- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It started with a conversation between an academic staffer at Michigan and one of its most loquacious athletes, between someone who had shown he could be different and another person who strived to find his own way.
Mike Martin never could have imagined one conversation with Ryan Doyle, then a Michigan athletic staffer, about Doyle's non-profit organization "Live to Give" would turn into so much.
Martin, a senior defensive tackle on the verge of playing his final game in the maize and blue in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3, was curious. He wondered how someone could start a successful non-profit as Doyle did when he was a Michigan undergrad in 2006 at age 19.
Doyle was trying to rebuild Detroit, the city Martin grew up in. So he pushed and eventually was hooked. It was a decision that would alter everything that came after it.
"I'm really interested in philanthropy and entrepreneurship," Martin said. "I really am a different dude.
"I'm not your cookie-cutter defensive tackle, whatever that is."
The cookie crumbled differently as Martin became more immersed in the Live to Give projects, particularly one with a Detroit-based group called "Young Detroit Builders." The organization's mission is to help unemployed 18- to 24-year-olds earn their GED in carpentry and construction while they build homes in Detroit so they can start their own businesses, go to college, or help rebuild the city and suburbs they all share.
In the offseason between the 2009 and 2010 seasons, Martin sat in on meetings, helped with marketing and aided in writing the script for a promotional video for an October 2010 fundraiser put on by Live to Give for the Young Detroit Builders at the Dirty Martini in Novi, Mich.
"They were on 'Secret Millionaire,' and Live to Give was a part of that," Martin said. "It was really cool. We did a lot of public speaking and helped that group."
Helping there gave Martin his own idea and vision. He developed a mantra called "Category of One."
The point of Category of One is for each individual to find his or her own path and to help as many people as possible. Or, as the mission statement goes: "A challenge to you and I to be like no one else who has come before us."
In other words, be original. Don't be what people expect you to be. Be yourself and be comfortable in that. It is something Martin has lived by the past 18 months, and in creating this for himself he also found a new outlet to show he is more than a football player.
"We spent a lot of time diving into who he really was, and what erupted from that was Category of One, which he really wanted to not only challenge himself to be more unique and creative and philanthropic than any other person before him, but he wanted to also challenge other people to do the same," Doyle said. "So when they thought of Category of One, not only did they think of Mike, but how can I be better than I am today."
When Martin leaves Michigan, it'll likely be the umbrella brand under which he opertates. But in his final year of college, he wanted to show the person behind the winged helmet and No. 68 that has played for Michigan the past four seasons.
He wanted to destroy the cookie-cutter image. He wanted to show he was more than just a football player. So he grabbed his iPhone.
Episode 1: Let's Make a Video
Martin and Doyle both saw the rise to fame of Southfield, Mich.-based musician Mike Posner through his track "Cooler than Me," and how he showcased it through a web series on YouTube and his website.
Why not do that with Martin as a way to memorialize his senior season at Michigan? The audience was there, and Martin offered a behind-the-scenes look.
Martin cleared the project through the Michigan compliance office -- the office signed off on each episode before release -- and with Michigan coach Brady Hoke.
Then came the difficult part: Doing it.
"The original goal was football," Martin said. "We've all got helmets on. You don't really get to take the helmet off and let people get to know the type of person you are. They only know you as that number on your back and your name on you. Basketball is a different story, you're recognizable.
"For me, I wanted to take the helmet off and let people know what type of guys we are, and it was a positive, which is the cool thing."
The name of the series, "First of the Last," came from his mother, Theresa O'Hara, who heard about the title in a discussion with her sister, Rita, about a wedding video.
Martin and Doyle, who also runs a video production company called Video Vision 360, actually put together two series.
One was "First of the Last," a web series chronicling Martin's senior year -- something he plans on carrying through April's NFL Draft. The second was an "inside" series, showing moments such as the Michigan football bust and a night at a battle of the bands competition with offensive lineman Taylor Lewan and quarterback Denard Robinson.
"People had that reaction of what is he doing, because it's really cool and unique," Martin said. "I think I am really breaking a lot of boundaries and thinking outside the box with what I'm doing. It's not something that someone would, after they talked to me for a while, they could see me doing that, but the outside perception of Mike Martin is making these videos? That's different and cool.
"It's fun. The other guys, they get to be themselves in the videos and not having to worry about acting a certain way, and it just brings everyone's true character out."
He and Doyle filmed hundreds of hours of content and sifted through raw footage to put together storyboards and narrative scripts, which range from 5 to 7 minutes in length.
Before each full-on editing session in Final Cut Pro, they watch an episode or two of "Rob Dyrdek's Fantasy Factory" and get to work.
"We wanted to create something that would unleash Mike's passion off the field," Doyle said. "The goal was art, and he and I are believers that you can't make art with business in mind. We wanted to make his version of art."
It took off. Between that and his "Category of One," which has been present throughout his series with teammates, Martin and others making a "C" with one hand and holding up their index finger, he started to break the mold.
Episode 2: Mike Martin Goes Hollywood?
Mike and Chris Farah, who grew up in Ann Arbor, are big Michigan football fans. They also work for the immensely popular website "Funny or Die" in Los Angeles.
They follow Michigan football players on Twitter. When Martin started posting his YouTube videos on his Twitter account, @GoMikeMartin, the Farahs were impressed.
"Lots of times people send us stuff and the sound is off, the picture doesn't look good," said Mike Farah, Funny or Die's president of production. "I think the production value is pretty high. As he does more of them and spends more time with them, he could probably edit them down a little bit so they were a little bit tighter because online people don't have the same attention span as they do elsewhere.
"But considering, when you compare them against what a lot of students send us, it stood out because of its production value."
Chris Farah went on the Michigan website, clicked on the directory, and found Martin's email. He passed it to Mike Farah, who dropped Martin a note.
Martin -- a Funny or Die fan -- responded. The Farahs happened to be in Ann Arbor promoting their movie "Answer This!" so they met Martin at a screening.
"I follow Funny or Die. I thought they were awesome," Martin said. "Now they are [direct messaging] me because they thought I made cool webisodes. I'm like, 'Man, I must be doing something right.' "
When Chris Farah went to Michigan, he worked at the student newspaper, the Michigan Daily, and he said he covered sports. What Martin was doing reminded him of someone from his college days.
"I was here at the same time Dhani Jones was here, and it kind of reminded me of that a little bit," Chris said. "He was just known on campus for being this man who wanted to try and do everything. He just blew everybody away, and we had a meeting with him a couple weeks ago, because he's very interested in Funny or Die.
"So when I saw the web series that Mike Martin was doing, it reminded me of that, of this Renaissance man who was trying to do a whole bunch of different things."
Episode 3: Mike Martin gets a mentor
In July, Jones, a former Michigan and NFL linebacker, signed copies of his new book at an Ann Arbor Barnes & Noble.
Martin reached out to Jones, whose trademark is the bow ties he wears and his foundation, Bow Tie Cause. He took a picture of himself in a printed-out bow tie, taped it on his neck, put on some thick glasses, a pocket protector.
Jones retweeted it and began another friendship. In the fourth episode of Martin's series, he met Jones at the book signing.
"He's definitely been a mentor to me," Martin said. "On that level and public speaking is something I really want to get good at, and it is something you just have to rep and do over and over. He has all those traits and characteristics.
"I just need to be around the guy and talk to him as much as I can."
Jones took interest in Martin -- in part because they come from the same football program and because he reminded Jones of what he tried to do when he was at Michigan and in the NFL.
Their conversations, which take place through Twitter, text messaging and on the phone, focus 20 percent on football and 80 percent on everything else -- from how to build a foundation to philanthropy to everyday life.
From Jones, Martin sought advice. He also wanted to learn and reach out to someone he looked up to when he watched Michigan games as a kid.
"If he wants my advice, I'm going to give him my advice," Jones said. "He went to the greatest university, the same one I did, and he's like 2.0, 3.0, way ahead of the curve. I'm learning from him just as he's learning from me, so I think it's a win-win situation, regardless of what happens.
"I'm just proud he's a friend of mine, and I'm happy to see a guy that is making a difference on the field and off the field, and that is what sets him apart, and that is his element."
In Martin, Jones sees a protege. In Jones, Martin sees his potential future: NFL player. Entrepreneur. Philanthropist.
Someone who broke the constrictions of athlete stereotypes to create something completely different, who created -- in Martin's idea -- his own "Category of One."
Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.
1mSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann