SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Six weeks away from the season, Zack Martin saw a way that he could help his team. This would require cutting out sweets and soda from his diet. This would cost him 10-15 pounds. But this would make him a more versatile threat, as he could start as a two-way lineman and soak up more knowledge of a game that, by most standards, he seemingly already had mastered.
This was also in fifth or sixth grade, when Martin was hoping to slide under the weight limit for defensive players at St. Matthew in Indianapolis.
"I said, 'Hey, let your body do what it needs to do,' " his father, Keith Martin, recalled. "He felt like that was important to him and ultimately the team's success. He took that on himself and said, 'Hey this is what I need to do.' "
Roughly a dozen years have gone by, and all that has happened since is 39 consecutive starts at left tackle for Notre Dame, where, on Thursday, Martin became only the 18th two-time captain in program history. He shoved away NFL riches to return to a unit that has named him its top performer for three years running. He now lines up each day next to his best friend, Chris Watt, and his younger brother, Nick Martin, the Irish's new starting center. And he heads a deeper, more mature group -- one that benefited from countless hours of overtime spent chaperoning rookies to and from classes and workouts this summer, an initiative head coach Brian Kelly described by saying: "Doesn't happen. That just does not happen."
Zack Martin saw a way that he could help his team. So Zack Martin went about doing just that.
"The best leader I've ever been around is Olin Kreutz from the Bears, and Zack's in that category," said offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, formerly of the NFL, referencing the six-time Pro Bowler. "Zack's in that conversation. Zack brings it every day."
Before the summer, Martin and Watt talked about getting the five-man freshman class of linemen more involved. The fifth-year seniors thought back to their initial semesters on campus, wishing that they could have had the ice broken for them sooner.
So following 3:30 p.m. workouts each day, Martin and the rest of the regulars made it a point to stick around the football complex for upward of 90 minutes, waiting to integrate the newcomers trickling in for their 5 p.m. weight-lifting sessions.
"We'd be pretty much at the Gug from 3:30 till like 7 every day," Watt said, referring to the Guglielmino Athetics Complex.
The accelerated learning curve has paid early dividends, as freshman Steve Elmer and redshirt freshman Ronnie Stanley have seen reps with the first team throughout camp, with Kelly saying that both will see some time this fall one way or another.
"Making them as prepared as possible," Martin said. "They're talented, and we know that they're going to have an opportunity to help us, if not this year, then they're going to be the guys in the future. So anything we can help when coach Hiestand can't be there, we'll do."
Nick Martin admires the consistent example that Zack sets every day, but he can be forgiven for taking a little longer than most to embrace his brother's demanding ways. The youngest of three Martins -- the oldest, 24-year-old Josh, played at Div. II Indianapolis -- Nick grew up often bearing the brunt of being the last in line, be it from friends Zack would bring home after school or even from Zack himself.
But 6-foot-4½, 295-pound redshirt sophomore has come a long way since the days of Zack mercilessly unleashing "the typewriter" on him without fair warning. (Picture one person pinning another down while repeatedly poking him in the chest.) Nick, whose growth spurt did not come until his junior year of high school -- two years later than Zack -- spent his first two years at Notre Dame working all over the line in a reserve role before emerging as the Irish's top option at center this past spring.
The two are now separated by a mere 13 pounds. (Nick is actually a half-inch taller.) Strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo said that when watching the offensive linemen run this summer, he saw "610 pounds of Martins running 15 yards in front of anybody else side by side."
"Very similar," Longo said of the brothers. "Obviously there's not much of a difference between the two; that's a good thing, because that means we'll have another Martin for an extra two years."
Watt and Zack Martin have lived together throughout college, with Nick often hanging at their apartment to make it a family affair. Keith Martin joked that Nick is the little brother that Watt never had.
The camaraderie played a large role in tugging Zack Martin back for his fifth and final year.
"You could tell inside, in his gut, he wanted to come back," Nick Martin said, adding, "[He's] been starting with his best friend at left guard the last three years, too. Finishing out with him, playing with me -- I think in the end he knew what he wanted to do."