OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Long before Don “Wink” Martindale was the driving force behind the NFL’s top-ranked defense, the Baltimore Ravens' first-year coordinator sat behind the wheel of a semi.
His father and uncle owned a trucking company, and Martindale felt obligated to give it a try for a year. Right out of college, Martindale hauled brake parts every day from Dayton, Ohio, to Detroit, a grueling 6.5-hour drive round-trip.
“I hated every day of it,” Martindale said. “It was the worst ever. I’m getting ready to throw up just thinking about it.”
Martindale’s heart was in coaching, and the family business unknowingly provided the basis for football success. He had to learn how to win over customers and deal with unions by using a humorous, off-the-cuff charm that has naturally drawn people toward him.
Martindale, 55, can devise defensive schemes with the best of them, and his fingerprints are all over an aggressive group that leads the NFL in yards and points allowed this season. What separates Martindale, as the players attest, is his ability to connect with them and provide the inspiration to go all-out for him.
When it’s Christmas time, they buy him a new pair of Jordans. When they get married, they invite the coach who is known to be the life of the party with his dance moves.
Martindale's bond with the players made for a smooth transition after six years with defensive coordinator Dean Pees. Baltimore established a modern-era mark by not giving up a second-half touchdown in its first six games. The Ravens obliterated the franchise record with 11 sacks in Tennessee. Last Sunday, Baltimore limited Matt Ryan and the Falcons to 131 total yards, the fewest by Atlanta in 19 years.
In an age when offense is all the rage, the Ravens are in the playoff hunt because of a defense that has ranked atop the NFL for eight of 12 weeks this season. On Sunday, Martindale and the Ravens will look to slow down the Kansas City Chiefs and the NFL's highest-scoring offense.
“It’s always been about ‘we’ and never about him,” safety Eric Weddle said. “It was never about what he’s done and his opportunity. It’s always about the players. He believes in us and loves us -- like, genuinely loves us.”
‘Rocking the kicks'
Martindale’s other great love is his shoes. It's as much of his signature look as shorts (which he wears year-round) and that salt-and-pepper goatee.
His wife calls him the male version of Imelda Marcos, the Filipino socialite who was known for owning thousands of shoes. The players can’t even guess the number of pairs worn by their coach, and Martindale refuses to say.
For Christmas, middle linebacker C.J. Mosley bought Jordan golf shoes for Martindale, who treasures them so much that he'll wear them only in nice weather.
"He’s always rocking the kicks," Mosley said. "You have to appreciate a coach who stays in touch with his shoes."
That's part of the appeal for Martindale.
"It's part of having a relationship with a younger player because it's something they like as well," Martindale said. "Even if it's the beginning of the conversation, now the talk goes wherever it goes."
It's these talks that make players feel like more than chess pieces. Before Martindale breaks down someone's drop on that curl pattern in the flat, he'll ask about his family or recent life issues he has had to address.
Former Ravens linebacker Albert McClellan invited Martindale to his wedding, where he drew rave reviews for his moves. Martindale, who met his wife through dancing, said you'd better have rhythm if you come from Dayton.
"He can get down," said McClellan, who is now with the New England Patriots. "You have to have a lot of respect for a man who is comfortable in his environment."
How much faith do players have in Martindale? Elvis Dumervil signed with the Ravens in 2013 because he could reunite with Martindale.
In Denver, Martindale was Dumervil's linebackers coach in 2009 and his defensive coordinator in 2010. When he became a free agent, Dumervil struck an agreement with the Ravens before meeting a team official face-to-face due to his relationship with Martindale.
"We have more of a family-type friendship," Dumervil said. "I’ve always seen him more as a mentor, and he’s always been honest with me. He has always been a straight-shooter, and I’ve always admired that about him."
In their first year together with the Broncos, Martindale told Dumervil that the team drafted defensive end Robert Ayers in the first round for a reason and told him that he would have to beat Jarvis Moss on the other side to get playing time. Dumervil responded by leading the NFL with 17 sacks. When Dumervil went to the Pro Bowl, he brought along Martindale, which was the first time he had taken a coach.
The next year, Martindale became defensive coordinator in Denver, but Dumervil suffered a season-ending pectoral injury in training camp. The Broncos finished last in the league in defense in what was Martindale's only season as an NFL coordinator before this season.
"I'm so happy for him," Dumervil said. "When I was there, we didn't talk about him getting another opportunity. But you can see what he can do with the right players."
Even though he waited eight years for another chance to be a coordinator, Martindale didn't change his up-front approach with players. During Ravens training camp, he put up the position battles on the board. If you were competing for a job, your number was up there alongside the other players competing for the spot. It changed after each practice and each preseason game.
"When you have that, you know where you stand and you're not getting B.S.," Weddle said. "I've never been part of a group so blunt and honest."
In your mug
Martindale is known as "Wink," a nickname that goes back to his playing days at Defiance College. Donald Brown, a roommate and teammate, saw Martindale's name on a duffel bag and made reference to the TV game-show host.
“I wish that I was related to him because I think I would have a big inheritance," Martindale said.
Martindale's funny one-liners have made his weekly media sessions a must-attend event. Throughout the season, he called Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield "this generation's Brett Favre or John Elway" and trolled Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell for his extended absence.
Martindale's personality is reflected in how the Ravens' defense plays. The style is relentless and fearless, with some swag.
In Sunday's win against the Falcons, Baltimore rattled Ryan by sending blitzes from all directions. The NFL's leading passer repeatedly flinched.
The Ravens have a reputation for causing confusion. They'll put all 11 players at the line of scrimmage in their "mug" alignment. Why is it called that?
"Because we get in their mugs," Martindale said.
Martindale is putting together one of the most remarkable seasons by a franchise long defined by defense. The only other time the Ravens finished No. 1 in defense was 2006.
If Baltimore could accomplish this, a portion of that achievement can be traced to Martindale's long truck-driving trips on Midwest interstates.
"That was hard labor," Martindale said. "That's why I think I work as hard as I do as a coach -- because of that foundation."