IOWA CITY, Iowa — See, Oliver Martin is a package deal, Ann Arbor. If you want the hands — those Downy-soft, Spider-Man sticky, catch-everything-in-the-freaking-area-code hands — you’re going to have to take the gills, too.
Michigan signed him for the turf. The kid’s not giving up the surf without a fight. The top prep football prospect in the state of Iowa in the Class of 2017 also happens to be one of the area’s best high-school swimmers — and he’s been nudging the Wolverines powers-that-be about continuing to try and do both in the Big Ten.
“They said I can do it if I want to,” Martin, a 4-star wide receiver, told Land of 10 Wednesday after inking his National Letter of Intent to join Michigan on the gridiron. “I talked to the swim coach (with the Wolverines) and he’s all for it.
“They just put that on the table because they were recruiting my sister, too. So we were kind of there with her, and (Harbaugh) had heard about me swimming.”
Martin’s younger sister, Ruby, is the state’s No. 1-ranked female swimmer, having finished fourth in the 200-meter fly at the U.S. Olympic trials this past summer. Ruby, earmarked as a top contender for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, attended Wednesday’s after-school signing ceremony at Iowa City West High School dressed in a blue Michigan jacket.
“Baseball,” Oliver explained as his family shared handshakes and hugs with fellow seniors and their loved ones, “is easier to try and deal with.”
Did we mention baseball?
“His tools,” Iowa City West baseball coach Charlie Stumpff chuckled, “are off the charts.”
So much so that Iowa and Illinois dangled diamond rides. The 6-foot Martin played second base for the Trojans last spring, Stumpff says, and would kill it as a collegiate outfielder.
“The way he hits and runs,” Stumpff said of Martin, who’s recorded a 4.65 in the 40-yard dash and a 37.8-inch vertical leap, “he’d be great in the outfield. Like everybody else in high school, you put your best guys in the infield because that’s where the action is. He’s got a plus arm at second base and has great range. He tightened us up considerably in the infield.”
The exit velocity off the teen’s bat has been clocked at 95 mph, for starters. He’s been timed from home to first base in less than 4 seconds out of the right-handed batter’s box. Perspective: MLB speedsters Jose Altuve and Dee Gordon posted home-to-first average times of 3.91 and 3.98 seconds, respectively, in 2015.
“In football, anything close to him, the guy’s catching everything,” Stumpff said. “You can imagine putting a glove in his hands. There’s a lot of natural ability there, but he really works at it.”
In Iowa, baseball is a summer-to-late-summer sport, almost a direct handoff to the earliest stages of the preseason football calendar. Stumpff has lost count of the times he’s wrapped up a June or July morning workout only to find Martin having already switched gears. Catching football after football after football after football, honing the craft.
“The natural ability is really good,” the coach said. “But his work ethic and attention to detail are just off the charts. That’s just who he is.”
He’s big on the grind. The grandeur, not so much. A circle of local reporters, cameras and smart phones in hand, descended upon the official West High senior signing assembly Wednesday. Martin politely soldiered through wave after wave, despite the aforementioned media being advised that access would be limited because of scheduling conflicts.
“When we were at the point in the season where he was obviously the first person interviewed, Oliver told me, ‘I don’t want to do anymore interviews unless it’s about the opponent or who we play next week,’” West football coach Garrett Hartwig recalled. “He just got uncomfortable with it.
“I think everybody realizes that’s how he is. Deep down, he doesn’t show a lot of emotion, which is good. But he is naturally competitive and he understands that the best players make the biggest plays in the biggest games. And in order to get to the biggest games, you have to have the best team. And I think that’s something he knew and understands, and that’s what he wants.”
It’s humility — and honesty — more than hubris. Martin, rated the No. 28 wideout in the country by 247 Sports, marches to the beat of his own drummer. At double-time. He’s also the third top-flight wide receiver from the state of Iowa in the last 13 years to pledge to Michigan — following in the path of Cedar Rapids native Adrian Arrington and West Des Moines’ Amara Darboh — rather than stay in-state.
When Michigan started putting out feelers, Martin said, he spoke with Darboh — whose Wolverines eligibility expired last fall — to try and get a feel for a campus 445 miles away.
“That was more of a conversation about him telling me what it’s like there, socially, as a player and all that,” Martin explained. “And (he) talked highly of the program and recommended it to me. So I thought it was a really great place.”
Iowa fans, as you might imagine, disagreed. And weren’t the least bit shy about expressing that dissent on social media with hammer and tongs.
“It is what it is,” Hartwig said. “But some people have to look in the mirror and (ask), would they say that to the (kid’s) face or their parents’ faces or my face? You sit behind the keyboard and press ‘send.’ Who are you? It drives me crazy. I wish I could see some of these guys face-to-face.”
The Iowa Hawkeyes fan butt hurt is real. Living in Iowa it’s meltdown city over Oliver Martin. Good grief, calm down.
— Jesse (@78Grams) January 31, 2017
“I like their program,” Martin said of the hometown Hawkeyes. “I like the coaches there. I was comfortable with the players. So they were there. It just came down to Michigan.
“There were just a few people who like to get in their two cents. You try not to listen to it. It didn’t have too much of an effect on me.”
His fellow Wolverines in the Class of 2017 did. The Michigan coaches did. The professors did. Harbaugh did, too, whether by land or by sea. Earlier this month, during a visit to Iowa City, the Wolverines’ coach popped in on one of Martin’s swim practices at West. When Martin’s prep teammates asked for a photo with the Wolverines’ coach, Harbaugh said he’d oblige — if he could don the team’s swim cap and a pair of goggles:
— Jim Russ (@JimRuss1) January 30, 2017
And speaking of the pool …
“There’s some reservations as to how much I could work out in the summer,” Martin explained. “So I could do (football) and do swimming.”
The Wolverines swim from early October through early December, with conference meets in January and February dovetailing into the Big Ten and NCAA Championships. So the first part of the calendar doesn’t necessarily mesh, but the last part could. Conceivably.
On paper, it sounds like a bit like a leap of faith, but with Martin, the locals say, you learn that the bridge too far one week is crossed off the bucket list the next. So many gifts. So little dang time.