“At that point our motto was, ‘We surrender,’ ” Eliana said. “When you’re always protecting your child and suddenly he has cancer, you know you can’t protect him any longer.’’
Martinez was far from a star as a high school senior — he caught one pass in 15 games — but he started much of the season, served as an inspiration and helped lead the Wolverines to the Class 3A state championship game. They lost, but Martinez had already won his battle.
“We knew what a great kid he was — big, strong, smart,’’ said Belen football coach Rich Stuart, who said Martinez “really fell in love with the sport,’’ never used his cancer as an excuse and just wanted to contribute and be with the other kids. “He’s the type of kid every coach needs.”
After he got accepted to Notre Dame, Martinez, an accounting major, had no intention of playing football for the Fighting Irish — until he attended his first football game in South Bend, Ind., as a freshman.
“I thought to myself that I had been given my health and needed to take full advantage of it,’’ Martinez said. “There are kids sitting in that chemotherapy room right now, wishing they had the energy to play a sport or even walk a couple blocks. I had to do this, not only for me but for them.’’
So, the college freshman gave away his season tickets.
“I told myself, ‘I will not come back to this stadium unless it is with a helmet and pads.’ ’’
Darin Thomas, a former Notre Dame physical education professor and current strength and conditioning coach for Muhlenburg College in Allentown, Pa., learned of Martinez’s ambition and trained him for free.
After about seven months, Thomas suggested that Martinez send his game tapes to the Notre Dame coaches. It was only then that Thomas learned Martinez had overcome cancer.
“To be honest with you, I was totally shocked,’’ Thomas said. “I’ve been around a lot of good kids in my life, but this is one of the best. He’s genuine, and he has an unbelievable work ethic. This guy is legit.’’
‘I had chills’
When Martinez was finally told just a few days before the end of his freshman year that he had made the team, he called his mother, who was getting a manicure. She screamed the news inside her beauty parlor.
“I had chills,’’ she said.
Martinez has a long scar that runs behind his ear and down his neck, but said he never broadcast his cancer story to his coaches and Notre Dame teammates because “I didn’t want to be treated differently.”
Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert, an All-American who is projected to be taken in the first round of the upcoming NFL Draft, has a locker near Martinez’s and became friends with him last year.
“He’s a very thoughtful person, and has always had a great attitude,’’ Eifert said. “I noticed the scar last year and it came up in conversation. I could never do what he does as a walk-on. I love football, but when times are tough and you don’t want to get up for practice, you have a little more motivation knowing your schooling is paid for.
“To know you’re probably not going to get in a game and to be that devoted anyway is unbelievable.’’
It’s not as if Martinez has missed all the benefits of being a scholarship player. He dresses in his uniform for home games. He also accompanied the team to Ireland to play Navy in the season opener and to Chicago to play Miami in October. Not to mention the most important game of his career on Monday in his home town.
There’s always next year to fulfill his dream of getting in a game. But should Notre Dame win its first national title in 24 years, Martinez will earn another coveted honor.
“Hopefully I get that championship ring,’’ he said. “I’m thinking about wearing it for accounting interviews.’’