“Our defense is known for not giving up a lot of yards-after-tackle, and part of the reason is because people like me are the ones getting hammered on a day-to-day basis,’’ said Martinez, whose team is No. 1 in the nation in points allowed per game and No. 6 in yards allowed. “The starters practice on people like us — and some of them really get into it.’’
After what Martinez endured as a freshman at Belen, the pounding probably seems tame.
He and his parents first discovered the small lump between his jawline and left ear when he was in fourth grade. Multiple tests proved negative, his mother, Eliana Martinez, said. But in ninth grade, they opted to have the lump removed, “a very dangerous surgery because it was near the carotid artery,’’ said Eliana, who teaches gifted fifth graders at South Miami K-8 Center. That’s the artery that carries oxygenated blood to the neck and the head.
Doctors removed the tumor, and a week and a half later came the horrifying diagnosis. According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for those with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s is 65 percent.
When Baptist Hospital pediatric oncologist Doured Daghistani delivered the news, Martinez, a teenager who ran six miles a day for his cross-country team and started for his junior varsity basketball team, didn’t ask if he was going to die. Instead, his mind skipped to basketball.
Daghistani, who goes by “Dr. D,’’ said he wasn’t surprised.
“Teenagers in general feel like they’re eternal and nothing can hurt them,’’ Daghistani said.
“Art is a special kid with a very sweet personality. I’m very proud of him. But now I have to make an effort to give him a hug. He’s so big I can’t even put my arms around him.’’
Martinez visited Daghistani for a routine checkup in late December, when Dr. D informed him he was “a long-term survivor.’’ He already knew.
Art’s final chemotherapy drip was Feb. 7, 2007. He had radiation until April 2007.
And he did play basketball that season, practicing regularly but competing for only about four minutes a game.
“It was extremely hard — double vision, close to passing out, vomiting before and after practice,’’ he said. “But the emotional high sports gave me outweighed the physical low. My teammates and coaches rallied around me. Being part of something that felt normal was so important.’’
The Belen cross-country team, which finished the season without Martinez, won the state championship and dedicated the accomplishment to Martinez, whose name hangs on the state banner.
“An amazing, amazing person,’’ said Belen coach Frankie Ruiz.
Martinez was losing his hair in clumps until his father, a CPA in Coral Gables, took him and his closest friend — cousin James Liebler — to a barber shop to get his head shaved.
“That’s when I really cried,’’ said Art’s dad.
Said Eliana: “Art kept a smile on his face. He kept us strong.’’
Fast forward three years, to when Martinez was a Belen senior. He had never played football because his parents were worried he’d get hurt. But finally his mom and dad gave in.