Johnny Football: Martin continues to lead Highland to new heights

Highland junior star running back Johnny Martin, who has helped knock off rival Timber Creek in back-to-back seasons, is motivated by desire to help his family.

What motivates Martin? “I just don’t want to be in Jersey,” he said. “I want to make it out of here. … I want to be able to take my family and make them rich. That’s what makes me go harder. It’s not about me, I’m not playing for me — I’m playing for my whole family.” (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

The act couldn’t possibly be called a symbolic one for the state of high school football in Gloucester Township. It was too blatant. 

But the emotion made the moment when then-Highland sophomore Johnny Martin, the second the final whistle sounded, sprinted to the visiting sideline, collected a four-foot-long baby blue flag with an “H” insignia, sprinted back to the field and planted it dead-center on the 50-yard line.

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This was Sept. 28, 2018, when Highland upset Black Horse Pike Regional School District rival Timber Creek on the Chargers home field in a wild win.

A week ago, exactly 371 days since that stunning victory, Martin and Highland once again took care of Timber Creek in another riveting football game between the two schools. 

Martin scored one touchdown, his lowest single-game output of the season, in a 21-17 game that came down to the game’s final seconds. Tartans freshman Hamin Anderson secured the win with an interception. 

Martin didn’t have to plant a flag this time around. The Tartans, after all, defended their home turf.

“I knew they were coming, but we’re the kings of the Pike,” said Martin, who saw his Tartans collect their fourth straight win following a season-opening loss to St. Joseph (Hammonton). “They can’t beat us! They can’t beat us, man. It was a great team win. That’s our sister school, it’s a rivalry game, I knew they were going to come hard so I just had to come harder.”

Martin celebrates with freshman Hamin Anderson after the freshman’s game-clinching interception in the final minutes of Highland’s win over Timber Creek. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

In the season’s first five weeks, entering Highland’s game tonight against Moorestown, Martin had amassed more than 700 rushing yards and scored 10 touchdowns. 

In his aforementioned sophomore season, Martin earned second-team all-state honors after rushing for 2,002 yards (second in the state) and collecting 19 touchdowns. Highland’s win over Timber Creek two Fridays ago was a true testament to the development of the program as a whole, as Martin was just one cog in the team-wide effort.

It was also an effort that should give Highland the confidence to finish out the rest of October strong, too.

“I just told them we’re a family,” Martin said of addressing the team after the game. “This was a big game and (our guys) came through. A lot of times I play a big role on the team, but I feel like my role was minimized today. My team stepped up for me. It was a team win.”

The future Division-I running back — Baylor, Rutgers, Temple, Syracuse, Penn State and West Virginia could all be possible suitors — spoke with South Jersey Sports Weekly at length following the Timber Creek win.

South Jersey Sports Weekly: So I guess you have to have a lot of respect for a team like Timber Creek?

Johnny Martin: I got real respect, I watched film of them all week, they’re a great team, no doubt, and that game could have gone any way. It was a great team win.

SJSW: How long have you been playing football?

Martin: Since I was 4.

SJSW: Who taught you the game?

Martin: My dad. Johnny Martin Jr.

SJSW: Did he play somewhere?

Martin: He played in high school, at Haddon Heights.

Martin, a junior, earned second-team all-state honors after rushing for 2,002 yards (second in the state) and collecting 19 touchdowns in 2018. In 2019, he’s back at it, leading Highland to four straight wins recently, including beating rival Timber Creek for second straight year. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

SJSW: What inspires you on the field, or motivates you to perform well?

Martin: I just don’t want to be in Jersey. I want to make it out of here. I don’t want this life, a regular life, I don’t want to work 9-to-5. I want to be able to take my family and make them rich. That’s what makes me go harder. It’s not about me, I’m not playing for me – I’m playing for my whole family. 

SJSW: How is the college process going?

Martin: It’s going great, I’m getting a lot of interest. I just love being recruited. I love every school I’m interested in, I never turn a school down, I just love the recruiting process.

SJSW: How far can this Highland team go?

Martin: Timber Creek, that’s a championship team, and we just beat a championship team. They have a good history of going to the championship. So I think this win makes us one of the best teams in South Jersey

SJSW: If you could pick any kid from another team in South Jersey and put him on Highland’s team, who would you pick? Or, who is your favorite player on another team?

Martin: I like Kyle McCord. He’s from South Jersey but he plays in Philly (at St. Joe’s Prep). I played against him my whole life. That’s my boy. We talk all the time. So if he was at Highland, (that’d work). He’s a great quarterback, I think he’s the best quarterback in the country.

SJSW: Who is the best tackler in South Jersey?

Martin: I’d say Miami commit Tirek Austin-Cave from Camden High.

Highland senior quarterback Javon Holley gets ready for a snap. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

SJSW: Who is your most athletic teammate?

Martin: Javon Holley, he’s the fastest on the team, he’s our quarterback and it’s really his first year as the quarterback, so for him to come in here and manage the game so well. And as you can see he can break off a run, he can throw the ball, he can play defense, safety or corner. So yeah, he’s the best athlete on the team.

SJSW: Funniest teammate?

Martin: Funniest teammate? Zay Butler or Naiem. Not little Naiem, fat Naiem. 

SJSW: [Laughs] What’s his last name? 

Martin: What’s Fat Nai’s last name? I forgot. 

[Editor’s note: six-foot Naiem McNeil, not 5-6 Naiem El.]

SJSW: How about smartest teammate?

Martin: Winston Jordan. He’s probably going to go to an Ivy League school, he’s really smart, he’s got something like a 4.6 (GPA). 

SJSW: Who would play you in a movie?

Martin: I was just talking about this the other day. Michael B. Jordan.

SJSW: How about a favorite TV show?

Martin: “All-American.” It’s football, reality, so I love it.

Martin breaks free for a run against Timber Creek. The junior back had 168 yards on 22 carries and one touchdown in the victory. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

SJSW: Did you ever play any other sports? 

Martin: I played basketball, from like third grade until eighth, but my dad told me to stop because of high school, he didn’t want me to get hurt.

SJSW: Do you have a favorite pro or college player?

Martin: Oh yeah, Ezekiel Elliott. I try to model my game after him. I like how he’s a downhill runner and how he’s very durable. People say he’s not the best back in the league, but all the best backs get hurt, like Todd Gurley with the knee, David Johnson, Saquon Barkley. But Zeke never gets hurt.

SJSW: What’s your favorite thing to do outside of football?

Martin: Probably just hang out with my friends, my girlfriend, and just chill. And relax with my family. I know I don’t have much (down) time (with football), so being with them, with my family, is really good.

SJSW: If they were to announce the starting lineup at a state championship game and you get your own walk-out song, what are you telling them to play?

Martin: Meek Mill’s “On the Regular.”

Ryan is a veteran journalist of 20 years. He’s worked at the Courier-Post, Philadelphia Daily News, Delaware County Daily Times, primarily as a sportswriter, and is currently a sports editor at Newspaper Media Group and an adjunct journalism instructor at Rowan University.
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