Arturo Martinez was a sports-loving ninth grader at Belen Jesuit in Miami, pulling straight A’s while running cross-country and playing basketball, when doctors removed a golf ball-sized tumor near his jawline. Days later, the pathology report devastated his family: Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Stage 4.
The cancer had invaded his groin, armpits and both sides of his neck, and he faced a brutal regimen of chemotherapy and radiation.
But Martinez, being a 14-year-old kid, just wanted to know one thing: “Can I still play basketball?”
Six years after surviving that crucible, Martinez, 20, now a strapping six-foot-four, 250-pounder, will wear the traditional blue and gold of the Fighting Irish when undefeated, top-ranked Notre Dame sprints onto the field before Monday’s BCS National Championship Game at Sun Life Stadium.
Martinez is the Miami feel-good story of this title game. The Cuban American made the college football team as a walk-on — a non-scholarship nobody — after playing just one year of high school football. And he did it at Notre Dame, the storied campus where a slow, undersized kid named Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger forged a similar path and then, through an unlikely sequence of events, entered a game on the final play of his final season, tackling the ball carrier as his dad watched from the stands.
Like the other guys
In the movie version, Rudy is carried off the field by his teammates, a scene that makes grown men cry.
And yet Rudy, for all his gritty exploits, never had to stare down cancer as a 14-year-old boy.
You won’t see Martinez in the game Monday. It is too big a stage. The defensive end, a junior, has never played a snap in an official game during two years on the roster. But if you get there early enough, you’ll see No. 86, that’s him, “working up a sweat” with the rest of the Irish during warm-ups.
“It will be 20 minutes of being just like the other guys,’’ Martinez said of his time on the field, to be witnessed by his parents, younger sister, cousin and grandparents. “I’ll look up and see an ocean of people for the national championship game in my own backyard. And I’ll be thinking, ‘I used to sit in those stands.’
“That’s really cool.’’
Those who know him attest that Martinez is a young man of extraordinary character: smart, kind-hearted, spiritual, hard-working, motivated, upbeat. All that and handsome, too.
And like Ruettiger, whose story further mythologized Notre Dame, college football and the role of the humble walk-on, Martinez is inspirational.
“I call him Rudolfo,’’ said Arturo Martinez Jr., Art’s father. “He’s our miracle.’’
Walk-ons in college football are players who aren’t awarded scholarships for their athletic prowess and must try out, or are invited, for a place on the team. If they earn that spot, which, in an elite program such as Notre Dame’s is exceedingly difficult, their main responsibility is to prepare teammates for each week’s game by mimicking the schemes and tendencies of the next opponent during practice.
In other words, they serve as human tackling sleds on which the stars hone their craft.
Martinez and the other dozen or so walk-ons, some of whom occasionally get in a game, are required to follow the same rules and do the same amount of work as the scholarship players.