The Daily Illini

Isaiah Martinez wrestles with the loss of his father

By Kevin McCarthy

Isaiah Martinez is a beast.

He looks like a man sculpted out of marble — a perfectly chiseled 157 pounds that would make Michelangelo proud. Admittedly, he’s not the most technically sound wrestler. But what he lacks in technique on the mat, he makes up for with exceptional strength.

The hulking sophomore walloped opponents all season long in 2014-2015 en route to an undefeated season and a national title in his redshirt freshman year.

Martinez’s physical prowess is evident, but his real strength lies between his ears. Flip your Oxford dictionary to the word “strength.” Slide your finger down to the third definition.

“The emotional or mental qualities necessary in dealing with situations or events that are distressing or difficult.”

Martinez’s mental strength has been tested since he learned his stepfather, Alfred Garcia, was diagnosed with cancer on Sept. 3, 2014.

Garcia came into his life when Martinez was just a year old.

“Isaiah was Alfred’s everything,” Isaiah’s mother, Yvonne Martinez, explained. “He was very, very special to him. They were always so close.”

To Isaiah, Garcia was his dad, his coach and his biggest fan.

As the months dragged on, Isaiah knew that the man who had taught him all he knew on the mat could pass away at any moment. Regardless, Isaiah kept on working his tail off, because that’s what his father wanted.

His father’s diagnosis fueled his fire all the way to winning a national championship. Each of his 35 straight victories were for his dad. Each win lead him a little bit closer to the moment that he had longed for.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock in St. Louis on Mar. 21, Martinez defeated Cornell’s Brian Realbuto to be crowned champion of the 157-pound weight class. The memory of what came next will never fade from Isaiah’s mind.

His father wrapped him up in his arms in the sweetest bear-hug in wrestling history — it was the culmination of years of dedication to the sport. The ESPN cameras caught the moment, but a camera could never do justice to the emotion behind the embrace.

The snapshot of that father-son moment resurfaced just a month ago, but for all the wrong reasons.

His father’s 14-month fight was over.

More Than a Dad

On Oct. 29, Isaiah tweeted the photo, captioning it, “This morning my pops passed away. Thank you for making me the man I am today. I love you and I will always miss you.”

For both Isaiah and his father, that moment in St. Louis was truly special.

“It was our signature moment,” Martinez explained. “That picture exemplifies what it meant to me and what it meant to him. We could finally say, ‘We did it.’”

It’s ironic that Isaiah used the pronoun “we” to describe winning a national championship. The word came up time and time again during our interview. While it was Isaiah who had his hand lifted in victory 35 straight times, his father played a critical role in each win.

It was their championship. Isaiah couldn’t have done it without his pops.

His father introduced him to the sport and coached him out on the mat through eighth grade. Isaiah told me stories of the many times they drilled moves in the family living room after practice. They drilled the same moves over and over again — sometimes this practice lasted for hours.

Once he could no longer coach his son, Garcia became Isaiah’s biggest fan. But his coaching mentality never left; Garcia would research and watch film on Martinez’s upcoming opponents and call Isaiah to prepare him for what moves to expect from his Big Ten foes.

“He and his father were unbelievably close. This sport has done so much for them and brought them so close together,” Illinois head coach Jim Heffernan explained. “They’ve had conversations about Isaiah’s goals and dreams. I think Isaiah’s mindset right now is to exceed whatever expectations they made together.”

Junior Zac Brunson echoed his coach’s thoughts about his teammate and roommate.

“His Dad has been his motivation his whole life,” Brunson said. “He was a huge motivation for him last season. I think he’s going to continue to succeed because the memories of his dad will continue to motivate him for the rest of his life.”

Those memories are vivid in Isaiah’s mind. Whether it was an anecdote about making weight and celebrating with his pops with some Long John Silver’s, or stories of simple phone calls he used to receive from him — one thing was clear: his dad made him happy. The beaming, contagious smile on Isaiah’s face when he was recalling old memories of his father made that very clear.

His Father’s Joy

“I wish I could ask him what the national championship meant to him. I never really did,” Martinez explained. “But, he told me one time, ‘Son, it makes me happy when you win.’”

With that in mind, his father’s final year must’ve been one filled with joy as he watched his son clobber 35 straight opponents. Garcia had a lot to cheer about — his son had become the first freshman to go undefeated since Iowa State legend Cael Sanderson in 1999.

Sanderson went on to be the most decorated wrestler in the history of collegiate wrestling — winning four straight national titles with a record of 159-0. In an interview with Martinez at the end of last season, I asked Martinez about the comparison to Sanderson.

“I want to exceed him, honestly. I look to someone like that and I want to emulate what he did, but it’s about setting your own legacy,” Martinez explained. “I want my name to come out and people to be like, ‘He was better than Cael Sanderson.’ I have a long way to go. It’s gonna be very hard. But if I stay the course, I don’t see why I can’t do it.”

That quote perfectly embodies who Isaiah Martinez is: bold, confident and determined.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen a more motivated kid in my 28 years of coaching,” Heffernan said.

The combination of motivation and an unbelievable work ethic has lead Isaiah to the peak of collegiate wrestling. If you thought he was motivated to win for his pops last year, just wait until he struts out on 2015-16’s biggest wrestling stages.

Isaiah is going to miss the phone calls, the hugs and the many memories he shared with his biggest fan. But, he’ll never forget all that his father gave him.

To close our interview together, I asked Isaiah to briefly articulate what his father means to him.

He stared blankly at the ground for 16 seconds of straight silence — count to 16, that’s a long time — exploring his brain to find the right words.

“Without him, I wouldn’t be at the University, I wouldn’t be a wrestler, I wouldn’t have all these things,” Isaiah finally said. “I wouldn’t have the kind of drive or the focus. I can’t imagine my life without him.”

Isaiah squared up with some of the best wrestlers in the nation last season. But, wrestling with the loss of his former coach, friend and biggest fan may be his toughest test to date.fm

Kevin is a sophomore in Media.

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