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Irish Ironman

Fifth-year captain Zack Martin ambled across the floor of the Isban Auditorium a little unsure of what to do with himself. Martin’s usual seat for his weekly conversation with media was occupied by newcomer Jarron Jones.

Irish captain Zack Martin has not missed a start in his four years as Notre Dame's left tackle.

“You’re in my spot,” he said, throwing his hands in the air. Nearly every Wednesday for the past two years Martin parked himself in the front corner of the movie-theatre-sized room, a seat unofficially assigned by repetition.

The 6-4, 308-pound lineman is a creature of habit, a preacher of consistency. On Tuesdays, he eats lunch at Martin’s grocery store. On Wednesday, he speaks with local reporters. On Thursdays, he eats lunch at Whole Foods grocery store. And on Saturdays, he lines up at left tackle for the Irish.

Martin’s first snap against Stanford Saturday night will mark the 51st consecutive game he has started during his Notre Dame career, which is more than anyone else in program history. Barring his first injury, he’ll reach 52 in a bowl game next month, a record that can’t be broken unless the school expands beyond its 12-game regular season schedule.

Martin can’t remember the last time he missed a football game.

“Not here. …Never missed a game in high school. I don’t know if I did in grade school either,” he said. “Maybe never.”

A streak like that takes a perfect storm of opportunity, talent, preparation and a little bit of luck. Mostly, though, Martin’s coaches and teammates say his unprecedented attendance record is a result of clockwork-like consistency, a steady approach that will shape Notre Dame’s offensive line long after Martin stops showing up each Saturday.

Early in their careers, Martin and fellow veteran Chris Watt — an offensive line fixture in his own right — learned the value of taking care of their bodies. The roommates pushed each other to lift weights during the regular season and make regular trips to the training room to make sure they don’t lose strength during the course of a long season.

“It’s just over time seeing that your body doesn’t recover as fast as it would when you were younger,” said Watt, who started 36 of the last 37 Irish games next to Martin at left guard. “Getting into the cold tub and making an emphasis on that to keep your body recovered every day.”

Martin's day-to-day consistency has helped turn the offensive line into a deep and cohesive unit.

Taking care of the bumps and bruises is a big part of staying healthy during a long season. Proper blocking technique and understanding where your teammates will be can help too, Watt said. But no one survives four straight years without a little good fortune.

Martin’s break came last November in Los Angeles. In the fourth quarter of Notre Dame’s season finale against USC. He injured his foot and, even though he returned to finish the game, needed a walking boot to get around during the next several weeks. Luckily, the BCS championship-bound Irish had the longest break between games in recent college football history. After more than 40 days of rest, he was at full strength in time to play in the title game in south Florida.

Nick Martin, Zack’s younger brother and a junior center for Notre Dame, says that’s the only time he can remember his older brother being seriously injured since a broken leg when he was four years old. Then again, for the Martin family “seriously injured” has its own definition.

The younger Martin broke his right hand, the one he uses to snap the ball, in a recent loss to Pittsburgh but didn’t miss a play. It took a torn MCL to knock him out of the lineup two weeks later. He’ll watch Saturday’s game from the sideline, which is the first time anyone in the family can remember that happening to a Martin.

“That family, Nick and Zack Martin are pretty unique,” head coach Brian Kelly said. They're tough-minded kids. They make it seem like it's nothing.”

Their father, Keith, played defensive line for the University of Kentucky during his college days and told his boys about playing through foot and pectoral injuries that should have laid him up. Kelly said Zack gritted through his share of similar pain in his shoulders, elbows, ankles, and back.

Along the way, he turned the reputation of Notre Dame’s offensive line on its head. During Martin’s junior year of high school, when he was sorting through a list of scholarship offers, the Irish allowed an NCAA-record 58 sacks. Since he took over on the line four years ago, the Irish have allowed a total of 62. Martin and Co. have allowed only seven sacks to date this season, the fewest per pass attempt of any team in the country.

Martin and Watt credit second-year assistant coach Harry Hiestand with turning the group around, but Kelly sees it differently.

It was Martin and Watt who forced their fellow linemen to wait on campus each day during July while the freshmen finished their summer classes so they could all work out as a group. They wanted to provide the example they never had on what it takes to succeed. They changed the culture, and with a pair of deep and promising recruiting classes up front the future looks bright for the offensive line.

“If you talk about the way our offensive line now works and how they work together in the summer, and how we are able to plug in guys now and still be effective,” Kelly said, “A lot of that has to do with Zack Martin.”

If he does finish as he started, Martin’s record of 52 starts may never be broken. To him and his teammates, though those 13 Saturday each fall will never stack up to the other 352 when he showed up just the same.

“I think it comes down to, again, consistency,” Martin said. “Can you be that same guy every day? Anybody who has ever done this, or done anything, knows it’s not easy at all.”

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