Dream chasers: After a year out of the game, former Duke players Ross Martin, Will Monday back in NFL camps

New York Jets kicker Ross Martin kicks a field goal against the Washington Redskins during a 2016 NFL exhibition game.
New York Jets kicker Ross Martin kicks a field goal against the Washington Redskins during a 2016 NFL exhibition game. Submitted

An IBM sales trainee by day, Ross Martin never let his dream die.

At night, he made his way some 80 blocks north up Manhattan island to Harlem River Park where a Google search revealed exactly what the former Duke kicker needed to chase the NFL.

“I was looking around New York for football fields,” Martin said. “Who has uprights? Who has lights on?”

There, hard against the Harlem River, Martin kicked football after football last fall. Many times he was alone. Sometimes his fiancee, fellow Duke graduate Sarah Notte, joined him.

Back in Durham, former Duke punter Will Monday also pursued his life after football while keeping his NFL dream alive. An all-ACC performer just like Martin, Monday worked in Duke’s athletic ticket office getting an introduction to athletic administration just in case.

Meanwhile, he used Duke’s football facilities to work out and practice punting when he wasn’t working 40 hours handling tickets.

“I wanted to make the most of the short opportunity I have to play this game,” Monday said. “Stay in football shape and continue to get better. At the same time, I needed to have a job and have some income.”

Both players went undrafted in 2016 after their parallel Duke football careers ended. Both players signed training camp contracts – Monday with Pittsburgh, Martin with the Jets – but both were released prior to the regular season.

Both saw that as a pause, not the end, of their NFL journeys.

The Jets signed Martin again last January and he’s been through offseason workouts with the team ever since. He’ll head to training camp in July with a chance to be the team’s starting kicker.

The Kansas City Chiefs invited Monday for a tryout following the NFL Draft in April. He showed them enough that he was signed to a contract in early May. He, too, heads to training camp with a chance to make the 53-man roster.

Both had a glance into their post-football world but never turned fully toward it. The pull of football remained strong.

“It can take a while for a specialist to break into this game,” Monday said. “You have to wait for that right opportunity You have to see it through.”

At Duke, Martin and Monday were part of a football renewal. From 2012-2015, all four seasons they were Duke’s kicker and punter, the Blue Devils made bowl games each season. In their final collegiate game, the 2015 Pinstripe Bowl at New York’s Yankee Stadium, Duke beat Indiana, 44-41, for the school’s first bowl win since the 1961 Cotton Bowl.

Martin is Duke’s all-time leader in field goals made (78) and points after touchdown (196). He made 152 consecutive field goals during one stretch and 89.3 percent of his field goals overall, both school records.

In addition to being Martin’s holder, Monday booted his way into the Duke record books with the top career punting average (43.48 yards) in school history. That’s good for No. 7 on the ACC’s all-time list.

In his first NFL camp with the Jets last summer, Martin battled veteran Nick Folk for the kicking job. The rookie showed well, even kicking a 55-yard field goal in what turned out to be his final exhibition game, but the Jets cut him in favor of Folk.

Martin had interviewed with IBM in the spring before the NFL Draft. So when no other team called, he started his training in September with other recent college graduates. But Martin’s conversation with Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan left him believing he should stay in kicking shape.

“He said he wanted me to stick with it,” Martin said. “That meant a lot to me.”

Martin told his IBM bosses that football remained a possibility and they told him they’d be flexible. In January, the Jets called back and signed Martin again.

Needing to focus once again on being an NFL kicker, Martin said goodbye to IBM – on good terms.

“They’ve been extremely supportive of me,” Martin said. “It does help that it’s their hometown team. They said whenever you are ready, come back.”

By Feb. 23, Martin’s NFL outlook changed when the Jets cut the 32-year-old Folk, whose 81.3 field goal accuracy is the best in team history. Folk subsequently signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Now Martin heads into training camp battling former Clemson kicker Chandler Catanzaro, who kicked with the Arizona Cardinals, for the job. The 26-year-old Catanzaro has made 84 percent of his NFL field goals.

In Kansas City, Monday faces a training camp battle with Dustin Colquitt, the AFC’s Pro Bowl punter last January and the NFL’s highest-paid punter at $4.9 million this season.

That salary cap number could lead the Chiefs to let Colquitt go if Monday has a good training camp.

He feels he’s ready.

After Pittsburgh let him go last August, Monday returned to Duke and worked to get in even better shape.

He’d rise as early as 5:30 a.m. to get his workouts in before heading to his ticket operations job.

“You really have to have a love for this game when the alarm goes off,” Monday said.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe allowed him to use the team’s weight room and practice fields when the team wasn’t using them.

“He allowed me to use the facilities like I was still there,” Monday said. “I was in weight room. He let me get on the practice fields whenever I needed to. It was really about finding what worked best for me. The biggest thing I learned in Pittsburgh was just knowing myself. Over those six or seven months spent in Durham, going to weight room by myself, that taught me to listen to my body.”

Both Martin and Monday have completed their offseason minicamps and organized team activities. The next step is training camp in late July.

In the meantime, they’ll get together once again in Durham. On July 8, Martin and Notte are getting married at Duke Chapel. Monday will be one of Martin’s groomsmen.

Then they’ll go their separate ways once again. NFL careers remain in their plans.

“We all know they belong,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s just being in the right place at the right time. If they get their shot, they may keep their jobs for 15 years. But I also know that both of those young men are equipped if football doesn’t happen.”

Steve Wiseman: 919-419-6671, @stevewisemanNC