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UNLV walk-on embraces ‘blank sheet,’ thrives on path to title game

Tatuo Martinson twice bench-pressed 425 pounds this season, making the 22-year-old Californian one of the strongest players on UNLV’s football team.

But he isn’t yet stronger than his father, Robert, who has the family’s bench-press record of more than 500 pounds.

“When I really focus on bodybuilding and lifting, I think I’ll get there,” the younger Martinson said laughing, through a grin.

He’s focused on football for now instead.

Martinson this year is parlaying his strength in the Fertitta Football Complex’s weight room into a spot on UNLV’s starting defensive line — as a walk-on nonetheless. Recruited last year by former coach Marcus Arroyo’s staff, the 22-year-old fourth-year tackle from Sacramento has 26 tackles, half a sack, a fumble recovery and seemingly endless enthusiasm for football.

He’ll take the field again Saturday in the Mountain West championship game opposite Boise State at Allegiant Stadium.

“The way he works and his approach to helping himself and helping our team be successful, if I had more players like that, we would be in the championship game every year,” Rebels defensive line coach Ricky Logo said.

“Every time I go in there and look at him, he’s level-headed, he always has a smile on his face regardless of the circumstances we face that day and he’s facing every challenge we put in front of him.”

A family matter

Martinson’s affinity for exercise is evidenced by a sturdy barrel chest and thick muscular thighs that comprise the base of his 6-foot-1-inch, 300-pound frame. His affinity for football is evidenced by the smile he wears in the weight room and everywhere else when he’s with the Rebels.

“One of those soft-hearted, spoken guys,” Logo said. “But talking about a blue-collar type worker. … He’s always striving to be better.”

In the weight room, on the football field and at the table inside his family’s home when it’s time to play Catan or other board games.

He’s the second-youngest of seven — he has three brothers and three older sisters — born to Cheryl and Robert, a former fullback at Sacramento State who sparked his interest in football. Older brothers Joaquin and Shoichi also played football while younger brother, Akio, is a freshman defensive lineman at San Jose State.

Tatuo Martinson’s father for 25 years owned a gym. Some equipment remains in Martinson’s family basement, where he honed his hobby in a competitive environment.

“It was always loud in the house, Martinson said. “We’re a competitive group.”

Competition became camaraderie when it was time to support Martinson or his siblings. He played three years on Del Oro High School’s defensive line, helping the Golden Eagles to a 13-2 mark during his senior season.

Division I schools didn’t take an interest in Martinson. He opted for American River College — a nearby junior college that kept him close to home so his family could watch him play — over the Division II and III programs that sought to make him part of their squads.

Martinson, instead of lamenting the schools that didn’t recruit him, embraced his experience at the one he did. He touted the structure, schedule and competition he found with the Beavers.

“My JUCO was amazing,” he said.

Securing his spot

Junior colleges only cover two years, however. Martinson needed another place to play before last season. UNR and UNLV were his prospective four-year programs. He almost committed to the Wolf Pack, but an 11th-hour conversation with former Rebels defensive line coach Bojay Filimoeatu swayed him to Las Vegas as a preferred walk-on.

For the first time in his football career, though, he was fastened to the sideline instead of the field. He spent the 2022 season as a redshirt determined to learn a playbook he’d have to discard.

Arroyo was dismissed in December, prompting the hiring of Barry Odom. The move came with an opportunity for Martinson to impress his new staff.

“It was just kind of a blank sheet to me. (A chance) to prove myself just like everyone else here,” he said.

The sheets inside Martinson’s notebook are anything but blank. They’re filled with meticulous notes he’d take quietly in the corner during positional, defensive and team meetings. He made the dean’s list at the end of the spring semester and maintains a professional interest in cybersecurity.

Logo said Martinson applied his academic approach to the field, where his attention to detail and refined technique have unlocked the strength he tirelessly fortified.

“When guys are making those mistakes, he ain’t, because he’s got it written down and he remembers things,” Logo said. “There’s a reason why he’s on the field now for us.”

Another reason Martinson on the field for the Rebels: resilience.

“He did what he set his goal out to be,” his father said. “He accomplished it. We’re all proud of him.”

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on X.

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