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At first it was his doctor who blocked Cole Martin from playing high school football. Somewhere along the line, when he got tacit medical clearance, it was Martin’s mom. She knew her son loved the sport. But she couldn’t forget the words a physician told him back in eighth grade: “And if you decide you want to be a vegetable, go ahead and play football again.”

“With me right there,” Sara Martin said over the phone Friday, taking a break from her job at Cal-Mart in Calistoga. “Forget it.”

But her son, a Maria Carrillo senior, couldn’t forget it. Cole Martin watched some football movies last summer, then saw his classmates starting preseason practice, and he knew that his last chance to suit up was about to disappear.

The Martins live on a ranch off Porter Creek Road. Cole sat down Sara in the barn and pled his case one final time.

“I just broke down,” Cole said. “I was like, ‘I need to play. This is my senior year. I’m never gonna play again.’ ”

Despite all of her trepidation, and all her bad memories, Sara relented. And so Cole is a Puma this season — and a good one. He rotates at wingback and is a backup defensive back. Maria Carrillo is 6-4 and preparing for the playoffs right now, and Martin’s open-field speed is a big reason.

“It’s manifested itself in some really impressive plays on offense where he’s breaking ’em big,” Carrillo coach Jay Higgins said. “When somebody who maybe isn’t as fast is getting 15 yards, he’s getting 50. And then you throw in the special-teams element of returning kicks and punts, he’s really made a big impact on our team.”

Ah, the special teams. In a preseason game against Benicia, Martin had a 70-yard punt return and a 99-yard kickoff return, both for touchdowns. Against Casa Grande he scored on a 98-yard kickoff return.

Give this kid a crease and a head of steam, and he probably isn’t going to be caught. The phrase “extra gear” comes up a lot when discussing Martin.

As a boy he excelled in several sports, but football may have been his favorite. Then came the play that nearly ended his career.

Martin, a Calistoga Junior High student at the time, was playing against Anderson Valley in a Pop Warner game when he zeroed in for a tackle. He knew proper tackling technique; heck, his dad, Taylor, was his coach. But it all went out the window on that tackle. Martin came in high and lowered his head at a 90-degree angle, striking his opponent’s helmet with the crown of his.

The next thing he knew, he was in the back of an ambulance headed to Queen of the Valley Hospital in Napa.

“I woke up when they started drawing my blood in the ambulance,” Martin said. “It took about seven tries for them to draw it. Because I hate needles, so that’s probably why it woke me up.”

Martin had suffered a severe concussion and been knocked unconscious. Soon enough, he’d learn that was the least of his problems. The boy had broken a vertebra in his lower back.

Martin would spend a week or more in an Oakland hospital. He was bedridden at home for a month, getting relief only from brief jaunts in a wheelchair. He was home-schooled for two months. And when he returned to school, he wore a back brace for about a month and a half.

“Poor kid, he was stuck with me,” Sara said. “I didn’t leave his side. I slept in his bed next to him.”

The first couple weeks were the worst. Because of the head injury, Cole couldn’t watch TV or talk on his phone. He lay immobile on his back in the hospital bed that had been installed in the Martins’ home, hour after hour, his head tilted at just the right angle. The slightest movement sent stabs of pain through his back.

The nights were difficult. Once, in the midst of a dream, he wrenched his body in a twisting motion.

“It was the biggest pain I’ve ever been in,” Martin said. “It was pretty scary. My mom said I was straight but my back was like this (curled), and I couldn’t go back to the position. It’s tough. I’ve had a lot of those dreams.”

The inactivity would have been torture for any teen. More so for Martin, a rough-and-tumble kid who lived for physical challenges.

“When he started getting better, I got a call from a neighbor,” Sara recalled. “They said Cole’s outside doing wheelies in his wheelchair.”

Considering the nature of the injury, Cole was back in action remarkably fast. He played freshman baseball in Calistoga and sophomore ball at Maria Carrillo after the family moved to the Porter Creek property. And he found another nice, safe recreational activity: rodeo. It started with goat tying, then “regressed,” as Sara put it, to steer riding and, finally, steer wrestling.

Sara fully acknowledges that rodeo events are as dangerous as football. (After Cole’s initial rehab, concussions were a bigger issue than the fractured vertebra.) She trusted his rodeo coach because he was a family friend. And, Sara admits, she was simply carrying too much emotional baggage from football. So the gridiron was Cole’s final frontier.

He thought about asking to play as a junior, but figured the answer would be no — and that it might carry into the future. So he bided his time and bet all-or-nothing on his senior year. Sara changed her mind because, ultimately, she trusted Cole to make good decisions. He’s a grounded kid who works at the Silverado Ace hardware store in Calistoga and also tends the cattle on the ranch, including four or five pregnant cows.

Cole and Sara scheduled a meeting with Higgins, who knew Cole a little from youth football camps and Maria Carrillo baseball. As the coach put it, the three “asked all the questions that needed to be asked and got all the answers that we needed to get.”

The coach’s main concern was that Martin’s injury history would make him tentative on the football field, doubling the danger.

“The game has to be played full speed,” Higgins said. “If you’re playing half-speed and everyone else is playing full speed, then you’re essentially setting yourself up to be the innocent bystander in the middle of the freeway.”

Higgins said he never saw doubt in Martin’s eyes. The boy admits he did a good job of hiding it.

“Yeah, our first game against Redwood I was terrified,” Martin said. “I told a couple friends, ‘You know what? I’m ready, but I’m honestly scared.’ ”

The terror quickly passed. But Martin hasn’t entirely been able to shake the feeling that something bad might occur.

“Honestly, I know it’s not gonna happen but I still feel it now,” he said. “I mean, what if I get hit in the back? What if I do another head-to-head on accident? Of course I’m always gonna have that in my mind. (But) I don’t play scared. And I don’t run scared.”

The irony is that few kids are made tougher or more durable that Cole Martin. He has broken his collarbone (twice) and his arm and bruised his kidneys, and he had suffered previous concussions before the big one in eighth grade (though none since, fortunately). When doctors examined his back not long after the injury, they saw not only the damage from the fracture but also minor scoliosis and arthritis.

“They said I look like I have an 80-year-old back,” Martin offered.

A few months ago, while competing in a steer wrestling competition, Martin injured his right thumb and wrist. Everyone thought the thumb was dislocated, but when the pain persisted, doctors finally diagnosed a fracture. Martin had surgery to repair the hand. He hadn’t complained a bit.

“I don’t know how many times I’ll look down at his hand and see it’s bleeding, or something like that,” teammate Josh Groesbeck said. “But he’ll just say, ‘I’m fine.’ And he runs so hard. He’s not very big and he gets hit all the time, and I’ve never seen him not get up.”

As Sara said: “My freezer is filled with ice bags. All the injuries he gets, I feel like the worst mom, but that’s Cole.”

Few of the Pumas, least of all Higgins, knew just how fast Martin was when he joined the team. His game-breaking ability has been an important complement on a team with plenty of size and strength.

The biggest surprise is how much Sara Martin is able to enjoy Cole’s games. Yes, she watches him suspiciously every time he comes to the sidelines. But he plays with such abandon on the field that she is able to lose herself in the excitement.

“I didn’t even think he’d play this much, but he’s got that natural talent,” Sara said. “We call him a little freak of nature.”

She was talking about Cole’s speed, but she could just as easily been describing his powers of healing. Few athletes have ever done more to earn their senior year of football.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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