EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Blake Martinez had long since settled into the routines and rhythms of an NFL season. The 2021 season was his sixth in the league and second with the Giants and the standout inside linebacker was contented in the weekly schedule of meetings, practices and games.
When the Giants hosted the Atlanta Falcons last Sept. 26, Martinez played in his 75th consecutive game, including regular season and postseason contests.
But Martinez was forced from his comfort zone that afternoon. On the sixth play of the game, he suffered a torn ACL, ending his season. After undergoing surgery, Martinez watched some Giants games on television.
"It was so weird," Martinez said today. "I felt like I was one of those fans just yelling at the TV and all that stuff. And I'm like, 'Damn, I wish I could be out there, and I wish I could help out and say something right now.' But all I could do was yell at this little square thing."
Martinez is back in the role he much prefers, as the leader of the Giants' defense. He was on the field today when the team held its first training camp practice. And though the team will be cautious with him and other players who rehabbed injuries in the spring, Martinez is confident he will be ready to start in the Sept. 11 season opener in Tennessee.
"I have no doubt for myself," he said. "Again, taking it one day at a time and then obviously today, everyone asked me, 'Hey, are you pumped? You pumped? You pumped?' I'm like yeah, just got to take it as the first practice. I don't know, this was my first practice in 10 months now. It felt good, though.
"I just kind of went through the offseason, the last 10 months, working on my knee every day and just listening to the training staff. I got the news yesterday that I was good to go and basically went out there and felt good today. … It feels good. Kind of working with the training staff every day, taking it a day at a time. It felt good today. Getting the rust off."
Martinez is one of the NFL's most productive linebackers. Though he missed 14 games last season, his 680 tackles are the NFL's third-highest total since he entered the league in 2016. In his first Giants season in 2020, he started every game and led the team and was third in the NFL with 151 tackles (86 solo), his fourth consecutive season with at least 147 tackles (the first three with the Green Bay Packers).
Last year, he was again elected one of the Giants' captains by his teammates. But after hurting his knee, he entered the netherworld of the injured, which he admits made him feel like a ghost.
"You're in the back and it's like, 'Oh, what's up Blake?'" Martinez said. "And then keep moving on. It was tough, but I tried to do everything I could. But it's not the same as being out there and to be having your teammates relying on you and coming up with big plays to actually help your team win."
Eager to return to the field as quickly as possible, Martinez poured his energy into his rehab.
"Every single day you have to come in," he said. "There was a certain point in time when I left for a vacation for a week. And it was like I was set back two months. It was one of those things where you think, 'Wow, I need to hit this thing every day for a set amount of time' to make sure it stays where it needs to be and keep progressing."
Martinez followed the instructions of the Giants' medical staff to the point that he resisted setting his own weekly or monthly goals.
"I think I kind of just went off theirs," he said. "But I told them that I wanted to be the best person you've ever seen at those benchmarks. Because I didn't want to rush anything or do anything, I trusted them. But at those given moments, I wanted them to all be like, 'Wow, I've never seen somebody with an ACL like that during this time period.'
"There were moments for me when I got random setbacks and things in my knee where I said, 'Why is it feeling like this or this type of way?' They were super helpful being like, 'This happens to everybody, and it's just part of the process all of these things.' And during those moments, I was like, 'Oh no, I've never had to feel this ever.' But it got better, and obviously where I'm at now.'"
Now that he's back on the field, Martinez looks at his idle time with a different perspective.
"It was crazy, but I think it opened a lot of things up for me," he said. "I think there was a lot of anger, frustration, sadness, all these things not to be able to play the game I loved. But it also in a way showed me a lot of other important things. Being able to spend more time with my family (his wife, Kristy, and their daughters, Kinsley and Brooke), all these types of things. But it was tough. And to be able to be out there today was a special feeling."
Hopefully for Martinez, it will be the first of many.
View top photos from practice as the Giants kicked off training camp at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center.
*Rookie tight end Daniel Bellinger, the team's fourth-round draft choice this year, participated in the first practice after passing his physical. Bellinger was placed on the reserve/physically unable to perform (PUP) last week with a quad injury.
*Wide receiver Sterling Shepard (Achilles tendon) and offensive linemen Nick Gates (leg) and Matt Peart (knee) remain on the active/physically unable to perform list. Linebacker Azeez Ojulari (hamstring) is on the reserve/non-football injury list.
Other players who were limited or non-participants in the spring drills – including wide receivers Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney, tackle Andrew Thomas and rookie linebacker Kayvon Thibodeaux – are practicing.
"We knew the three guys who are on PUP right now were going to be pretty much on PUP," coach Brian Daboll said. "Everybody else who was in those red jerseys, there was a plan in place – I'd say a very detailed plan, and those guys did a great job. Everybody should be ready to go. You know Azeez had that little ding there getting ready to work out to come back. So, he'll be down a little bit. But everybody else that were in red jerseys will be able to participate and practice and we'll keep an eye on them as we go. But credit to those people in the organization for their plan and getting those guys ready to go, which is where we wanted to be today."
*The Giants signed offensive lineman Garrett McGhin. The 6-6, 300-pounder played in two games for the 2019 Carolina Panthers. He was in training camp last year with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
In a corresponding move, the Giants released tackle Kamaal Seymour, who was signed yesterday.
Giants Fan Fest returns to Metlife Stadium
Free and open to the public, the Giants Fan Fest will feature a Blue & White intrasquad scrimmage, autographs by Giants Legends, and a fireworks show.