Dec. 24—Missouri Southern football signee Jared Martino had already gone through a career's worth of adversity before he felt like he had officially hit rock bottom.
The talented running back out of Malden, Mass., had just made the difficult decision to transfer from NCAA Division I University of Massachusetts in the midst of a trial-ridden pandemic when he arrived in southeast Kansas to play for Independence Community College at the junior college level in the late fall of 2020.
In Martino's mind, it was the fresh start he needed.
"I made the decision to walk on at UMass and it didn't work out," he said. "I was injured my first year there and then I had to make a position change (to linebacker) that was out of my control. ... I eventually decided it was best for me to move on and enter the transfer portal — continue to bet on myself. That's when Indy came into the picture."
Once a highly-touted and heavily-recruited high school All-American and prep school standout, Martino's gamble to walk on at UMass didn't go as planned. But Indy, a program nicknamed "Dream U" after it was featured by the hit Netflix show Last Chance U for two seasons, felt like the ideal place to grow as a player and gain national exposure in the process. It also allowed him to return to his preferred spot in the offensive backfield.
Then adversity reared its ugly head once again by the spring of 2021.
"With the pandemic and everything, we actually had a spring season coming up," Martino said. "Things were going good at that point. I was starting, I was having good practices and I just felt good and in shape overall.
"I think it was our first day of pads and actual contact — about three weeks before our first game. I got hit and my foot went the wrong way. Right when it happened, I knew it would be something bad."
A trip to the hospital revealed Martino's foot was broken. The injury required surgery and would sideline him for the entire spring season, and potentially more.
"At that point, I was thinking about my college career and how I had to walk on at one place, transfer to another and then get hurt before I'd played a single game," Martino said. "I was down. I couldn't really see God's plan for me, and I didn't understand why all of these things kept happening."
Martino returned to his Malden home just 10 minutes outside of Boston and underwent surgery. For the next several weeks, he contemplated quitting football entirely and "moving on with his life."
"I even had a job lined up at one point," he said. "When I went home, I couldn't even watch the (ICC) games. I was in bed while my team was playing. It was a low point for me, but thank God for my family and my close friends. They really kept me going."
Martino's mindset changed after he was approached by ICC coaches who urged him to continue his rehab so he could give football another shot in the fall.
His father, Joe Martino, a former football coach, also offered encouraging words that ultimately led to Jared's decision to focus on his rehab and make a return to the gridiron.
"Then I ended up rehabbing a lot faster than I thought I'd be able to," Martino said. "I was able to play by the fall and had a full season at Indy. I can only thank God, my family, coaches and friends for helping me through that entire process. That's basically what led me to my next opportunity at Missouri Southern."
Martino, at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, appeared in eight games for Independence and averaged 4.4 yards per carry as he amassed 276 total yards and a team-high six rushing touchdowns with no fumbles. The Pirates peaked at No. 2 in the nation and ended the season with an 8-2 record.
Martino's performance over the course of the season garnered more attention on the recruitment trail. He said he was in contact with Northwestern Oklahoma State, East Central, Northern Alabama and North Dakota before MSSU offered him a scholarship a few weeks after the conclusion of the 2021 season.
"I had a connection with them (MSSU) through Coach Hoss (Bijan Hosseini), who coached at Indy before he accepted the offensive line job at Missouri Southern," Martino said. "He called me up one day and was like, 'Hey we're looking for a big back, and I'm excited to say that we're able to offer you a scholarship.'
"It was an easy decision once I got that offer. I took my visit and I was really comfortable with the coaching staff. Coach Hoss is a guy I already knew and trusted and respected a lot. Then when I visited the school, I was really surprised by how nice the facilities were. It just felt right."
Martino will be a redshirt sophomore for the Lions next season.
"When you turn the film on, the clips that he has show he's physical and he does a nice job of running downhill," MSSU head coach Atiba Bradley said of Martino. "So he'll be a good addition to that running back room. We're looking forward to seeing what he brings and how much he'll be able to develop within our program."
"The biggest goal to me is to win a conference championship," Martino said. "I've talked with the coaching staff, and that's the main goal and I think we have the guys to do it. Then personally, I want to have a good career and give the fans something enjoyable to watch. I'm just excited, man."
Martino was a standout quarterback at Alden High School for two seasons before he moved to play running back and quarterback at Cheshire Academy, a prep school in Cheshire, Conn.
In his final season at Cheshire, Martino rushed for 1,123 yards and 12 touchdowns while adding eight passing touchdowns. He was one of 70 players selected to play in the Pro Football Hall of Fame World Bowl at Azul Stadium in Mexico City, Mexico, in December of 2018.
Contact Jared Porter on Twitter at @JaredRyanPorter.