "a little dumpy." And then he had to learn the playbook because relying on instincts wasn't going to cut it anymore.

Those first few weeks and months were filled with doubt. He wasn't getting the reps he wanted, and he wasn't getting the outcome he wanted, either. It was clear he wasn't going to play or even travel with the team that first year. Martial said he questioned what he was doing there.

He spoke to his brother at one point, who encouraged him to remember why he loved the sport and who he played for.

Forget the doubters. Martial thought of all the people who believed in him.

So he put in the work, did his job on scout team and earned a scholarship the next summer. Sumrall left for Kentucky, but Martial hit the ground running, leading Sun Belt freshmen in tackles and tackles for loss.

As Martial went on to average 122 tackles over the next three seasons, Sumrall resisted the urge to call his former co-workers and brag, "I told you so."

But then, last November, Troy fired head coach Chip Lindsey and Sumrall got a call. It was athletic director Brent Jones. Within two weeks of Lindsey being let go, Sumrall was hired as head coach and hit the ground running, recruiting ahead of the early signing period.

Those five early signees were important. But, truth be told, none of them mattered nearly as much as the former walk-on Sumrall had to convince to stay.

In five short years, Martial had gone from Sumrall's project -- the player he recruited when he wasn't recruiting Bubba Thompson, the player he liked but couldn't offer a scholarship -- to his top priority as a first-time head coach.

DON'T BE NAIVE. Just because Martial never entered the transfer portal doesn't mean he wasn't being recruited after last season. He was a veteran playmaker on a team going through a coaching transition. That's a recipe for tampering in today's game.

Martial is understandably a little cagey on the subject but he admits there were some people in his ear asking if he wanted a change of scenery. Sumrall, on the other hand, is less nuanced when he says he's sure of Power 5 programs that reached out to Martial.

Those overtures, while annoying, didn't bother Sumrall as much as others because if Martial was interested in stepping up a level in competition then who could blame him? Sumrall did the same thing when he left for Kentucky.

"The ones that bothered me were when we had a couple teams in our league," Sumrall said.

Sumrall turned to a PR assistant in the room and said he knew he probably shouldn't throw anybody under the bus. But he stepped on the gas anyway.

"There were a couple people that I know reached out in our league," he continued, pausing for a moment before adding, "one of them in our state."

There's only one other team in the Sun Belt from Alabama. It's not hard to connect the dots.

"And I'm like, really?" Sumrall said. "These are the same people that didn't recruit him out of high school and they're reaching out now. So that's where I got a little maybe like, 'Hey, stay off my kid.'"

Sumrall went through the process of re-recruiting Martial, enlisting former Kentucky analyst and longtime NFL assistant Greg Manusky to put in a good word. Manusky's message to Martial: "You're in good hands."

Sumrall had a few other NFL coaches he knew call Martial on his behalf. And for nearly a month, Martial kept Sumrall waiting. Sumrall said there were conversations with Martial in late December where it felt like it could go either way.

But on Jan. 4, Martial announced he was coming back for his sixth and final season -- taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility all players received during the COVID-shortened 2020 season.

"A lot of people asked me, 'Why didn't you leave? You had all these opportunities,'" Martial said. "I looked at it like, I want to stay loyal to the people who gave me my shot in the first place. I saw what I had here. We had something to build."

What's more, Martial wanted to right a wrong, feeling he hadn't done his part to uphold the standard as Troy stumbled to a sub-.500 record under Lindsey. Instead of leading by example, Martial said he decided to speak up.

And judging by the team's seven games of the season, Martial and Sumrall have the program back on track. Troy is 5-2 and one win away from taking the lead in the Sun Belt West division.

Martial missed the last-second loss to Appalachian State with a lower-body injury, but he returned the following week against Marshall and amassed 18 tackles. The photo of his helmet after the game spoke volumes about how he attacked his first game back.

He's currently averaging 10.5 tackles per game. If he keeps up that pace, he'll need only four more games to break the FBS record for career tackles set by Tim McGarigle of Northwestern in 2005. And Troy could play in as many as seven more games this season, counting a possible conference championship and bowl game.

Whatever happens after that and wherever Martial goes next, only time will tell.

"It's no different than how we saw something in him that made him a good fit here and some people didn't think he was a good fit for them," Sumrall said. "Every NFL team may not pursue him. But I think he'll get an opportunity. And then what happens from there? You never know.

"For somebody not to give him a shot, I think, would be an injustice to the game."

Ross, who is on staff at Troy as director of operations and high school relations, said maybe Martial will end up in an NFL training camp. Then again, Ross said, maybe he goes to the Canadian Football League "and all he does is lead the league in tackling."

But Ross wanted to make a larger point.

"Carlton's legacy is going to be greater than that," he said. "At Troy, other than Demarcus Ware, tell me the best player to ever play here?"

Ware was spectacular, of course, but he was 6-foot-4 and came to Troy on a full scholarship.

For Martial to go from a 5-foot-8 walk-on to this, that's the more unbelievable story.

It's legendary.