GREEN BAY – His coach knew it was just killing him to not be there, so he did what he could to make him a part of it.
Minnesota linebacker Kamal Martin had to miss his last college game, the Outback Bowl, due to a knee injury. So as the Gophers players and coaches were celebrating a thrilling 31-24 upset of Auburn on the Raymond James Stadium field in Tampa, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Joe Rossi decided to FaceTime his senior leader recovering from surgery back home, right in the center of all the commotion.
"You'll see sometimes where a guy is not playing and it doesn't mean as much to him, and Kamal wasn't playing, but he played that game in his living room, I guarantee you," said Rossi in a phone interview with packers.com
"He was so jacked, and we actually couldn't hear each other because it was so loud, but just the look on his face I could see how excited he was. I put the phone to some of his teammates, and it was a cool moment.
"Even though he wasn't there, he was there, you know?"
Setting aside the virtual connection then as an unknown precursor to life in general these days, Martin was certainly there for the bulk of the Gophers' resurgence under head coach P.J. Fleck.
The Packers' fifth-round draft choice, taken with the 175th overall pick, is a high-energy leader who enjoys the physical aspect of the game. The Twin Cities native chose to play defense for his home program and pass on multiple scholarship offers to be a Mid-American Conference quarterback, and he did everything he could to power through his final season despite a painful, non-structural knee injury.
He missed a few games and finally had to be shut down in late November, but not before tallying a career-best 66 tackles and two interceptions at inside linebacker.
Rossi felt his best stretch last season came as the Big Ten slate got going in late September. In three consecutive weeks, all wins, he got the two picks at Purdue, forced two fumbles vs. Illinois, and racked up 15 tackles vs. Nebraska.
The knee trouble knocked his speed and burst down in Rossi's estimation to 80 percent (or less) in subsequent games, but Martin gutted it out as best he could until surgery was necessary.
"I think it shows, number one, he's tough," Rossi said. "When you play a 16-game NFL schedule, you have to be able to play through nicks and bruises and bumps and still be able to go out there.
"And he didn't want to let his teammates down. He was being looked at as an NFL guy, we knew he was going to be a draft pick. It would have bene easy for him to say, 'You know what, I'm good. I'm just going to ride this thing out,' and kind of go on to the next phase. But he wanted to be there with his teammates. That's something that really stands out about his character."
Take a look at Packers LB Kamal Martin during his college career.
Martin perhaps could have been a Day 2 draft selection if not for the injury. He had been playing outside linebacker in the 2017-18 seasons before shifting inside, and he took to it naturally, in part due to his QB background and understanding of defensive fronts.
As an all-state prep star in Burnsville, Minn., he wasn't just an athlete lining up under center, Rossi said, but a "legitimate quarterback," to which his college offers attest. He's smart, learns quickly, and at 6-3, 240, has just scratched the surface of what he can do at inside linebacker as he makes the transition to the pros.
"Anytime a linebacker goes to the NFL, the linemen are much more athletic, so they get up on you more," Rossi said. "Sometimes in college you can just outrun them. In the pros that doesn't happen as often. You have to be able to use your hands and get off them."
Martin's long arms, which measured 34 inches at the combine, will help there, and he told reporters after the draft he expects the knee to be fully healthy by training camp.
Packers GM Brian Gutekunst said Martin will have a chance to earn a role on defense right away. He'll be competing with Oren Burks, Curtis Bolton and Ty Summers for the second inside 'backer spot alongside free-agent acquisition Christian Kirksey.
His primary ticket to Green Bay's roster as a rookie, though, will be on special teams. He took great pride in the third phase throughout his college career, another way his leadership was counted on by the coaching staff.
"You could see it in his attentiveness in meetings, his notetaking. If guys aren't interested they won't be truly tuned in, in meetings," Rossi said. "Then just the effort in drills, going through the circuits. I'm not going to lie, over the years I've seen guys here and there where it's not full speed.
"But Kamal, he was full speed."
All of that spoke to how Martin played a major role in the Minnesota program's rise, which put the Gophers on the verge of reaching the Big Ten title game last year. The Outback Bowl triumph gave them 11 wins in a season for the first time since 1904 and a New Year's Day victory for the first time since 1961.
Rossi said Martin's "huge heart" never turned down an opportunity to mentor a younger player, and the program will be better for it. That's just one of many reasons Rossi didn't want him to completely miss the team's raucous celebration four months ago.
"When there were doubters early about things that were going to go on here – because there's always going to be naysayers at the beginning – he never blinked and was always committed to the vision of the program and Coach Fleck," Rossi said. "He brought it to fruition this year."