Even though it was four years ago now, Blake Martinez still remembers his first game at Stanford Stadium as if it were yesterday.
At the pregame meal before the Cardinal hosted San Jose State on August 31, 2012, head coach David Shaw warned the then-freshman Martinez and his classmates not to be “that guy” that was going to look up into the stands and get overwhelmed by the stage as the team walked through the tunnel.
Martinez ended up being “that guy.”
“I remember walking in there and being like, ‘Oh-god-what-am-I-doing-here-we-go-I’m-going-to-be-running-down-on-kickoff-I’m-going-to-be-blocking-these-guys-on-kickoff-return,’” Martinez remembers with a chuckle.
He wasn’t the only one facing sensory overload; senior Aziz Shittu also remembers that very day — his first day wearing the Cardinal red, too.
“It was an awesome experience that you take in,” Shittu said. “Going from 1,000 people in your high school stands to 50,000, it’s a huge jump.”
For Martinez, the 25 entrances he’s made through that tunnel since that first day have only gotten easier as he’s been able to shut out his surroundings and focus exclusively on the game at hand after getting over that initial shock in his first game.
“Now you’re just amped up and you’re just, boom, focused on getting through the tunnel and getting ready to go,” he said.
Shittu, on the other hand, disagrees. He’s found that those 25 entrances have become more meaningful to him as time has passed.
“It gets more and more significant as you get older since there’s a finite amount of games you’re able to play,” he countered. “As you get older, it means more and more to run out the tunnel.”
They might disagree about their first 26 entrances to Stanford Stadium, but make no mistake: Their 27th and final journey through that tunnel this afternoon will serve as the great equalizer — each senior will get his time to shine as he runs alone through those familiar concrete walls and shares a moment with the home crowd as his name, position, hometown and major are announced in a celebration of his accomplishments.
If nostalgia hasn’t already set in for those seniors, don’t worry — it won’t take long once they find themselves in the moment.
“I think this game will definitely go back to that freshman moment,” Martinez said. “Wow. Next time I’ll be walking into this stadium I’ll be watching the game instead of actually playing.”
Even though they’ve had four or five years to prepare themselves for this moment, the reality of the Last Walk, the final entrance to Stanford Stadium and the final game at home hasn’t yet sunk in for a few of the seniors that will be celebrated tomorrow — this day has really crept up on them.
“It hasn’t really hit me yet,” Shittu said. “I’m more excited just to play Notre Dame.”
“It definitely won’t hit me until it’s here,” added fifth-year senior quarterback Kevin Hogan, who will finish his home career today as the winningest quarterback in Stanford history.
“It’s slowly creeping in. It’s kind of a good feeling. It’s an important game, and it just makes me come out here and go that much harder in practice and appreciate being out here, just knowing that the end is near.”
But others, like Martinez and fifth-year senior Devon Cajuste, have already started to feel that reality and a sense of finality in a big way, particularly after they beat Cal 35-22 last Saturday and ensured that they would never lose the Axe in their Stanford careers.
“It’s kind of sad, to be honest with you,” Cajuste said. “It was my last rivalry game and recognizing, ‘Wow, this is it. We have a chance to 5-0 against them and all of the special things that come with it.’ It was like the last time I’m going to get to do it.”
“The fact that it’s gone right now means that I’m going, ‘Dang, this is the last time I’m ever going to play Notre Dame.’”
The emotions really started to hit Martinez when he and fifth-year senior cornerback Ronnie Harris were walking out of the stadium after the Cal game and it dawned on Martinez that the path they were following was essentially the exact same path that they would be taking a week later on their last walk, but in reverse.
“Dude, this is our last one,” he said to Harris that day. “This is our last week that we have here. It’s definite this time.”
“I just kept looking back and forth and I didn’t want to think about it too much,” he added afterward. “I’ve grown so much from freshman year until now, and I came into Stanford thinking I’d never even be able to make it through.”
Martinez has been mentally prepared for his Last Walk for a long time — back in the day, Shayne Skov and A.J. Tarpley (a year later) messed with Martinez on their respective Senior Days by hanging their black “My Last Walk” shirts in Martinez’s locker and treating Martinez as if it was his last day. That said, it’s still going to be tough for Martinez to have the tables turned this year.
“I’m actually going to have it in my locker this time. I’m going to be the guy making that joke to someone else. It’s crazy.”
The Last Walk and Senior Day entrance this time around will have a particularly powerful impact on Cajuste as well, because it will actually be his second time taking part in the celebrations — he did it last year because he thought there was a chance he wouldn’t be back — and thus knows all of the associated emotions all too well.
But this time, there won’t be any lingering doubts or questions in the back of his mind — this is it for him, and he’s had to deal with that sense of absolute finality all week.
“This is the end-all and be-all,” Cajuste said. “There is no leeway, there is no door, there is no ‘just-cause,’ ‘just-maybe.’”
It’s especially bittersweet for Cajuste, who calls Stanford Stadium his “second home” and still feels starstruck whenever he feels the “uplifting, challenging and competitive vibes” that pervade the stadium every time he plays a game within the familiar confines.
“I was blessed to come here at a time where I felt like it was pretty filled,” Cajuste noted.
And he’s not alone in that sentiment — despite all of the fun that outside observers poke at Stanford Stadium and at Stanford fans for what seems to be chronically low turnout and enthusiasm, the other seniors agree that they’ve been nothing but humbled by their fans and proud of the support that their efforts have garnered week in and week out, which is something they’ll remember and miss for some time to come.
“I know we’re not a big school and our students can’t fill up the whole stadium, but seeing the whole Red Zone standing up and cheering the whole time, it’s awesome,” Hogan said. “It makes us feel proud of our school seeing that we have the support.”
“It’s very motivational,” Cajuste added. “I had those standards and the fact that they have been met, if not exceeded, I just find it very special.”
Though today will mark the culmination of one of the most accomplished senior classes in the history of Stanford football, the players are also making sure not to lose sight of the fact that despite the seeming finality of this afternoon’s game, the journey’s not yet over — the toughest challenges still lay ahead, and they can’t let emotions get in the way.
But they’re not trying to bottle up that emotion — if they can help it, they’re going to make darn sure that those feelings push them to play their finest game tonight and go out with one more statement win for the ages.
“You still just have to think it’s just a normal week with a game,” Martinez said, “but you always put it in the back of your mind where you’ve got to go out with a bang and have as much fun as possible in that last game.”
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.
Stanford’s seniors (without eligibility remaining):
Joshua Garnett (Sr., OG, Puyallup, Wash.)
Blake Martinez (Sr., ILB, Tucson, Ariz.)
Reed Miller (Sr., LS, Encinitas, Calif.)
Kyle Murphy (Sr., OT, San Clemente, Calif.)
Aziz Shittu (Sr., DE, Atwater, Calif.)
Kodi Whitfield (Sr., SS, Los Angeles, Calif.)
Kevin Anderson (5Sr., OLB, Palo Alto, Calif.)
Brendon Austin (5Sr., OG, Parker, Colo.)
Devon Cajuste (5Sr., WR, Seaford, NY)
Ronnie Harris (5Sr., CB, Atlanta, GA)
Kevin Hogan (5Sr., QB, McLean, VA)
Ra’Chard Pippens (5Sr., CB, McDonough, GA)
Torsten Rotto (5Sr., DE, Woodbury, Minn.)
Brennan Scarlett (5Sr., DE, Portland, Ore.)
Rollins Stallworth (5Sr., WR, Reno, Nev.)
Remound Wright (5Sr., RB, Fort Wayne, Ind.)
Stanford’s seniors (with eligibility remaining):
Johnny Caspers (Sr., OG, Glen Ellyn, Ill.)
Conner Crane (Sr., WR, Lantana, Tex.)
Nick Davidson (Sr., OT, Eden Prairie, Minn.)
Noor Davis (Sr., ILB, Leesburg, Fla.)
Chris Harrell (Sr., FB, Missouri City, Tex.)
Craig Jones (Sr., ILB, Modesto, Calif.)
Dontonio Jordan (Sr., WR, Hickory Creek, Tex.)
Luke Kaumatule (Sr., OLB, Honolulu, Hawaii)
Dallas Lloyd (Sr., FS, Pleasant Grove, Utah)
Nate Lohn (Sr., DE, Kansas City, Mo.)
Michael Rector (Sr., WR, Gig Harbor, Wash.)
Barry Sanders (Sr., RB, Oklahoma City, Okla.)
Sam Shober (Sr., OLB, Monroe, Wash.)
Graham Shuler (Sr., C, Franklin, Tenn.)
Conrad Ukropina (Sr., K, Pasadena, Calif.)
Jordan Watkins (Sr., DE, Decatur, GA)
Sam Yules (Sr., ILB, Dartmouth, Mass.)