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Did an NFL linebacker really give up football for Pokémon cards?

It’s more likely than you think

Image of Las Vegas Raiders linebacker Blake Martinez in his last game, a loss to Jacksonville at TIAA Bank Field on Nov. 6, 2022 Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

As second acts for former pro football players go, it’s hard to beat collecting — and flipping — Pokémon cards worth six figure sums.

It’s certainly better than getting jerked around by lousy teams, which is where Blake Martinez found himself for a second straight year. At the end of October, the seventh-year linebacker out of Stanford sold a rare Pokémon card at auction for $672,000.

Ten days later, Martinez, 28, a starter who had just signed with the Las Vegas Raiders, retired from the NFL.

Did pocketing $600 grand for a Pokémon card really sway a pro football player into early retirement? We’ve reached out to Martinez to ask him that directly, but frankly, it seems plausible! Considering Martinez’ specific circumstances, anyway.

The timeline

Back at the beginning of August, Martinez hosted a mystery bag unpacking of his Pokémon trading cards, which he began collecting as a kid. “Look what I found in my basement!!” he said on Instagram, brandishing the “Swirllustrator,” an extremely rare, Japan-only holographic card starring Pikachu; professional graders say fewer than 40 are known to exist. The same type of card sold for $900,000 back in February.

At the time Martinez revealed the card — we’ve asked when he actually acquired it, and for how much — he was still a member of the New York Giants. Martinez tore knee ligaments three games into the 2021 season, and headed into training camp in the third year of a $30.7 million contract with the Giants. However, only $19 million of that was guaranteed, and with that already paid, it meant the Giants could cut him outright, as if he was a rookie trying to make the team. So they did.

When did Martinez actually get this card?

In an Instagram video posted Oct. 25, Martinez said he began collecting Pokémon cards when he was 6 years old, got away from the hobby sometime during his childhood, then got back into it, like many people did, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At first he went to find his childhood collection but discovered that his mom — in a story so common it’s almost cliché — had given them away or thrown them out. He got serious enough about collecting Pokémon that he started a “breaks” business (a dealer solicits buyers for a box of unopened cards, then opens them, and the buyers are awarded the contents. The opening is usually done in an online event.)

Through this, he met a dealer of rare items. “He presented me a bunch of different trophy cards, and the Swirllustrator was one of them,” Martinez said. He didn’t say how much he paid for it. (Martinez calls it the “Swirllustrator” because of two small swirls in the artwork that distinguish the card.)

Is it really worth more than an NFL starter makes?

On Oct. 4, the Raiders picked up Martinez for a one-year, $1.12 million deal, none of that guaranteed. Around this time, Martinez’s Pokémon Illustrator came back graded a 9.5, “Gem Mint” in card collectors’ parlance. The Illustrator that sold for $900,000 in February was graded a 7.5. Martinez quite reasonably believed he had a card worth more than his deal with the Raiders.

Martinez, in a meeting at Pawn Stars’ Gold & Silver Pawn on Oct. 27, speculated that it could fetch $1.5 million at auction. (Austin “Chumlee” Russell, a Pokémon collector himself, said only it was “Out of my league.”) By then Martinez had listed it with Goldin, a nationwide auctioneer of high-value collectibles. The winning bid claimed Martinez’s card for $672,000 — a nice payday, but somewhat disappointing in light of the Feb. 28 sale. Then again, Pokémon trading cards have been an extremely volatile market since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when celebrities get involved.

More importantly, if Martinez actually started a business to nurture his interest in Pokémon card collecting, that could have been the tipping point to calling it a career — especially given his injury history, the potential for more (and worse), and the lack of guaranteed money.

Did Blake Martinez really retire after selling this card?

Yes, but not immediately. The card sold Oct. 29; Martinez started the Raiders’ next game, a 24-0 loss at New Orleans, then came in off the bench Nov. 6 to rack up 11 tackles, playing all but seven of his team’s snaps on defense.

With the incumbent starter on the injured list, Martinez looked to be getting a lot more playing time. Whether this was a pro or con in his eyes is unknown. On Nov. 10, he retired, a day after missing practice “due to personal reasons.”

Although not common, it’s also not rare for NFL players to retire in their prime — particularly at high-impact positions. Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly retired at age 28 after an eight-year career that included five first-team All-Pro selections.

San Francisco linebacker Chris Borland retired in 2015 after just one year in the league, concluding the risks to his long-term health weren’t worth it. Linebacker teammate Patrick Willis soon followed at age 30.

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