Tee Martin drove his agent crazy.

Focused on growing where his feet were planted, the NFL-player-turned coach preferred to do his work, stay in the moment and trust it would lead him where he wanted to go. Push for another job? He’d rather handle the one he has.

But, after USC fired him from his offensive coordinator role in late 2018, he went to watch Lamar Jackson play the Atlanta Falcons and took a moment to dream.

Watching Jackson, then a rookie, pass for 125 yards and rush for 75 to lead the Ravens to a 26-16 win, Martin thought to himself, “Wow. This is pretty cool.” Martin, who’d heard all the stereotypes about Black QBs as he played the position, imagined what it would be like to coach a player like Jackson.

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He wanted to make it back to the NFL as a quarterbacks coach but knew — again — that Black men traditionally had not been given those roles.

Indeed, his next two positions — at his alma mater, Tennessee, and with the Ravens — would put him in charge of wide receivers.

So, when John Harbaugh called him to his office after last season, Martin braced for the worst. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman had just left the team. The organization was talking about taking the offense in a different direction.

“I thought I was getting let go,” Martin said. “I was actually thinking, ‘I need to go and find a job.’ And then … John told me to prepare for an interview the next day.”

Although Martin had imagined, throughout his time as a wide receivers coach, what he would do to help every quarterback he worked with, he hadn’t expressed his desire for the job to the Ravens. Yet here Harbaugh was asking him to interview. So, after recovering from the shock, Martin went home and stayed up until 3 a.m. putting together a plan.

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Four years, two months and 20 days after he sat in the stands watching Jackson, Martin was named Jackson’s quarterbacks coach. He’s helping coach Jackson into the MVP conversation all while making history leading the league’s first all-Black quarterback corps.

Lamar Jackson, left, is in the conversation for NFL MVP in his first season with Tee Martin as quarterbacks coach. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Fits and starts

When Martin started playing football as a child, he was not impressed with the sport. His coaches had him playing wide receiver, and it was boring.

“When you’re 6 or 7, the wideouts don’t get the ball,” Martin said. “You’re just out there blocking.”

So Martin quit.

His retirement lasted only two years, though. He was idly watching a team practice at Navco Park in Mobile, Alabama, one day when a ball rolled over to him. He launched it back, maybe 40 yards or so.

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After seeing him throw, coach Henry Pugh asked Martin to wait around for the end of practice. Then he drove him home to talk to his mom. He told her that, if she let him play for the Navco Vikings, they would take care of the costs. And so Martin’s quarterbacking career began.

The position spoke to Martin’s sense of responsibility and leadership as the oldest of three children. In addition to an arm, he had the ability to think the game. Those close to him saw as much and nurtured his desire to learn the most cerebral position in sports.

But, when Martin attended camps at Alabama and Auburn, he didn’t receive the same support. He would start out with the quarterbacks because they let the kids do drills for the position they wanted to play, but he would inevitably end up at wide receiver.

“I remember, at an Auburn camp, I had got MVP at quarterback already,” Martin said. “And then I went and caught like six touchdown passes at receiver. And it was like this discussion of, ‘What is he?’ And I just didn’t like how that felt.”

Martin went through much of the recruiting process alone, and he found himself drifting toward the people he felt were being honest about his chances to play quarterback. Ultimately, it was Tennessee’s track record of allowing Black men to play quarterback that sold him.

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Randy Sanders would eventually become Tennessee’s quarterbacks coach at the end of Martin’s tenure, but at the time of his recruitment he was coaching the running backs. Even so, as he got to know Martin, it was clear to him he had what it took to be a quarterback.

Sanders had heard through the grapevine that Martin was athletic and had a good arm. But he learned Martin was much more than that. He was a “scientist, a deep thinker.” He also had “a lot of natural leadership to him.”

Martin also impressed Sanders by being willing to go somewhere he wouldn’t start immediately; instead, he signed up to bide his time and learn from Peyton Manning. It paid off when Martin took the reins and led the school to the 1998 national title.

Yet, once again, that wasn’t enough to impress scouts at the next level. To his and his coaches’ surprise, he lasted until the fifth round of the draft, perhaps because he had been so unselfish and hadn’t padded his statistics, Sanders mused.

For years, Martin had fought to prove he belonged in the pocket, a place where not many Black men had stood before him. Dropping in the draft made him fear the dream would be denied — and shifted his thinking to ways he could change perceptions if he didn’t get a chance to do so on the field.

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“Because, having had the college career I had and then to go fifth round, I questioned if I even wanted to play in the league,” Martin said. “How can someone who had the amount of success I had in college fall that far in the draft if it weren’t for something that had anything other than to do with football? Because you just can’t explain that.”

Called to coaching

Tee Martin led Tennessee to the 1998 national championship. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Long before Martin ever dreamed of putting on an NFL jersey, he dreamed of being a coach.

Growing up in Mobile, Martin saw a struggling community. He spent plenty of time “in the lines” waiting for food and watched those around him succumb to drug abuse and the violence that accompanied the drug trade.

A series of youth and high school coaches kept him from the streets and delivered him to Tennessee, where his leadership potential became clear. In the summer of 1999, with the Vols getting set to defend their national title, Martin took it upon himself to make sure players at every position gathered for summer sessions.

Later, as Martin struggled to find his place in the NFL — he appeared in only three games, completing six of 16 passes — he started training quarterbacks in the offseason. And, each time he returned to training camp, he couldn’t help but wonder if he should give up the grind and begin his coaching career.

However, many coaches climb the ranks right out of college, knowing they don’t have the chance to play in the NFL. Martin, who was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, had already built a family and couldn’t afford to work his way up from a graduate assistant’s salary.

So he locked himself in a room for two days. And, when he came out, he presented his wife with the plan for Playmaker Sports, a company that now specializes in sports event planning, quarterback training and skills development.

To get it there, he drove around the Atlanta area to 10 high schools a day, leaving his business card on windows. He also rode with Sanders on recruiting trips, observing. In his first year, he drew 1,500 participants to his programs. That caught the eye of Nike, which had only 700 participants.

Martin began coaching quarterbacks as a trainer and at Morehouse College and different high schools. His son, Amari Rodgers, remembers early mornings when his dad would wake him up and drag him to school.

“I remember going in there and nobody else was in there — maybe a janitor,” Rodgers said. “And he’s just in there watching film.”

Clemson wide receiver Amari Rodgers poses with his father, Tee Martin, at the Reese's Senior Bowl in Martin's hometown of Mobile, Alabama, in 2021.

Martin’s hard work and production eventually drew attention at the college level, and he received two offers at the same time, one from Oregon and one from the University of New Mexico — from current Maryland coach Michael Locksley. He turned down the more prestigious Pac-12 offer because it required him to coach wide receivers, and he still wanted to be true to himself.

Then, one year later, Sanders called. When Martin heard the offer, his first reaction was exasperation: “Duuuuude, wide receivers?” But Martin trusted Sanders, so he took the risk and accepted.

At night, he would put on cleats and run routes, trying to teach himself what it’s like to be a receiver. He would try drills on his son — then 11 years old — because he didn’t want anyone to know how inexperienced he was. Throughout his career, Rodgers has hit up his father for drills or to go over film, and he never realized his dad was aiming to get back to coaching another position.

“I recently asked him if he liked coaching quarterbacks or wide receivers better, and he said quarterbacks without a doubt,” Rodgers said. “It definitely made sense when he said that, but I thought he liked coaching receivers because he did it for so long. … He was such a good receivers coach, it kind of became a norm.”

Nonetheless, players flocked to Martin, Sanders said, because they could sense his desire to help them. He caught on quickly and soon had knowledge to pair with his impressive communications skills. As he progressed in his career, he started to catch the eye of NFL front offices through the players, including Juju Smith-Schuster and Randall Cobb, he developed and sent to the league. Rodgers played with three of his dad’s wide receivers – Cobb, Michael Pittman Jr. and Robert Woods – and they all told him Martin was the best coach they’d ever had.

As stubborn as he felt about wanting to coach quarterbacks, Martin found himself unwilling to express his desire out of respect and loyalty to his colleagues, he said. But that didn’t stop him from analyzing how he’d coach each quarterback he encountered.

Yet he went 13 years without coaching the position. He tries not to linger on the ways his dream was deferred, opting to take lessons instead.

“It’s actually a pretty cool deal because, [for] a receiver communicating to Lamar, I was able to talk to them about, ‘This is what the quarterback is looking at,’” Martin said. “And, with Lamar at times, certain things that he’s wanting or thinking … wideouts might not see it that way, and to kind of sit in the middle of it, it’s sometimes good to referee those conversations because I can understand both sides.

“I’m actually grateful and thankful that I’ve had a chance to coach something else before I came back to what I knew, because I wouldn’t necessarily have that viewpoint if I only did quarterbacks.”

An early, lasting influence

Martin watches the Ravens play the Seattle Seahawks in November. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Martin’s mother was young when she had him, so he spent a lot of time with his great-grandmother as his mom finished schooling. Mary Posely has since died, but every time Martin speaks to quarterbacks Jackson, Tyler Huntley and Josh Johnson or anyone else on the team, they encounter her influence.

“That’s who I am in terms of my spiritual being and what I stand for,” Martin said.

Martin described Posely as a “short” Native American woman who never drove and never had an ideal job. But she was also a tough woman who always found a way through the “struggle, struggle, struggle” and didn’t let anyone step over her or her beliefs.

Despite her toughness and strength, she had a soft touch. She was gentle in her corrections, never wanting to scare Martin or his siblings out of creativity or the courage to explore. She was who Martin wanted to be, and her influence lives on.

“The way that I coach is through that way,” Martin said. “I feel like, if I have to scream and yell at a player, I’m out of control, then I’m the issue. I take pride in being able to communicate and get players to be on track and do the things we ask them to do without being demeaning to them or talking down to them or losing my cool.”

Huntley said that’s something unique about Martin. As Ravens Executive Vice President Ozzie Newsome watches games and practices, he sees Martin communicating with Jackson between series, and it’s obvious how comfortable and calm they are.

Jackson said he appreciates Martin’s approach to coaching.

Martin wants players to be perfect, and he’s going to be harder on them “than probably anyone else will,” Jackson said, but he appreciates that.

“And every morning he’s got something [about] championship quarterbacking, and ‘I want you to be a championship quarterback,’ Jackson said. “I‘m cool with that, because I’m hard on myself, and I know I want to be great, and so does he.”

Rodgers said his dad has loved working with Jackson. He loves his competitive drive. The two spend hours poring over film. And Martin said he drops a packet of information on the next opponent in Jackson’s locker at the end of each game. It’s a level of preparation he learned from working with Manning and Sanders at Tennessee. And it’s clear Jackson trusts Martin, because he’s responding with his best passing season.

Woody McCorvey, who coached Martin at Tennessee and is now the assistant athletic director of Clemson, was the first Black offensive coordinator in the Southeastern Conference. As he has with so many Black QBs, he’s watched Jackson evolve since college. Under Martin’s tutelage, he’s seen Jackson become a polished passer in the pocket, something that’s critical as Jackson ages.

Watching Jackson’s success and seeing Martin surrounded by young Black quarterbacks who have all fended off position changes is especially fulfilling for McCorvey.

“I’m overjoyed because of the era that I came from. It was a no-no,” said McCorvey, who arrived at Alabama State when there were no Black players at Auburn or Alabama (which would add two Black players in 1971 and, in 1974, Newsome.) “It was a no-no. You were never going to see that.”

They’re blessed to be making history, Huntley said, and it’s extra special to be led by a man who helped show that it was OK for Black players to push against the stereotypes that they couldn’t be quarterbacks. Rodgers said his dad is passionate about Black history and raising up all Black athletes.

“I know it means so much to him,” Rodgers said.

Martin’s success at 45 years old comes as no shock to Sanders, who has known him since he was a high schooler.

“The biggest surprise to me is that he hasn’t gotten a call and hasn’t become a head coach somewhere,” Sanders said.

Martin said he can’t fathom thinking about the next stop when he’s focused on helping Jackson and the Ravens be the best they can be.

That’s OK, though, because those around him, from his mentors — Sanders, McCorvey and, more recently, Newsome — to his mentees such as Huntley, are dreaming big for him. This league only has three Black head coaches and six minority head coaches, and Black offensive coordinators are outnumbered nine to one, but they feel it’s only a matter of time before Martin moves on to bigger and better.

“His future is very bright as far as football,” Newsome said. “And I think that’s good because we need young men like Tee to stay in the game and have the impact that they have on the young kids coming up.”