TJ Martin: Former Western student hits the big time

By Renata Gutierrez

In February, 32-year-old TJ Martin became an Oscar winner. Recipient of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for Undefeated, Martin, who lives in Seattle and graduated from Fairhaven College, has been a busy man. I spoke to Martin on the phone last week, as he just arrived into Sea-Tac on a 6 a.m. flight from Los Angeles. He was exuberant about being back home. “I’m standing outside of Caf Vita, on the corner of Pike and Broadway…my old stomping ground!”
Martin was born and raised in the heart of Seattle, living on Capital Hill as a child, before he and his family moved to the Central District. He graduated from Roosevelt High School, and then attended Western Washington University, where he pursued a degree in American Cultural Studies (he dropped out of Fairhaven without finishing his degree and has only completed it as of late). After college, TJ moved around taking video production work anywhere he could, and eventually ended up in Hawaii.
“I was literally a bum on the beach, and had no idea where my life was going, when I took this job as a p.a. on a really bad TV show,” he says.
The job turned out to be fortuitous in that Martin met several filmmakers from Los Angeles who encouraged him to move to California. Once there, he quickly found work as an editor, and later met his friend and creative collaborator on Undefeated, Dan Lindsay.
Martin and Lindsay’s award-winning film follows the Manassas Tigers, a high school football team from inner city Memphis as they struggle to win the first championship in their school’s 110-year history. The idea for the film, originally came from Dan’s good friend Rich Middlemas, who is also one of the film’s producers. Middlemas graduated from the University of Tennessee and follows the school’s football recruiting to what TJ laughingly calls “an unhealthy degree.” Rich had been reading about a promising left tackle at Manassas High School, O.C. Brown, who in an attempt to get his grades up to scholarship standards, was living part-time with his football coach and part-time with his grandmother. Martin and Lindsay thought O.C.’s story might be an interesting one, so they headed to Memphis with the intention of making “an intimate, coming of age film about a kid straddling two different worlds.”
Upon their arrival in Tennessee, Martin and Lindsay met Bill Courtney, the captivating head-coach of the Manassas Tigers, and the story that they were looking for became even better. Courtney is an entrepeneaur who began volunteering at Manassas High School in 2004, and is responsible for revamping the school’s famously losing football program. According to Martin, when you meet Courtney you can understand immediately how one man could make such an impact.
“Bill is a very, very charismatic person,” he laughs. “I mean, you drink the Kool-Aid when you listen to Bill, you know?”
On a mission to make an “observational, cinema v rit piece,” Martin and Lindsay embedded themselves with the Manassas Tigers for nine months, and shot over 500 hours of handheld footage on and off the field. The result is far more than a sports documentary; it is a poignant examination of fathers and sons, wins and losses, confidence, and strength of character in the face of insurmountable odds.
As this year’s Academy Awards underdog, Martin knows a little something about beating the odds. In many ways, TJ Martin is your average young man from the Northwest, but overnight, he has achieved a surreal level of success.
At one point in our conversation, I ask him in excited disbelief, “What’s it like to win an award like this?!” and he matches the level of my excitement note for note, exclaiming, “It’s fucking weird, man!”
Now comes the work of deciding what new projects to take on, and how to secure a comparable level of success in the future. Of course, it’s all up in the air for the time being, and when I ask him about his plans, Martin replies vaguely, “We’re reading a lot of scripts, having lots of meetings. They say L.A. is a town of meetings, and it’s true! So many meetings!”
“But that’s where the magic happens, right?” I quip.
He laughs contentedly, “Exactly. That’s where the magic happens.”
Undefeated is scheduled to screen at the Pickford Film Center later this month. Visit for screening dates and times.