A spinal injury disrupted his football career. The comeback story of NCSU’s Khalid Martin

As Khalid Martin lay on the turf at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va., on a September evening, he asked himself questions.

“Am I injured or am I hurt?” Martin, the N.C. State redshirt freshman safety repeated. “Coming from where I’m from, growing up, my dad used to always ask, ‘Are you hurt or are you injured?’ I was trying to figure it out myself.”

If he was hurt, Martin could have popped back up, shaken it off and moved on to the next play. But Martin was injured and even as he slipped in and out of consciousness he didn’t realize how bad things were.

Late in the third quarter against Virginia Tech on Sept. 26, 2020, the 6-0, 192-pound Martin dropped to the ground after colliding helmet to helmet with teammate Tyler Baker-Williams as they attempted to tackle Hokies running back Jalen Holston. After reaching for his head, Martin briefly got to his knees before falling back to the turf. Martin said he blacked out on impact. As he opened his eyes he could hear teammate Cecil Powell encouraging him to get up.

He tried but blacked out again. When he woke up, Martin recalled being surrounded by the training staff asking him a series of questions. Martin tried to collect his thoughts before all his attention went to the pain that was suddenly taking over the entire right side of his body, from his jaw all the way down to his feet.

“A stinger would be an understatement to the pain,” Martin said. “The burning sensation I was feeling, it was completely my right side, everyone was telling me not to move.”

Watching his brother get injured

Martin’s older brother, Nique, was watching the game on television. He saw what happened to his younger brother in real time, just like a lot of other people. .

When Khalid didn’t initially get up, Nique didn’t worry. Nique was a wide receiver at North Carolina Central for three years before transferring to N.C. State as a walk-on in the spring, so understands injuries are part of the game. It was when the broadcast went to commercial, came back to the game and Khalid still hadn’t gotten up, and then went back to commercial, that Nique knew something was seriously wrong.

“That’s when me and my cousin started going crazy,” Nique said. “We were trying to figure out what was going on and what made it the worst was people kept texting me. Just waiting on that call to see what’s going on, that was the scariest thing, probably a traumatic experience.”

Later, it was determined the impact of the collision caused compression of Martin’s spinal cord. As the staff started cutting off Martin’s facemask and slowly placed him on the board to load him into the ambulance, what felt like an eternity passed.

With so much going on around him and now having the time to fully process what happened, Martin asked himself another set of questions.

“I asked myself if this was it,” Martin recalled. “If this was all I had for my career. I’m thinking, (my football career) was over.”

The beginning of a long recovery

Despite being laid out on a stretcher, with his future in football uncertain, Martin didn’t want to shed his dark moment on the team. Things were already dark enough. Virginia Tech was up 37-17 with 1:17 remaining in the third quarter when Martin went down.

As first responders lifted the stretcher off the ground and headed to the ambulance, head coach Dave Doeren walked over to Martin. In one of his hardest moments, Martin had a message for Doeren to relay to the team.

“I can’t remember the exact words, but I told Coach Doeren just finish,” Martin said. “Use this energy, use however y’all feeling, use that towards the game, don’t worry about me, I’m going to be good.”

At the time Martin didn’t know if he was going to be OK. But an EMT during the ambulance ride gave Martin reassurance, letting him know everything would be fine.

Once he learned he wouldn’t need surgery, Martin started plotting a return … and an escape.

“As soon as they told me I didn’t have to have surgery I was trying to get out of the hospital as fast as I could,” Martin said with a laugh. “I hate hospitals. As soon as they told me I didn’t have to have surgery I called my family and said ‘y’all come get me, please.”

Khalid didn’t sleep at all that night and was released to Nique the following morning, which was the day after the game. His main objective was to let his mom lay eyes on him so she knew he was OK.

Nique drove Khalid two hours from the hospital in Roanoke, Va., to their home in Kernersville. Khalid left the hospital in a wheelchair but was able to walk (barely) through the door to greet his mom. He was still in a lot of pain, still unable to properly walk. But he was breathing and didn’t need surgery, and that was all the hope he needed to shift his focus to recovering. Less than 24 hours after he questioned if his football career was over and learned he had a spinal injury, Martin was already looking ahead to a return.

Later that same evening, Martin was back in Raleigh, and he made an appearance at a team meeting. There was no wheelchair, but he was still in a neck brace.

But that didn’t matter much. He was there.

Khalid Martin’s rehab and determination

During the first few months of rehab, Martin had to learn how to pick his foot up, put it down and not drag his foot. Martin described the feeling of his entire leg being asleep for a whole month.

But even with those struggles, Martin knew better days were ahead. As long as he could stand upright, he had hopes of a return to football.

“I always told myself from that day forward any day I can move, I’m going to be playing the game of football,” Martin said. “As soon as I was able to move and I got the OK from my mom, I knew I was suiting back up.”

The way Martin looked at it, laying on that turf, pain shooting up his right side, then being able to walk the next day was about as low as it was going to get.

“God blessed me to play again once they said my injury wasn’t permanent,” Martin said. “Once they said that I knew I was going to be able to touch the field.”

Not ready for spring football season

Being able to touch the field was not easy for Martin.

Even though he didn’t need surgery, his injury was serious enough that Martin was placed on the long-term injury list. His 2020 season was over. The spinal cord injury even made a return in 2021 seem ambitious.

Kevin Siesel is an athletic trainer with the Wolfpack football program and worked closely with Martin during his rehabilitation. Siesel didn’t know how long it would take to get Martin back to 100 percent. What he did discover early in the process was Martin’s determination was unique, and that it could possibly get him back on the field ahead of schedule.

“He just came in every day with a really good attitude and worked really hard,” Siesel said. “He had no doubt in his mind that he was going to get better. He never wavered, he just crushed it the whole time.”

For the first month of rehab, all Martin could do was what Siesel called “feel-good treatment”, a lot of stretches and body massages. Siesel told the News & Observer that Martin’s early rehab days required a lot of “gentle movements.”

“For those first couple of weeks, you’re doing a lot of massages,” Siesel said. “A lot of gentle movements, just to get him into a position where he can be pain-free and do what we call activities of daily living, like sitting in a chair and being able to walk normally.”

Martin had a lot of nerve damage and tension. The stretching and massages were done to get his mobility back and loosen up his hip. While his teammates were lifting weights and running, Martin was ending most of his days in the hot tub and doing more stretches.

Slowly, Martin started to lose the numbness in his arm and his right leg and foot. Eventually, certain movements weren’t painful for him. That’s when he said his rehab really “took off.” He was getting back to regular movements, and even though he wasn’t lifting heavy, Martin could do some work with weights.

Spring football practice for 2021 was about to begin, and Martin thought he was ready for a full return. The night before the first practice, though, Doeren held a team meeting. At the end of the meeting, he had one final message.

“He says ‘Oh, Khalid, trainers say you’re not ready for spring (practice),’” Martin recalled.

Playing in the Wolfpack’s spring game

Down, but still determined, Martin got back to work with the long-term injury group. Siesel said the entire group pushed each other each week, making the dreaded rehab process somewhat manageable.

Eventually, Martin worked his way back to the field, where he wore a green jersey that indicated he wasn’t cleared for full contact. That was fine with him. He was back on the grass and felt like part of the team again. The week of N.C. State’s spring game in April, more than five months after his injury, Martin was fully cleared by his doctor.

Even though his doctor gave him the green light to play, Martin’s trainers weren’t so sure yet. He joked that he had to “sweet talk” them, and ultimately proposed a way to find out how far he’d come with all those weeks of rehab.

“I was like, ‘Turn me loose,’” Martin said. “’And let me see how good this work is.’”

Martin says he got in two good practices before the spring game. On April 10, he was on the field with the White team, same as Nique, playing football again in the Wolfpack’s spring game.

It had been a long road to recovery for Martin, and there’s still a long way to go.

He’ll be fully cleared for practice in fall camp, but he has work to do to get back in the lineup. He only played 20 snaps from scrimmage in 2020 before his season was cut short. Martin, a safety, will have an uphill battle to compete with veterans like Tanner Ingle, Jakeen Harris and Devan Boykin for snaps. Add transfers Derrek Pitts (West Virginia) and Cyrus Fagan (Florida State) into the mix and that mountain becomes harder to climb.

But all Martin wants is a chance to prove he’s back.

“I can’t wait to show everyone the work that I put in and the work that this training staff has put in and the work the weight room staff has put in to help me return to the game that I love,” Martin said. “I’m working hard just to pay respect to them for giving me their time and their effort. I can’t wait.”

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