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(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah State Aggies running back Joey DeMartino (28) is brought down by Hawaii Warriors defensive back Charles Clay (37). Utah State University hosts Hawaii at Romney Stadium, Saturday, November 2, 2013.
Utah State football: DeMartino perseveres, succeeds with Ags

After starting season as backup, he has excelled in feature role.

First Published Dec 22 2013 05:09 pm • Last Updated Dec 24 2013 09:33 am

Logan • Not long after he started playing peewee football, Joey DeMartino wasn’t sure how much he liked the game.

He got hit. A lot. Hard, too. It gave him reservations, the kind of fear all children feel when stepping into unfamiliar territory.

At a glance

Poinsettia Bowl

O Thursday, 7:30 p.m.

At San Diego

Northern Illinois (12-1) vs. Utah State (8-5)


DeMartino’s big year

A longtime backup, the Aggies’ senior rusher has had a career season

» 1,078 rushing yards, to become the 17th 1,000-yard rusher in program history

» Averaging 5.4 yards per carry this year, the 12th-best mark in USU history

» Tied for eighth in the Mountain West with 13 total touchdowns

» An all-Mountain West honorable mention at running back

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His mother, Kimberly DeMartino, was the one who shook him free of it.

"Especially when I was young, and I was like, ‘I don’t know if I like getting hit,’ " DeMartino said. "That’s all she said, just, ‘Listen, you can hit somebody or you can get hit. You make your choice.’ "

DeMartino ingrained that lesson within himself. As he progressed from a young running back at Mt. Carmel High School in San Diego, to an all-conference player at Grossmont College, to a backup at Utah State, he charged ahead looking to hit others.

Still, there are hits you can’t avoid. DeMartino took them: injuries, uncertainty, discouragement. As the blows piled up, he thought they just might keep coming.

Today, the 5-foot-11 senior is an all-Mountain West honorable mention, putting the finishing touches on a 1,000-yard season. Coming full circle, his college football career will end in the place where his love affair with the game first began. He’ll have a small army of family and friends filling row after row at Qualcomm Stadium to see him play his last game in Thursday’s Poinsettita Bowl — through Twitter and Facebook, they’ve told him that they’ll be cheering him on.

A year ago, it would’ve been hard to pick a more unlikely rising star than DeMartino, and there are times when he can’t believe where he is himself.

"It’s very redeeming," he said. "There were times when I said, ‘I’m never going to see this field out here.’ But that’s what you go through in college. It’s just trial and tribulations. Whatever happens, you just got to keep a positive attitude through it."

It’s easy to see that positive attitude now in the sunny Californian, who is quick to laugh at his own expense. But even DeMartino admits there were years when his megawatt smile couldn’t sugarcoat the turmoil he felt.

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He missed the 2011 season with a redshirt after teammate Maurice Alexander struck him in the face, requiring extensive facial surgery — an incident that temporarily set back both players’ careers as Alexander spent a year out of the program. When DeMartino recovered from that, he fractured his forearm early in the 2012 season.

He was out for about half the year, and when he returned, there wasn’t much of an offensive role waiting. Coaches told him to make his impact in special teams, and they couldn’t guarantee that he’d get many carries in his remaining days in Logan.

Robert Marshall, who joined the program with DeMartino and watched him go through the tumult, said his friend never allowed his misfortunes to engulf him.

"It was rough for him through certain injuries, but he prevailed," Marshall said. "He stuck it out. Anything he could do to get better, he did it each and every single day."

DeMartino would love to say work ethic came naturally, but it didn’t. He started studying his teammates who were playing really well and noticed something in common: They never stopped working on football.

Even though he wanted to go to parties or make late-night runs to McDonald’s, he started ignoring those urges. He spent his offseason hours with teammates D.J. Tialavea and Alex Wheat, among others, to work on his skills. He replaced fat with lean muscle — numerous Aggies commented on the transformation in fall camp.

When he told former teammate Will Davis he was finding it hard to stay on task, the NFL-bound cornerback told him to buy a whiteboard and to write his goals on it. When DeMartino talks about visualizing his goals, he actually sees them every morning.

"I take no days off really now," he said. "I just look at the people who are good at football, and they don’t ever take no breaks, even if they have the downtime. They do something that makes them better at football. Practicing, weight room, film study, rehab — something that matters."

From the start of the season, the effect of his renewed dedication paid immediate and drastic dividends. Although he was the backup to Joe Hill, coaches quickly realized every time he came into the game, he would find a way to grind out at least a few yards, and sometimes he would do much more than that.

Hosting Weber State, Utah State watched DeMartino dash for his first 100-yard game. Against USC, he broke off a 55-yard run that helped the Aggies get on the scoreboard for the first time. His highlights earned him more work.

When Hill went down with a season-ending injury, DeMartino naturally ascended to the leadership role in the running back room. Teammates respected his upbeat demeanor, his grind-it-out mentality, and a willingness to play through his own pain. Offensive coordinator Kevin McGiven said DeMartino has again struggled with staying healthy, but most wouldn’t know it by watching him run.

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