Leistikow: Why 'everyone' in the Iowa football program has Ivory Kelly-Martin's back

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — Ivory Kelly-Martin’s story isn’t finished.

That was clear Tuesday outside the Hansen Football Performance Center, where the running back stood for more than 30 minutes and addressed the sometimes-cruel adversity he’s faced throughout his five-year Iowa career. The injuries, the lack of playing time and, most recently, his two fumbles in Saturday’s 30-7 win against Kent State.

“I’m not going to lose any bit of my confidence,” Kelly-Martin said assuredly.

Standing strong in the face of tough situations has defined Kelly-Martin’s time at Iowa, never more so than on June 8, 2020. It was that day, at an emotionally raw team meeting as the Hawkeye program was rocked days earlier by racial-bias allegations centered around now-former strength coach Chris Doyle, that the normally quiet Kelly-Martin took a stand. In that moment, he let his voice be heard.

Ivory Kelly-Martin has been a positive voice of unity in the Hawkeye locker room, one that has been about the power of players using their voices and being accountable to one another.

As teammate Kyler Schott, an offensive lineman from rural Iowa, put it Tuesday: “Everyone really found out who Ivory Kelly-Martin was in that moment.”

Kelly-Martin, from Chicago suburb Plainfield, relayed his message that day in four powerful words:

“We have the power.”

It was time for the 120-plus players to take charge of the program, he said, not the coaches. Kelly-Martin didn’t mean that in a critical way. But in addition to speaking up about racial inequities in the program, it was time to come together and to be accountable to one another.

"Some of the best teams I’ve been on have been player-led and not coach-led,” Kelly-Martin said. “While we have really good coaches here, they’re not the ones that are going to take us to the next level. They can do their best, but we’re the ones that go out there on Saturdays and win football games.”

Kelly-Martin has 693 career rushing yards and hasn’t scored a touchdown since 2018.

He is hardly a household name outside of the Iowa football program, but he is on the inside.

“You know whether it’s inside this building or outside this building, he’s going to have your back,” Schott said. “Everyone knows that.”

Just last week, he was voted by teammates as a gameday captain for the first time.

That’s why it was heartbreaking to see him fumble twice in seven touches. On Tuesday, head coach Kirk Ferentz said neither fumble was technique related — a helmet on the ball caused the first miscue, a violent collision caused the second.

"He's practicing well, and he'll play well Saturday. I'm confident of that," Ferentz said. "It's part of life. You can't dwell on things."

Kelly-Martin understands that as well as anyone.

Ivory Kelly-Martin has rushed 22 times for 91 yards this season but has three fumbles (two were lost). Still, teammates and coaches have his back ... on and off the field.

After earning the starting job entering his sophomore year of 2018, he suffered an ankle injury in Week 1 and never really regained his billing as a multi-threat running back. He redshirted after playing four games in 2019 (having fallen to fourth string behind Tyler Goodson, Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young), then was limited to 13 carries in 2020 before tearing his ACL during practice in the week of the final game vs. Wisconsin.

The non-contact injury came on a cut he said he’d made 1,000 times in practice.

“One of the hardest injuries I’ve had to go through,” Kelly-Martin said, his voice cracking with emotion. “Just that recovery process. It was long some days. … I felt like my journey might be over.

“Luckily, I’ve been able to lean on some of the people around me.”

As his rehab continued in April, he discovered joy in acting as a player-coach for young Hawkeye running backs Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams. Coaching is something Kelly-Martin wants to do after his football career ends. He'll graduate in December.

Kelly-Martin credited running backs coach Ladell Betts, who shared his own recovery from a season-ending ACL injury when he was playing in the NFL in 2009, for encouraging words.

And Kelly-Martin also applauded himself.

That’s not arrogant. It’s the reality that he put in the work to get back on the field again. Transferring was never a serious option for Kelly-Martin, who was determined to see his Iowa journey to the finish line.

As Kelly-Martin put it, it’s important to be a thumb teammate (pointing at yourself) and not a finger teammate (pointing blame at others). After a seven-month recovery, he showed up at the first fall-camp practice 100%. That day, he took handoffs and ran full speed with full confidence in his knee. Betts and the coaching staff were immediately sold that Kelly-Martin was ready to be Iowa's No. 2 running back in 2021.

And he will be again Saturday against Colorado State (2:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1).

But what a moment it would be if Ferentz boldly gave Kelly-Martin his first start since 2018.

What a moment it would be if the Kinnick Stadium crowd gave Kelly-Martin a standing ovation as he took the field for the first time since his two-fumble game.

Kelly-Martin certainly deserves the recognition. 

He has had the program’s back, especially since June 8, 2020. He sent a tweet that day that stated in part, “There is no limit to a team that plays as one for one another. I want that for my team and … for the world."

Kelly-Martin wasn’t alone in speaking up that day. But his message then still resonates now.

“We have the power.”

The Iowa program didn’t fall into a crater of tumult. The Hawkeyes are instead reaching rare heights. They have won nine consecutive games and are the highest-ranked Big Ten Conference team (No. 5 by the Associated Press and No. 6 by the coaches). No Iowa team has been ranked this high this early in the season since 1985.

The unity in the team was a continuous talking point by white and Black players during the offseason. Kelly-Martin agrees that the unity is showing up in improved on-field performance.

“It’s accurate, (that) observation. I’ve been able to see that," Kelly-Martin said. "A lot more guys (understand) that our coaches are really good people and smart people that know how to game plan. And they’re going to continue to do all that.

"But it’s really going to rely on us to get the job done."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.