Undefeated: Miami Belen grad beats cancer and the odds to play for Notre Dame

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.

“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.

Double vision

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.

“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.’’

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