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Football: Sager, Jackson, Martin unsung heroes in UL bowl run

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, December 14, 2014



Not everyone is a superstar. Not even everyone is a starter.

Some simply are special-teams contributors, and they’re the ones – as in the case of UL seniors Christian Sager, Marcus Jackson and Jarad Martin – who are living testament to the power of perseverance.

They’re also as needed as anyone, suggests UL head coach Mark Hudspeth, whose 8-4 Ragin’ Cajuns play Nevada in Saturday’s New Orleans Bowl.

“Those guys are sort of the unheralded heroes of your team,” Hudspeth said, “because they do their job quietly, they don’t ask for any fanfare, they come to work every day just like every else.”

What’s kept each going even when those with lesser drive would have hit the brakes is a tale tied closely to family and friends.


When he first decided to walk on at UL out of St. Frederick High in Monroe, doubters pushed Sager the hardest.

“At first it was a lot of people saying I couldn’t do it coming from a small school, saying they didn’t think I’d be able to walk on at a DI (NCAA Division I program) and be able to make it,” Sager said. “Then, you know, everybody has those rough times where you want to quit. But, I mean, I was always taught growing up (to) just never quit anything.”

Credit father Harlan Sager and mother Dawn Sager for that.

When Sager redshirted his first season at UL, it was largely expected.

But when a new coaching staff took over after the 2010 season, and he wasn’t even on the travel squad for most of 2011, Sager began questioning himself.

“My parents never let me quit anything,” he said. “I’d be talking to them like, ‘I just don’t know how much longer I can do this,’ and (they’re) like, ‘You can’t quit in the middle.’

“So I’d just keep going and keep going, and just stick out it out, you know?”


Martin knows.

The 6-foot-5, 306-pounder has played at times as a backup, but with no Cajun starting center, guard or tackle missing a start over the last four seasons – an amazing fact considering the violent nature of the positions – he’s been limited to reserve action on offense.

What’s motivated him, he said, has been “really just a passion for the game, just going out, knowing you’re doing what you love.”

“That speaks for itself,” said Martin, from West Jefferson High in Harvey.

The volume is cranked to a different tune, however, when Martin is in the weight room and thinking of certain kin near New Orleans.

More than once, doubt crept in.

“I always have those times doing a hard workout,” Martin said. “I just think about back at home – think about my brother (Jeremy) and mom (Lisa Simmons), my family members. That just keeps me going.”


Jackson never did come close to hanging it up.

When he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on a special-teams play in a 2012 win at UL Monroe, quitting was not an option.

“I never got to that stage at all,” Jacksons said.

Jackson did, however, need a lift.

Kicker Hunter Stover provided with a boot to the backside.

“He stayed behind me,” Jackson said. “He had a couple of knee surgeries (three, actually), and he always said, ‘I appreciate you. You’re team leader.’ He always kept me motivated.”

Stover, who is hunting buddies with Jackson, did it for a reason.

“I can’t tell you how awesome that dude is,” he said of Jackson, who ran for more than 4,000 yards and scored 58 touchdowns at Goshen High in Goshen, Ala., which is located just a few miles away from fellow Sun Belt Conference-member Troy. “He gives so much effort every day.”

Unlike Sager, Hudspeth’s current staff signed him as a scholarship player. Unlike Sager as well, Jackson never did redshirt.

But much like Sager, cracking UL’s lineup as an every-down position player has been tough.

Jackson began as a running back – he had a touchdown run in a 2012 win over Tulane – and has bounced back and forth between running back and linebacker.

He’s made his mark, thought, on special teams.

“Sager, I guess he kind of understands, ‘I’m gonna be a role player,’ ” Stover said. “But Marcus, I know it’s tough for him.

“I can’t tell you how much I love that guy,” added Stover, who began his own UL career at linebacker but found a way to play by kicking. “He’s awesome. Whatever he does, he’ll be successful. He’s just got a great heart on him, and he plays hard – with everything he does.”


The fact Sager isn’t on athletic scholarship – and hasn’t been during all five of his seasons with the Cajuns – might surprise some.

It also makes what he’s done that much more meaningful to him.

“Some people don’t even realize that I walked on, and am still a walk-on,” said Sager, who has earned academic scholarship money. “Once people figure that out, I think they have more respect for me, because they’re like, ‘Man, why did you stay? Why did you keep doing it?’ ”

Good questions.

The lone regular-season trip Sager did take in 2011, a win at Middle Tennessee, offers insight to the answers.

“It was kind of tough – you know, am I ever gonna make it here?” he said. “But once I did get that one travel, it boosted my confidence a lot. And the next year I was on special teams traveling (full-time).”

There were times early in his career when Sager thought to himself, “I wish I was playing, I wish I was helping on the field (and) just not on scout team.”

Beyond his parents’ guidance, springs and summers helped Sager get from fall to fall.

“I knew I wasn’t gonna quit in the middle (of the season),” he said, “and once you get in the offseason, you start working, and you start thinking, ‘Man, I can get better,’ and ‘I’m gonna get a shot next year.’ ”

He got it in 2012, playing in all 13 games that year.


Not even the toughest shot of his college career – the ACL tear – could keep Jackson down.

Remaining grounded, even in light of his prolific high school career, helped him see things through.

“I’d do anything to help the team out,” said Jackson, who played on multiple special teams before sustaining a patella tendon tear late this season that has his availability for UL’s fourth straight New Orleans Bowl in doubt.

The Cajuns have won all three bowl games, beating San Diego State in 2011, East Carolina in 2012 and Tulane in 2013.

“I love my team and being part of this Ragin’ Cajun football team,” Jackson said. “That’s what really motivates me to stick with this team, because we’ve got us some really good guys that they will push me and I will push them.

“I knew I probably wouldn’t start because there’s a lot of competition,” he added, “but just staying humble and hanging out with those guys every day – it’s what’s really kept me here.”

And it’s been worth it, every step of the way.

“Oh, yeah,” Jackson said. “This will be my fourth bowl game I’m going to. … I’ve got three rings out of this so far, and hopefully will get my fourth one.”


Martin likes his jewelry too.

For him, though, the big prize is the one he expects to land late next spring. What he anticipates getting then is a real big deal in his family.

“They’re very proud,” Martin said of relatives. “Honestly, they just want to see me get my degree.”

His job – blocking on UL’s field goals/PAT unit – means something too, though.

“That’s where he (Hudspeth) needs me,” Martin said, “so that’s where I’m gonna play. … I really feel like I’m playing a big part.”

Being part of something bigger in turn has buoyed Martin.

He figures he would have gotten a degree one way or another, but belonging to a team has made it so much easier.

“Just being around my teammates all day every day – that’s pretty cool,” said Martin, who has lived in a dorm during his entire stay at UL.

“Like what I told my mom and Coach Hud a couple of years back, I don’t know what I would do if I was not on a team.

“My state of mind right now,” he added, “(is) this team has taught me so much, and I really came a long way.”


When Jackson tore his ACL, the road back was lengthy.

Teammates made sure he peered through the front windshield, not in the rearview mirror.

“We’re one big family over here,” he said.

“Somebody gets hurt, you know you’ve got guys that are there for you. … I couldn’t drive, but I had teammates that would take me to therapy and pick me up every day.”

So when a teammate sustained a season-ending ACL injury this year – Trey Granier, a linebacker who’d been playing on special teams too – Jackson returned the favor.

“I pick him up, take him to class sometimes,” he said.

As Jackson sees things, it’s the Acadiana way. Getting to know Louisiana locals evidently has had an impact on the Alabaman.

“Back at home, people ain’t that nice in Troy,” he said. “But down here, everybody’s nice. You’ve got good people around here.”


If Sager had listened to some around him, he never would have made it from Monroe to Lafayette.

Instead, his GPS would have been set for Baton Rouge. That’s helped to make the direction he decided on – walking on at UL – that much more gratifying.

“It’s (been) more (satisfying) as it’s gone on, getting a little more respect from more people, and showing people that I actually can make it, I did make it,” said Sager, who starts now on four special teams.

“I wouldn’t change (anything). I mean, it definitely kept me on the right path all through college, and I met a bunch of people I wouldn’t have met if I had just gone to LSU with all my buddies from high school.

“So,” Sager added, “I’m definitely very happy I made the decision.”

He’s not alone.

Like Martin and Jackson, the choice Sager made – and stuck with – is one Hudspeth respects. Any program, the Cajun coach knows, must be stronger than its starting 22.

“They want to get on the field and help any way they can,” Hudspeth said of the three. “So, to me, they’re ultimately team players. They’re in it for the right reasons. I’m just really proud of all those guys.”