EVERYBODY HAS A PLAN UNTIL THEY GET PUNCHED IN THE MOUTH.
Mike Tyson, the national treasure and sage philosopher from Brownsville, Brooklyn, uttered these eternal words to a reporter prior to his first of two highly anticipated heavyweight bouts with Evander Holyfied in the mid-1990s.
The quote remains timeless, duly touted as a universal truth for its brutal honesty and assessment about the difficulties of the human experience. None of us can escape the time between birth and death without life throwing down the gauntlet repeatedly upon our heads, hearts, and bodies. Still, despite the inevitable blows destined to cross our respective journeys through life, there’s beauty in this tussle. We can decide to stand up and fight back.
As another beloved - albeit fictional - American boxer once said, “It's not about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”
Elijah Martin has been moving forward his entire career with a relentless focus and determination that ultimately helped fuel his current club, San Diego Loyal SC, to its inaugural appearance in the USL Championship Playoffs in only its second year in the league.
Martin made 31 out of a possible 32 appearances for San Diego this season, including 25 starts. While listed as a midfielder, but deployed as a defender, Martin is a total soccer player, adept at both progressing the ball forward to his attacking teammates while also providing cover to his defensive backline. He led his team in forward passes (526) and was third in total passes (1,479) while ranking in the Top 10 of almost every major passing statistic for San Diego.
You could argue Martin's season saw him play some of his best soccer in what is still a young and promising career that nearly ended prematurely a few years back.
Despite three years out of the professional game, San Diego Loyal SC's Elijah Martin is now closing in on 100 professional appearances for his career, with many years likely ahead of him in his career. | Photo courtesy San Diego Loyal SC
Martin grew up on the east side of Fresno, California, a predominantly Latino community that would educate and introduce him to the game he now plays professionally. His mother, who is Mexican, and his father, a Black man from the westside of Fresno, remain the two most inspiring figures and mentors in his life.
Neither parent played professional sports but Elijah would be the first to tell you that his best attributes as a player and as a person originated in his childhood home. There he had front-row seats to his parents, who demonstrated a highly consistent work ethic he would integrate into his game.
“He's always pushing me to be the best that I could possibly be, so he always has words for me,” Martin stated proudly when reflecting on his father’s pre and post game pep talks. “You know the day of the game, day before the game, day after the game, so I just take all that in.”
Beyond the physical skills, he absorbed from his two muses as emotional intelligence and a willing spirit to serve others became more and more pronounced in his life. Sometimes, that serving spirit needed to come to Elijah’s defense as a child who was aiming to play in the United States academy system.
As a young soccer player, the play to play system that has dominated the United States landscape can leave countless young people who resemble Elijah feeling marginalized due in large part to the sheer total cost to families or the unchecked biases of coaches.
“I don't want to use the word stain, but I'll probably forever remember just those times that even my dad is just going to battle for me ... you know I saw from a distance and I think that kind of helped me grow more as a human,” Elijah admitted.
Not surprisingly, he’s now grown into a role model for a younger generation of soccer fans in his San Diego community.
It's a big advantage for just me to even have access to, you know, the kids that are in my backyard because it's easier for to relate to someone that came from the same city, background environment as you...It gives kids a chance to see me up close and personal, and the the type of person that I am you know, I'm really big into meeting, greeting kids and inspiring kids. That's one of the main reasons why I play.
Inspiring the youth is another by-product of his parents’ foundational blueprint. “He would work from 9:00 to 5:00, come home, and then go coach a bunch of kids. I'm talking from the age of like 6-7 I think the oldest is probably like 12, but it's a recreational team that he has. But he accepts no money, he tries to pay for as much stuff as you can,” Martin shared about his father.
While Martin was still a child, slightly older in age to the kids his father coaches today, he couldn’t have foreseen the stormy years on the horizon, primarily because his early years were filled with some major achievements for a teenager.
At 16 years old, Martin was selected to the United States U-17 National Team to compete in the 2013 CONCACAF U-17 Championship. A national team selection is no small feat, but Martin was already moving forward to the next milestone which would arrive in the form of his first professional contract before he was even old enough to legally vote. Martin signed with the LA Galaxy II of the USL Championship before the start of the club's inaugural 2014 season. He spent two seasons with Los Dos, but was disappointed with his lack of playing time - he made a total of 15 league appearances over the course of two seasons - Elijah would make the life-altering decision to leave this massive club in pursuit of greener pastures.
Elijah Martin spent his first two seasons in the professional ranks with the LA Galaxy II, part of a squad that reached the postseason in each of its first two campaigns. | Photo courtesy Sacramento Republic FC
But like the saying goes, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. And in Elijah’s case, the grass of a soccer pitch was replaced by concrete sidewalks.
“There was a time from after Galaxy to playing for Fresno [FC]. There was like a three year, two and 1/2 years [spell] when I didn’t have a team at all right? And that was probably the biggest, hardest time of my football career so far just because I was ready to kind of quit in a sense. Just because I didn't, I didn't think I was going to be back. ... I was actually depressed. ... I was just always sad, always thinking negative always in a bad mood,” Elijah said in reflection.
There was a time from after Galaxy to playing for Fresno [SC]. There was like a three year, two and 1/2 years [spell] when I didn’t have a team at all right? And that was probably the biggest, hardest time of my football career so far just because I was ready to kind of quit in a sense. Just because I didn't, I didn't think I was going to be back...I was actually depressed...I was just always sad, always thinking negative always in a bad mood.
If Martin was going to shift his mood, he knew he needed to return to the pitch and build himself into an indispensable player.
“I know I'm good, I know I'm a footballer that a team is just missing out on. So what I did was, well, I played PDL [with Fresno FC].”
PDL, or what we knew as the Premier Development League before it was renamed as USL League Two two years ago, has been the unofficial fourth tier in U.S. Soccer for almost 30 years. The league season is brief and takes place over the summer months (May - August); consequently, the majority of the players are college athletes looking for competition during the offseason and a possible selection in the Major League Soccer SuperDraft which is held in January.
If Martin was going to return to a personal summit in his comeback journey, he needed to once again prove himself among his peers.
Playing for Fresno felt like the perfect homecoming. He was playing in a familiar setting, near family and friends, training and competing regularly, moving him one step closer to his goal of returning to the professional ranks. Elijah remained optimistic throughout the summer of 2017 and heading into 2018, Fresno FC announced it would be joining the USL Championship as an expansion franchise. All that optimism and dedication was about to pay off! Or so Elijah thought.
“I had been in the league for the last X amount of years with Galaxy so I felt like I had a pretty good chance over everyone. But I wasn't invited to preseason. I had to go to open trials.”
Showing up to open trials with novice soccer players with minimal if any professional experience was another humbling blow before life would send another haymaker Elijah’s way.
After not being offered a contract for Fresno FC's first season in the Championship, Elijah Martin earned a place with his hometown club in 2019 and helped it reach the USL Championship Playoffs. | Photo courtesy Fresno FC
“I didn't make it that year,” Elijah said. “They actually said that we don't need you. We were going to sign someone else so that that hit me again back down. So Fresno FC first year to the second year, that gap in between was the hardest out of the last two years just because I felt turned down by my own city.
“I felt embarrassed because like people, I mean people know my quality, but then when I have to, when I'm walking around [Fresno], I'm not on the team that everyone expects me to be on. I don't have an answer for them.”
Elijah may not have had an answer for others to explain his perceived failures, but if you know him, or have the pleasure of speaking with him, you know his perseverance would not allow him to stay knocked down for long. Without a professional club option in his proximity, Martin returned to basics - Sunday league soccer.
Once again, the game of soccer both humbled and helped restore his confidence. Sunday league typically features amateurs playing 7-on-7 matches every Sunday at designated areas throughout a city. Although the competition was miles away from what Elijah was accustomed to, he removed the ego and embraced the opportunity to be able to play the game he loves in order to complete his comeback.
“I took Sunday League, as if it was the World Cup, sometimes in the sense of like we're not losing no games. If I need to take over, I'mma take over.”
I felt comfortable, and I felt that this was probably gonna be, you know, my life, a Sunday League player and I found a job and in the following year I kind of told myself that if I don't make this team this year, then I'm done.
“With God's grace they signed me.” His reunion with Fresno FC would be short-lived - the club went on hiatus - after the 2019 season, but when one door closed, the newly created San Diego Loyal FC’s door swung wide open to sign the still very young Martin as it ramped up for its inaugural year in 2020.
Approximately six hours from his hometown, Elijah finally made it back to the Championship and quickly became a key contributor to Head Coach Landon Donovan’s tactical approach to games.
“So I'm blessed, man. I'm beyond blessed.”
US Soccer legend Landon Donovan has managed San Diego since its inception. He is also a co-founder of the club. Learning under such an accomplished player has emboldened Elijah’s confidence. As if he needed any further evidence to affirm his decision to leave LA Galaxy II at 18 years old, his legendary coach’s message to the team focuses on reacting to those punches life will unquestionably continue to bring to the table.
“He allows us to make mistakes. He's really big on just moving on your reactions...what sets people apart is how you react to your mistakes. Do you bounce back or do you go into your little hole?” Martin said.
Donovan, Elijah, and his team’s reactions would be severely tested on what was solely supposed to be a significant match in late September with playoff implications against Elijah’s former team, LA Galaxy II. Martin may have actually taken up the chance to retreat if he knew in advance the aftermath of media coverage following his team’s decision to forfeit their 1-1 draw against Los Dos in protest against one of the Galaxy II players who directed a racial slur on the pitch at Elijah.
His immediate reaction was to forgive and forget, but his teammates and Donovan decided to show their support through taking swift action. Elijah shared with me that his teammates confronted the Galaxy II player - who was subsequenly suspended six games by the league and released by LA - in the locker room to drive the message home that racism has no place on or off the pitch.
The story became national news due to the profile of San Diego’s coach, but the real story was the solidarity on display from everyone at SD Loyal. Despite initially wanting this incident to merely blow over, Elijah recognized moving forward wouldn’t be possible without using his voice to speak truth to power.
“I came to realize that if I want change for the people around me, that I gotta speak for the people around me,” he said. “It was for sure a learning lesson in many, many ways. I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about others too.”
Elijah Martin has become a fixture in San Diego Loyal SC's lineup in the club's first two seasons, appearing in 32 games and logging almost 2,500 minutes as the side reached the playoffs for the first time in 2021. | Photo courtesy San Diego Loyal SC
What I learned about him is that it’s safe to say Elijah Martin knows how to take a punch or two. He’s learned over the course of his career that nothing is given to you in this game, or the broader game of life. The foundational values of hard work, fairness, and service passed down from his parents helped steer him away from quitting on himself even when the prospects were invisible and the phone wasn’t ringing for more than two years.
Getting cut by your hometown team, only to return the following season and essentially force your way onto your team’s starting 11 is a storyline Hollywood couldn’t have crafted any better.
Every setback he’s had to face in his career has been trounced by the comeback King.
While he might be listed at 5-foot-6, Martin’s resilient spirit, his fearlessness when life punched him in the face, and his willingness to keep pushing forward make him a giant of a man.
Tyson would be proud.
Garrett Richardson, Black Arrow FC
Powered by the USL Black Players Alliance to highlight the intersection of soccer and black culture within the Championship and League One, the United Soccer League has partnered with Black Arrow for a first-of-its-kind partnership that brings all three groups together to create projects that amplify the stories of black players on and off the field, and bring to light the contributions they are making to both the game and their local communities. The partnership is also geared toward the interest of Black soccer fans, inviting them to engage in the USL Championship and League One with human interest and culture stories along the way.
The Black Players Alliance is dedicated to creating a consistent dialogue with clubs and the league itself in order to foster diverse environments centered around minority inclusion and empowerment.