By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Tyler Goodson is the Iowa football team’s featured running back, and deservedly so.
The Georgia native made first-team All-Big Ten last season as a sophomore and was the first freshman to lead Iowa in rushing in 2019.
Goodson has been blessed with enormous physical talent, and a work ethic and focus to match.
He wants to be great, and is in position to achieve that lofty goal.
But this column isn’t about Goodson, but rather his backup, fifth-year senior Ivory Kelly-Martin, who is now healthy after having had surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in December.
It’s easy to forget that Kelly-Martin started for Iowa in the 2018 season opener, and six games overall that season as a second-year sophomore.
Goodson’s arrival, coupled with Kelly-Martin’s inability to stay healthy, has put them on different career paths.
But now they’re both ready to contribute, and to say that Kirk Ferentz is pleased to have two established running backs would be an understatement.
Ferentz knows exactly what he has in Goodson and Kelly-Martin, and that’s two proven running backs who both are highly respected by their teammates and coaches.
Iowa had a similar situation at running back last season with Goodson and senior Mekhi Sargent.
“That’s a luxury because we look at him as a starter,” Ferentz said of Kelly-Martin after the Kids Day practice on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. “Pretty much like we did with Mekhi last year. He’s a starter for us.”
Kelly-Martin is also apparently a quick healer judging from how he has bounced back from a serious knee injury. He looked quick and elusive during Saturday’s practice, much like did as the starter in 2018.
“He’s back healthy,” Ferentz said. “It was a long journey back for him. And even in the summer time, he had some soreness every now and then. But that’s to be expected when you’re trying to come back and you’re pushing hard. But he looks to be fully healthy right now, and having he and Tyler out there gives you two guys who are really experienced and they’re both tremendous guys and tremendous players.
“That’s one position, I won’t say we’re not worried about it. But, at least, I think we have a pretty good pool of guys right there.”
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Kelly-Martin is eager and determined to take advantage of the time he has left as a Hawkeye.
Some players might have transferred after losing the starting position, and it’s likely that Kelly-Martin would’ve had multiple options.
But he has stayed the course and is now one the veteran leaders for a team, and for a program, that is reshaping its culture in the wake of the racial unrest from last summer.
“I think my role on the team has changed a little bit, but I’m also thinking I’m on the level where it hasn’t changed at all,” Kelly-Martin said Friday at Iowa’s annual media day event. “I still feel like I can give a lot to this team in a leadership role and as player on the team as well. I know that I’ve been able to do this before. This is nothing new to me.”
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Kelly Martin saw action in 13 games as a true freshman in 2017 before becoming the starter in 2018. Injuries limited the Illinois native to nine games in 2018, and he also dealt with injuries in 2019, appearing in just four games.
He played in seven games last season, and was a key performer on special teams, before injuring his knee.
“It’s wild that injuries have happened to me and I haven’t been able to do as much work in the offseason as I would’ve hoped,” Kelly-Martin said. “My recovery process has been very extensive. I’ve had a lot of support, a lot of help, a lot of good people on my side to help me to get me to the point where I’m at, and to me, to also have put in the work.
“I think it’s all really paying off right now. It’s all paying off to see that I’ve gotten to the point where I feel good about my ability, really confident to be able to play out here with these guys. This is not an easy sport to play, especially in the Big Ten. And I’m as confident as I’ve been.”
While Goodson is being promoted as Iowa’s next star running back, Kelly-Martin just quietly goes about his business, always putting the team first.
He was a vocal leader in the days after the racial unrest occurred last summer, and he led by example on special teams last season.
It isn’t often that a player goes from being a starter to playing mostly on special teams two years later.
But that was the hand dealt to Kelly-Martin and he has tried to make the best of it. He hasn’t complained, made excuses or pouted.
He has just kept working and grinding and doing whatever he can to help the team, and the value in that can’t be overstated.
Goodson was a high school senior in Georgia in 2018 when Kelly-Martin won the starting running back position for Iowa. It was three years ago, which for a college football player, can seem like an eternity.
“It’s crazy to think about because time flies by so fast,” Kelly-Martin said. “But I can still remember it like it was yesterday. That’s the thing. And that goes to the point where you really have to cherish these times.
“That’s why I’m just so invested into this season and what I can still do for this team because I know my time is starting to run out. And I know there’s still so much more that I can give. And I’m really excited about what I can do.”
Kelly-Martin takes great pride in being a part of something that is bigger than him.
In addition to playing football in high school, he lettered in track and field as a sprinter and hurdler, and also competed in wrestling and volleyball for one season.
While it’s not unusual for a college football player to have competed in wrestling and track and field in high school, the fact that Kelly-Martin played volleyball makes him unique.
His high school volleyball team was low in numbers and Kelly-Martin just wanted to help.
“It was just one year our high school team didn’t have a lot of guys trying out for volleyball that year, so some of us football players just decided to join the ball club for that year,” Kelly-Martin said. “We decided to pick it up and it was probably one of the most fun sports I played out there, except when we played pretty nasty teams that were beating us pretty bad with crazy serves. Then it wasn’t that fun. But practices I loved.”
Kelly-Martin’s physical ability helped him excel in volleyball where he played all over the court.
“The crazy thing is I played all around the court,” Kelly-Martin said. “So you saw me in the front court a little bit. I was in the backcourt a little bit. But I mostly sat front court just because I was able to get over the net and actually hit the ball. Our volleyball team, it was a fun experience. It was really a fun experience.”
Kelly-Martin will turn 23 in October, making him one of the oldest players on the team. And with age comes wisdom and respect.
“It’s definitely motivating, especially to know that I’m an old guy now,” Kelly-Martin said. “And my time is starting to run out. I probably haven’t been more determined than I’ve ever been in my life.
“Especially, I know that I need to be as mentally ready to go as I am physically ready to go. And I’m going to do as much as I can to be able to live in the moment and be ready at any given time.”
Kelly-Martin credits new Iowa running backs coach Ladell Betts for helping to keep his adversity in perspective. Betts was a star running back for Iowa in the early years under Kirk Ferentz before playing for nine seasons in the NFL.
However, Betts, also dealt with injuries as a Hawkeye, including missing the 2001 Alamo Bowl victory over Texas Tech, which was his final game in college.
“It’s been a little bit hard,” Kelly-Martin said. “But coach Betts has been through it before and I’ve been able to have so much support from people, to try and help me get through some of those mental battles, building that confidence back up.”
Part of the challenge in recovering from a serious injury is the mental part, erasing the doubt and fear that can fester in a person’s mind. Kelly-Martin believes he is beyond that point.
He now just reacts on the field without thinking about his injury.
And he is determined to make the most of out each day, and each practice, and each repetition in practice, because Kelly-Martin knows it can be taken away.
“Once you kind of get over that hump and just get into it, it’s nothing after that,” Kelly-Martin said. “It’s just like playing football. It’s something I’ve been doing for most of my life, and I just want to be back where I want to be.
“I feel like I’ve gone past that point, but each day is going to be different. I’m not going to look too far ahead in the future. I’m not going to look in the past at all. I’m going to take each day one day at a time. And if I feel good for that day, I’m going to give 100 percent effort as much as I can.”