Tay Martin plays like he needs football, because he does. Football kept him going during the hardest year of his life, when his father was sent to prison and he lost his mother unexpectedly.

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At 6-foot-3, 182 pounds, with mad leaping ability, burner speed, and innate ball skills honed from years on the hardwood, Washington State wide receiver Tay Martin, looks and plays like a basketball player on the football field.

Before Martin found his way to Martin Stadium, those moves ignited crowds at basketball arenas throughout the small Cajun town of Houma, La., and Martin finished his basketball career as the Class 4A Louisiana State High School Player of the Year.

He has good genes to thank for some of that natural ability, says his father, Brian Ross.

Ross and Tay’s mother, April Martin, were high school sweethearts and basketball stars at South Terrebonne High School in the late 90s.

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“Tay had no choice but to be blessed,” Ross says. “She could get down with the best of them, and I could get down with the best of them.”

Ross’ budding basketball career was derailed by poor grades that kept him from getting into college. April Martin turned down a basketball scholarship offer to stay home and raise Tay, who was born during her sophomore year.

Their eldest child has proved to be quite the baller himself in his first year at WSU.

Tay’s breakout game came against Colorado, when he led the team with four receptions for 78 yards and a touchdown. Martin’s role has increased since, and he’s scored three touchdowns in the last three games for the 19th-ranked Cougars, who play at Utah Saturday.

Tay practices and plays with a glowering intensity that comes from deep within. He’s overcome a lot to get to WSU, and even Cougars’ coach Mike Leach is impressed by the poise and maturity Tay has displayed in his first season.

“He never goes half speed,” Leach said. “One thing about him – correct or incorrect – he was always full speed. He’s improving fast, and it’s helped him. He’s passed some guys up.”

“We’ve got a lot of guys who like football, who want to play football. Tay Martin literally needs football, if you go back to where he’s from. He attacks it like that’s the case.”

Tay Martin needs football because football kept him going during the hardest year of his life, his junior year of high school, when his father was sent to prison and Tay found his mother dead from a brain aneurysm.

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On the last weekend of April Martin’s life, she drove Tay and his little brother, Zay, the 57 miles from Houma to New Orleans for Tay to participate in a football camp at Tulane, and Zay to play in a basketball tournament.

The bigger treat was that the boys got to see their father. Ross had been in prison since Sept. 8, 2015, serving a five-year sentence for felony hit-and-run.

His incarceration was hard on the family. April was working two jobs to make ends meet and the kids missed their dad, who had been very involved in their lives until his imprisonment.

Ross was backing into a parking lot in August 2013 when a speeding motorcycle collided with the driver’s side of his 1999 Ford Expedition.

The motorcyclist ultimately succumbed to his injuries in the hospital and Ross was also seriously hurt. He fractured his cheekbone and later lost an eye.

But, bleeding and in shock at the scene of the accident that night, Ross wasn’t thinking straight. He threw the car into gear and sped away.

To this day, he deeply regrets that decision.

“I panicked. It was like, you want to get away,” Ross says. “If I wouldn’t have moved, I would have just gotten a ticket. It’s a choice that you make, in one split second, and it costs you two years of missing a lot of your kids’ lives, two years you’ll never get back.”

Ross fought the charge initially, contending that the motorcyclist was speeding. But in September 2015, just after Tay started his junior year at Ellender Memorial High School, Ross took a five-year plea deal instead of letting the case go to trial and risking a decade-long sentence.

By the time Tay was going to college camps and starting his recruitment process, Ross’ sentence had been reduced to two years for good behavior, and he was in a work release program as a cook at a fried chicken restaurant in New Orleans.

The restaurant was owned by a nice couple who’d taken a liking to Ross. When the female proprietor found out that he had four kids in Houma, she tried to help Ross sneak some time with his family.

“The things she was doing, she wasn’t supposed to be doing,” Ross says. “But she knew the type of person I was, and she was a churchgoing woman, and was like, ‘I want you to see your kids.

“She was a remarkable woman. And it helped me, it showed me that there were people who cared.”

So that Sunday in April 2016, on their way home from Tulane, April and the boys stopped at the restaurant to visit Ross.

“She was driving, Tay was in the passenger side, they were eating Raising Canes,” Ross says. “We talked, we hugged, we said we loved each other.”

Ross would speak to his wife twice more that evening. He called briefly about an hour after they left to make sure they’d arrived home safely, and he called again around 10 p.m., when he was back in his work release dormitory.

“We talked for a while, about how Tay’s trip (to Tulane) was,” Ross recalls, a wistful note in his voice. “She said Tay might commit to Tulane. I said, ‘That’s OK, if that’s what he wants, we’re gonna back him for whatever he wants.”

After spending a year and a half apart as Ross served his time, the couple cherished every phone call together. They were Ross’ lifeline to his kids and the only woman he’d ever loved.

Ross and April were kids themselves when they first started dating in high school. He played receiver and safety on the football team and guard on the basketball team. She was a talented power forward on the girls’ basketball team.

Standing an athletic 5-foot-9, with bright, cheery eyes, and a magnetic personality, April Martin captivated the teenaged Brian Ross.

“Sports drew us together. You couldn’t tell her nothing about basketball,” Ross says. “She knew everything. Football – I never knew a woman who knew anything about football. But she knew the game. She was a lovable person, wonderful. Anything she could do for anybody, she did.”

The young lovebirds had their first baby together midway through April’s sophomore year, on Dec. 12, 1996. They named him Davontavean Martin, Tay for short.

After she had Tay, April went back to school. She rejoined the basketball team, and was offered a basketball scholarship to Southern University, a historically black college in Baton Rouge, La.

April badly wanted to take the scholarship. But she couldn’t ignore her maternal instincts.

“She sat out to stay at home with Tay,” says Gusta Martin, April’s older sister, who’s helped her sister and Ross care for Tay since he was a baby. “She wanted to go further her career with basketball. She loved sports. But she did what she had to do, she stayed home (in Houma) to be a full-time mom.”

Over 19 years, Ross and April made a happy life together and had three more children – two girls, Salae, 14, and Angelay, 13, and another boy, Zavean, 10.

Brian, who always regretted not taking academics seriously enough to further his athletic career in college, worked as a cook and coached his boys in sports in his spare time.

Always ambitious, April went back to school and earned certificates in phlebotomy and as a certified medical assistant only to realize afterward that the colleges she’d picked weren’t considered reputable in her fields of study.

“She went to school faithfully, passed quizzes and did all her homework and graduated to find out she couldn’t pursue a career with her degree and that it was a waste of time,” Gusta Martin says.

Determined to make something of herself, April got a job at Wendy’s and worked up to assistant manager. Between her income and Brian’s, the family got by.

“Like any other relationship, they had their differences,” Gusta Martin says. “But overall, the love overpowered everything. She loved him with her whole heart.”

Ross and April were never legally married, but they referred to each other as husband and wife. At some point, April even changed her name on Facebook to April Martin Ross.

“We were inseparable. We were always together,” says Ross. “She held me down. I loved April. April was a wonderful person, and I couldn’t see me with nobody else, still till now.”

In their last phone call on the night April and the boys got home from Tulane, the couple chatted about Tay’s recruitment and the kids. Then, April said she was getting tired and wanted to go to bed.

“The last thing we said was that we loved each other,” Ross says.

Life as they knew it, shattered

The next morning, a Monday, Tay arose and went to wake his mother. He found her on the couch. She wasn’t breathing.

In a panic, the boy called 911 and then called his aunt. The paramedics beat Gusta Martin to her younger sister’s house, but it was too late. April Martin died on April 11, 2016, at the age of 34. She had no prior health issues, and her sudden death shook her close-knit family.

Prison officials informed Ross of his wife’s passing that morning but it didn’t seem real to Ross until the guards handed him the phone and allowed him to call Tay.

“I hear him screaming and he was saying, ‘Dad, she’s gone. Dad, she’s gone. Dad, she’s gone,’” Ross says. “He’s not a person who cries. He was in tears. When you hear that in your child’s voice, and to not be able to hold him, it was an out-of-body experience.

“I just dropped the phone and cried like a baby. That was the most I’ve ever cried. You’re in prison. You can’t show that type of emotion in prison. A lot of people try to prey on weakness. I just cried.”

Everyone fought their own private demons in the days following April’s death.

“I feel like God was testing my faith and testing my strength,” Ross says. “That was one of the hardest things you can imagine, you lose the one you love in prison when you’re not able to go to the funeral and not able to hold your kids.”

Above all, Ross asked April’s sisters, Jennifer and Gusta, to keep all four kids together.

“They need each other more than anything now,” Ross told Gusta, who took the four kids into her home and promised Ross she’d care for them.

Sports had always been an outlet for Tay, but after his mother’s death, they became even more important to him.

“He tells us that sports is where he takes his aggression out – on the basketball court and the football field,” Gusta says.

Losing April heightened Tay’s determination to make it to college because that represented the fulfillment of his mother’s hopes for him.

“That’s what we always talked about,” says Ross, “That she would see him sign. I always told him, ‘When you get ready to sign, she’s gonna be wearing the shirt.’”

Tay tried to be strong for his younger siblings. He kept himself busy, realizing amidst his grief that working hard at his academics and athletics was still his best shot at a ticket to an easier life.

Tay leaned on two men to help him through his tough time: Travis Ward, his youth basketball coach, and Jordan Acrement, his receivers coach at Ellender High.

Between them, Ward and Acrement handled Tay’s recruiting process, accompanied him on official visits and served as sounding boards.

WSU receiver Tay Martin leaned on his youth basketball coachTravis Ward (right) during a tough time in his life after he lost his mother while his father was still in prison. (Photo courtesy / Travis Ward)
WSU receiver Tay Martin leaned on his youth basketball coachTravis Ward (right) during a tough time in his life after he lost his mother while his father was still in prison. (Photo courtesy / Travis Ward)

“We have a father-son relationship,” said Ward, who, fortuitously, ran into April in New Orleans the day before she passed.

That Sunday, April asked Ward if he would help oversee Tay’s recruitment and stand in for Brian at all the milestone events like Senior Night that were approaching as Tay started his senior year with his father still in prison.

Looking back now, Ward marvels at the eerie timing of that final conversation he had with April.

“I made her a promise I wasn’t going to break,” Ward says. “No one knew what was about to happen, but it’s like she was going to make sure she got everything in line,” Ward says. “She made sure everything was taken care of.”

So Ward functioned as Tay’s surrogate dad, while Acrement was a protective big brother.

Acrement started coaching at Ellender the summer after April’s death. He identified with Tay because he was 12 when his father died suddenly. After April’s death, Acrement, more than anyone, seemed to understand how the young receiver felt.

“When I got there, everybody filled me in on what had happened. I saw the athlete he was and saw he was comfortable being around me and willing to work, so I devoted a lot of time to helping him,” Acrement said. “Just going through my life and playing sports without a father, I always think about the times where if I’d had somebody to lead me in the right direction, it might have been a little easier.

“That’s why I do what I do. I want to be there for Tay and just give him some guidance.”

Tay at that time, was raw as a receiver but had started to realize that he’d have better college opportunities as a big receiver than as an undersized basketball player.

Acrement helped him refine his football skills and bought him a gym membership so they could work out together as Tay tried to add muscle to his slim frame.

In her honor, always

Derek Sage first noticed Tay when he was the receivers coach at Toledo and Tay was in his senior year. Tay was committed to Tulane by then – his second commitment after originally pledging to the University of New Orleans for basketball.

“I love kids whose basketball skills show up on film,” said Sage, adding that Tay reminds him of a receiver he coached while at Wyoming – Josh Doctson, who’s now with Washington’s NFL team. “You turn the tape on, and it’s like ‘whoa.’”

Sage forged a relationship with Tay, and when he was hired at Washington State last winter, he recruited Tay to play for the Cougs.

Tay liked the idea of playing in the Pac-12 in Leach’s pass-heavy offense. He visited and committed to WSU a couple weeks before Signing Day, and this summer, left Houma to join his new team in Pullman.

WSU receivers coaches Derek Sage (left) and Dave Nichol (right) welcomed Davontavean Martin (middle) to Martin Stadium on his recruiting visit over the weekend. Martin committed to WSU on Jan. 22, 2017.
WSU receivers coaches Derek Sage (left) and Dave Nichol (right) welcomed Davontavean Martin (middle) to Martin Stadium on his recruiting visit over the weekend. Martin committed to WSU on Jan. 22, 2017.

It didn’t take long before Sage realized he had a special talent on his hands.

“He’s made leaps and bounds, and he still has leaps and bounds to go. I just keep throwing more stuff at him, and he handles it. He just picks it up,” Sage says. “If you ask who’s the best practice player this year, I’ve gotta say the kid would make the top 10, and to say that from a group of 55 kids of a true freshman, that’s the highest compliment.

“You don’t want a gamer. You want someone who comes to practice and it carries over into the games. That’s what he does – he’s a consistent, mentally tough practice player who takes a workman’s approach.”

This fall, on college football Saturdays in Houma, La., long after the local favorite LSU has played, TVs all over town tune in to WSU games as the locals cheer on one of their own.

That support fuels Tay. He wants to make his town and his family proud, but most of all, he wants to make his mother proud too.

“My mom passed and she wanted this for me, and my dad always talked to me about this,” Tay says. “This is big for me, you know? I’ve got to make it as far as I can, and just do my best.”

Ross was released from prison in August and is trying to get back on his feet. He relishes the little moments of parenthood that he missed while behind bars – taking the girls to dance classes and track practice, being at Zay’s football practices, and just being able to see his kids whenever he wants.

He and Tay talk all the time. Ross hasn’t managed to make it to a WSU game yet, but was briefly reunited with his son when Tay returned for a short visit in between the end of summer session and the start of fall semester.

“It was like seeing a newborn again,” Ross says. “Just knowing what they’ve been through, and knowing that now, I’m able to hold them and be able to talk man-to-man, it’s a wonderful feeling. My kids, they don’t let go. They don’t want to let go, and I’m loving it. Things like that you take for granted when your freedom gets taken.”

Gusta helps Ross with the “girl stuff” that he didn’t have to do with his daughters before, and the family gets by OK.

Yet, they miss April every day.

“I still feel today, if I was able to take her spot, I would have,” Gusta says. “My kids are grown. She still had kids to raise. It’s still hard to this day, still unbelievable, knowing your younger sister’s time was up before you.”

Tay honors his mother’s memory by living out the life she wanted for him, and by keeping a picture of her grave stone pinned to the top of his Twitter page.

Ross hasn’t been by April’s grave yet. It’s still too hard, the wounds too fresh now that he’s out of prison and living in the world they created together, but without her by his side.

“That’s one of the first things I said I was going to do, but I can’t even pick myself up to do it,” he says, quietly. “I feel like, one day, she’s gonna come in the door and say, ‘Where you at, Brian?’”

Perhaps, one day soon, he’ll find the courage to go visit and say a final goodbye.