Always The Coach: Mario Martinez

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The day the call came for Mario Martinez to come join the staff of the New Mexico Activities Association, certain things were just a given.

Sumbitted photo: Mario Martinez, left, poses with then-Executive Director of the New Mexico Activities Association, Dan Salzwedel, while receiving a coaching milestone award. The longtime coach and NMAA staff member moved to Rio Communities about eight years ago. He passed away Nov. 25.

First, it was certain that he and his wife, MaryAnn, would not live in Albuquerque. It was way too big of a town.

Second, it was for sure that a golf course would be involved in the choice of residence. A house on the edge of Tierra Del Sol Golf Club was perfect for the Martinez family.

But perfection did not last long enough for a deserving man in retirement. Martinez battled lung cancer for six months before losing the battle on Nov. 25.

The 58-year-old educator, family man, coach and advocate for small schools in his position at the NMAA was laid to rest at the Fort Sumner Cemetery, next to his first wife, Patricia, who preceded him in death on Valentine’s Day 1994.

A coach’s life

Martinez had a distinguished coaching career with stops in Moriarty, Pojoaque, Tucumcari, Carlsbad, Springer and Fort Sumner after graduating from the University of New Mexico in 1979 with a degree in special education.

He was one of only two coaches to win state championships in three sports, joining Ralph Boyer of Carlsbad. Martinez won titles in basketball and track at Springer, and five football state titles, six track and field state championships with Fort Sumner and six track titles with the Foxes.

But according to MaryAnn, it was Mario’s ability to relate with the kids that brought him the most joy.

“He had to prove himself,” said his wife of 12 years. She noted that Fort Sumner had not had success in athletics for decades when Mario arrived.

“The kids were small but he got the best out of them. I hear it all of the time that he taught us life-long lessons.”

He taught special education along with his coaching duties. He had several players with special needs that played for those championship teams.

MaryAnn explained that Mario would carry little reminders or good luck charms with him. He picked up three small lava stones at Patricia’s funeral and kept them as a reminder of his family. He had a sea shell that he got on a trip with MaryAnn that he kept in his pocket.

But most of all, Mario always had coins, one of which had the Serenity Prayer on it. He would always be searching through the couch cushions because he had lost his coins.

One of his special-education students perished in a car wreck. Mario saw the student’s mom in the bank one day shortly thereafter, and gave her his special prayer coin.

“He gave her his coin with the serenity prayer,” said MaryAnn. “He always carried it with him. He said to her, ‘I think you need this more than I do.’”

It was that level of caring for his kids that built lifelong friendships and garnered the dedication and respect of other coaches around the state.

Martinez was elected to the New Mexico High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2008. He will to be inducted into the National High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame in June.

NMAA changes

The one thing that Martinez did not like about the NMAA, before joining the staff in 2004, was that the small schools were often ignored or excluded in many of the considerations for classification and for scheduling of state championships.

Under Gary Tripp’s direction, Martinez sought to change that. Martinez is credited for establishing the eight-man football program in the state, as well as making state championships for the smaller schools highly visible and run like the big school events with all the importance and notoriety of the Class 5A events.

Robert Zayas, now the director for the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, worked side-by-side with Martinez at the NMAA.

“He was big on small schools and not just in the classification numbers, but for all aspects of small schools,” said Zayas. “That was the wonderful thing about Mario is that he was so passionate. He would fight for the small schools.”

Personal appearances from the NMAA staff became a regular occurrence. From Cliff to Quemado, Deming to Logan, the staff would make personal contact with coaches and schools that had not been a part of the NMAA’s activity for years.

It is one of the thing that Zayas has taken with him to New York. The other thing Zayas credits Martinez with teaching him is to be decisive.

“He taught me how to make a decision,” said Zayas. “‘Just make a damn decision,’ and that was just the way Mario said it.”

Zayas credits his mentor — really, his coach — for a lot of his professional methodology and attitude.

“He kind of took me under his wing and we worked together on a lot of different things,” said Zayas. “That was the type of mentality Mario brought. You had to pay attention to people.”

On the right course

Rio Communities became the place that Mario got to live out his vision of a good life. He and MaryAnn built a house right on the golf course so he could hop in his cart and go play his favorite game.

“It was small town,” said Zayas of Martinez’s decision to live in Belen. “It was Mario. He didn’t want to live in Albuquerque. Mario was never one to fit in a big city.”

They decided to look up an old friend, Johnny Apodaca, in Los Lunas, but he wouldn’t have been able to live right next to a golf course.

“You know,” Mario said to MaryAnn. “They have a golf course in (the Belen area), and you could play almost all year round.”

The Martinezes moved to Belen in 2004 and built the house near Tierra Del Sol the next year.

“We had this house built,” said MaryAnn. “He loved his little house. Even though he was from Springer, he loved it here. He made friends everywhere, especially on the golf course.”

One of those friends was Delbert Jaramillo, who lived four house down.

“He would come pick me up on the golf cart and we would play the last three holes going in,” said Jaramillo.

Martinez also mentored Delbert’s daughter, Taylar, a two-time state champion golfer from Belen.

“He taught her mental toughness,” said Delbert. “He talked about giving it your all. He taught her to respect her coaches. He brought the best out of athletes.”

The final lap

Mario loved track and field, and won his last state track championship in 2004 at Fort Sumner. He and Zayas then conducted the small school state track championships until Martinez’s retirement in 2010.

In February, Martinez was diagnosed with lung cancer. He vowed to fight it and not give up.

“This cancer thing is all over (the place),” said MaryAnn. “He has had three friends pass away because of cancer in the last few years.”

But much like his passionate coaching, Mario decided to be positive through the treatment. He would make friends in the doctor’s office while waiting for chemotherapy treatments.

“His faith increased,” said MaryAnn. “He had seen his friends die with cancer. He said he was going into this with a positive attitude.

“There was only one or two days when he was down. For the most part, he was upbeat. He wanted to take it one day at a time and fight this thing.”

An indicator of his strength was that he kept on playing golf and doing his daily activities and no one was the wiser.

“It was really quick,” said Zayas. “He didn’t tell anyone at the time. It unfortunately took it very quickly.”

Martinez died not from the cancer, but as a by-product of the chemotherapy, which resulted in pulmonary fibrosis, an inflammation of the lining of the lungs.

“I miss him a lot,” said Delbert Jaramillo. “I haven’t played golf much since he died. I always played with him. We often shared a cart. It is not the same.”

Zayas stayed in contact with Mario, and now MaryAnn, after departing for New York in August.

“The very last day I was in Albuquerque,” said Zayas, “I had breakfast with Mario. It was important to me to see him that last day.”

Zayas did not know then how serious the fight was between Mario and the cancer.

“He was one of the funniest guys to be around,” Zayas said. “If you were going to spend the day with him, you were going to laugh.”

Maryann added, “When you met him, you didn’t forget him. He always had one little line that you would always remember. He would make friends easily. He was always passionate about things.”

Zayas said that compassion and passion defined his friend and mentor.

“When there was work to be done, he was always the one who was the driving force behind getting things done,” said Zayas. “Most of all, he was always the coach.”


-- Email the author at mstearns@news-bulletin.com.