I’ve thought a lot about Josef Martinez the past few days.
As most of you know, Atlanta United’s striker suffered a torn ACL in right knee on Saturday in the second half of a 2-1 win at Nashville.
The injury was likely the result of a collision with a defender. It was a freak accident. The result of two players working very hard and running very fast toward a ball.
The odds must be unlikely that if the same sequence were to happen 1,000 times the result would be the injury.
This parallel isn’t exact, but I would guess the probability to be the same as to Martinez coming to Atlanta United and becoming what he has become: the best striker in MLS history.
It seems that perhaps just a handful of people: Gerardo Martino, Carlos Bocanegra, Paul McDonough, Darren Eales and I think perhaps Lucy Rushton saw Martinez’s production at Torino, which wasn’t great, and thought that he would average almost a goal per game in MLS. I can remember at one point writing that the team liked his versatility to play any spot across the midfield going forward.
But, they are the ones that gave Martinez a break. Some might even say a lifeline.
They took him on loan from Torino, where he scored 13 goals in 76 appearances and was being misused as a wide player. Martino installed him as a single striker in a formation filled with players whose job it was to get him the ball.
I can still remember Martino sharing that he told Martinez before the 2018 season that he was going to score around 30 goals.
Atlanta fell in love with Martinez’s style, his determination, his success, his goal celebrations, his hair styles, his honesty in interviews.
He fell in love with Atlanta, saying many times that he will not leave until he’s no longer wanted.
I went back and looked up the first story featuring quotes from Martinez. It was written after he was introduced as the team’s third Designated Player. “I’m really happy to be here, and that’s the most important thing,” he said through an interpreter. Though he said then that he may one day go back and play in Europe, I can remember thinking that he already seemed to be over that experience. He certainly didn’t express a desire to return to Torino, which still held his rights.
Something that I think some people perhaps misunderstand about Martinez is that he isn’t just physically gifted. Sure, he can typically outrun and outjump whichever MLS defender marks him. But he is extremely smart. He speaks several languages and is learning at least one more. He knows how to set up defenders with slight feints. He can see the whole field in a split second and typically make the right pass to a teammate. And, his brain can slow down in harried moments. How often have you watched him, with the goal open, deke one defender and deke another before seeing what he wants and then taking a shot? That’s intelligence combined with physical gifts.
Were those things that anyone would have known watching him play at Torino? It’s difficult to know.
But he was given a break.
Has Martinez been fun to cover?
That depends upon your definition of fun.
When he’s in the mood, he can fill up a recorder with fun, lively quotes. Sometimes he uses words that I can’t print, but it’s what it makes it fun, particularly when he’s remonstrating to the translator to say in English exactly what he said in Spanish.
Sometimes he’s not in the mood and the interviews can frustrate both parties. Those times reached a peak when he was chasing the league’s scoring record in 2018 and have decreased since.
But let me bring this back to why I’ve been thinking about Martinez.
Sometimes, someone only needs a break, someone to believe in them, to help them fulfill a dream.
The first two of my many big breaks came in 1990 and 1992.
The first was when I transferred from Oglethorpe University to the University of Georgia.
I was a junior. I wanted to be a journalist. No idea how. Some of you will say I still don’t. Some days I wouldn’t disagree.
I reasoned that I needed to get a job at the Red and Black.
One day, while reading the Red and Black, I saw a classified ad looking for an ad salesman at the paper. I walked across campus, ad in hand and no experience in my brain, and went to the front desk.
They walked me up to the ad director. Turns out, he went to Lithia Springs High School, a rival of Pebblebrook, where I graduated.
I tried to engage him in small talk about high school sports.
After a few minutes with zero success but several polite smiles, he asked me if I wanted to talk to the sports editor.
Ummmmm ... Yes.
So, he introduced me to Randy. A few minutes into our conversation, he asked me to write a feature on a cross country runner. Kelli Butler, I think her name was.
That turned out OK. More assignments followed.
I began writing for the Red and Black.
Second break, two years later.
I had recently graduated from the University of Georgia. The economy was in recession. I sent copies of my thin resume to dozens of papers. No bites. Papers would come to the Grady College of Journalism to interview soon-to-be graduates. But they would admit there were no jobs to offer.
So, I moved in with a friend, Richard, in Douglasville and applied at a temp agency while I waited. I delivered parts most of that summer, driving a truck around west Georgia for hours five days a week.
I stopped by my parents’ house in Mableton one day and my mom said that someone from a newspaper in Morganton, N.C., had called.
I had never heard of the town or the paper. But I didn’t care.
They wanted to talk to me on the phone about a sports reporting position. They had gotten my info from the school’s career placement office. I had dropped off my info on my way out of town.
A few weeks later, editor Bill Poteat offered me a job.
It was either $13,000 a year to work for a 16,000-circulation newspaper or $16,000 a year to work for a 13,000-circulation newspaper.
I worked at least 60 hours a week for a year until I moved to another bigger paper, and then another, then another, then another, then another and then another. Sixty hours was the norm.
I’ve been blessed to receive many breaks in professional career, often by strangers, including being hired by the AJC as college sports and golf editor in 2007. At the AJC, I’ve been fortunate to have bosses who recognized my passion for soccer and could see Atlanta United’s potential. I’ve been blessed that their bosses have also been supportive.
Along the way, I’ve tried to give breaks to others, just like the Bill gave to me. I still try to help young journalists find jobs, among other things.
I’ve also received a few breaks in my personal life, for which I will be forever grateful.
So, that’s why I’ve been thinking about Martinez and the value of giving someone a break.
Do you know what Martinez’s transfer value was in his last year at Torino? $2 million, according to transfermarkt.com.
Do you know what it is now? $17.5 million.
That’s a pretty good return.
If you get a chance, please give someone a break.
There are no perfect hires. There are no perfect times.
Just give them a break.
At worst, they could end up like me.
At best, they could be the next Josef Martinez.
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