Patrick Reusse
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Kalib and Maxine Martin were born on Saint Vincent in the West Indies of the Caribbean. Kalib played cricket and Maxine ran track. They moved to New York individually, met there, were married and came to Minnesota, where Kalib worked for Northwest Airlines.

Kamal, the youngest of two sons, became an excellent football player for Burnsville High School, the Gophers and now has broken into the Packers’ lineup as a rookie linebacker.

This will pit him against the Vikings on Sunday, and he was asked this penetrating question during a phone conversation Wednesday:

“So does your family background mean that you actually understand cricket?”

Proudly, Martin said: “I do understand cricket! My father has taken me to matches and explained it, to the point that I know what’s going on.”

Now that’s impressive.

So is this: Martin played his first football game in 330 days Sunday, was on the field for 29 defensive plays and made six tackles. Three of those were rated as a “stop” by Pro Football Focus — a tackle creating a failed offensive play.

Martin’s last game had been against Wisconsin on Nov. 30 at TCF Bank Stadium. The Badgers thumped the Gophers in the second half for a 38-17 victory to become the Big Ten West representative in the conference title game.

Martin was in on nine tackles, even as he hobbled on a knee injury that had cost him three earlier games.

“I hurt the knee on the fourth play of the game,” Martin said. “I knew that meant I was going to need surgery, so I thought, ‘I might as well keep playing and then get it repaired.’ ”

The original report in mid-December was that Martin was going to skip the Outback Bowl to prepare for the NFL draft. Actually, he missed that rousing Gophers upset over Auburn to undergo surgery.

Martin still wasn’t ready to work out at the NFL combine in late February. As a 6-3, 240-pound tackling machine at linebacker, he was a certain third-rounder until the knee issue arose, and he wound up being taken in the fifth round by the Packers.

There was an opening alongside Christian Kirksey, a free agent, as the middle linebackers in the 3-4 defense, and it took about three days of practice for the Packers to decide that Martin could fill it.

Then, in the final scrimmage of training camp, Martin had an injury to the “other knee.” On Wednesday, he said all it took was “a little scope,” and then rehab before getting back on the field.

The debut finally came Sunday. Kirksey was lost because of injury a month ago and Krys Barnes, an undrafted rookie from UCLA, was Kamal’s partner for most of those 29 plays.

Packers coach Matt La­Fleur offered this review on Martin: “That’s a difficult position to be in. I was happy with a lot of things he did … just flying around out there. He’s a big, physical presence. I see a guy that has a lot of playmaking ability.”

A quarterback and safety at Burnsville, Martin and an excellent group of seniors led the Blaze to its first state tournament in two decades in 2015.

The 7-1 regular season included a last-minute comeback win against Rosemount, a rival that had been dominant. Martin threw a touchdown pass to Cory Kallstrom in the last minute for the victory.

The turnaround game of coach P.J. Fleck’s Gophers program was a 37-15 thumping of Wisconsin at the end of 2018. It was a one-year stay for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, but it reinvigorated Gophers football fandom.

And then came this: Sunday’s debut in the NFL with a strong performance in a Packers victory. So, with the cricket question answered, Martin was pressed again: beating Rosemount, bringing home the Axe or taking the field in an NFL game … rate ’em?

“It doesn’t get any better than any of those,” Martin said. “It has been a blessing to play football and be part of the excitement of the greatest game there is, whether it’s in high school, college and now the NFL.

“Beating Rosemount for the first time, bringing home the Axe, being on the field for the Green Bay Packers, they were all a blast, all blessings, because it was the game of football, which I love.”

Love? This tough game, nasty game, that can damage knees and other body parts?

“To me, the setbacks I’ve had to get here, they are a great representation of life,” Martin said. “Everything is not going to go your way in life. What’s important is to keep your mentality on the right path.”

This sounds like a message received in a P.J. Fleck team meeting, and Martin offers gratitude to two Gophers coaching staffs — Fleck’s and Tracy Claeys’ — for his presence in the NFL.

Martin had made a verbal commitment to play quarterback at Eastern Michigan before attending a Gophers spring camp before his senior season at Burnsville. Claeys’ staff went bonkers at seeing Martin — then 220 pounds — working out against other top athletes and said, “Come to Minnesota and play linebacker.”

Martin laughed slightly on Wednesday and said:

“I’ve been seeing Aaron Rodgers in practice every day. It’s very humbling to see him work his craft, and also to find out I was lucky that my quarterback career ended in high school.”