Nobody wants to be diagnosed with cancer, Lord knows, least of all a 14-year-old boy who is crazy about basketball. But those were the cards dealt to Arturo Martinez (MSA ’15, BBA ACCT ’14), now a healthy 22-year-old, former Notre Dame football player and an Ernst and Young Scholar completing the Master of Science in Accountancy. He responded to cancer as if it were a double-dog dare, as if it would take the full measure of his character. And he was determined not to be found wanting.
That resolve started in the oncologist’s office when he was told he had a very aggressive Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system. (The five-year survival rate for stage four diagnosis such as Martinez’s was 65 percent.) His single question to the doctor regarding the chemotherapy that would begin immediately was this: “Can I still play basketball?”
That question broke through the tension in the room. Everyone laughed. But Martinez could see the doctor didn’t think he’d be able to keep up with the sport. “Being the competitive person that I am, I was determined to play,” he says.
That was the start of a stunning self-awareness that went well beyond wanting to prove the doctor wrong. “Cancer brings a lot of attention to you — not just because you’re bald, but because everybody in your community knows and looks at you differently,” he says.
Some days, he was so nauseous and weak that he had to lean on his dad to walk out of a room. But through the entire course of treatment, on the days he wasn’t getting chemo, he went to his classes at Belen Jesuit high school in Miami. Even though he had double vision and could only run up and down the court a couple of times before he was exhausted, he played basketball. And even though he was only 14, he started contemplating what his mission was on earth and what God wanted from him.
If he was going to be in the spotlight, so be it. He would use that attention to be an instrument for God and an example to his friends, classmates and teammates that you can overcome whatever comes your way.
He had strong role models for that willpower in his paternal grandparents, who were just young adults when they fled Cuba in the early 1960s. “They left with nothing,” says Martinez. “They had to learn English and do college over again.” They still maintain an immigrant’s perspective toward buying things and saving, which Martinez feels carried down to him. “Especially in a place like Miami,” he says, “where there’s a lot of excess and material- ism. I didn’t have as much an appreciation for expensive things growing up. My grandparents don’t buy Mercedes or BMWs. A car is just a car.”
Even though he was only 14, he started contemplating what his mission was on earth and what God wanted from him.
With the successful treatment of his cancer, Martinez didn’t abandon his deep sense of purpose. (He still quietly celebrates February 7 each year, the day of his last chemo treatment.)
Cut to freshman year at Notre Dame. It was the first home football game of the season. The campus was electric. Martinez could feel it, and it just wasn’t enough for him to be sitting in the stands. “I’m a healthy body,” he thought. “I don’t like just watch- ing. I want to be a part of it.”
He decided then and there that he would train hard and try out for next year’s Fighting Irish. He gave away his tickets — determined not to come back to a game unless he was part
of the team. He started a training regimen, based on YouTube videos. Eventually he connected with Darin Thomas, a former strength and conditioning coach who was with Notre Dame’s physical education department at the time. Thomas agreed to take Martinez under his wing, provided Martinez followed his every instruction.
Soon, Martinez was training two to three hours each day, stretching, swimming, lifting, conditioning — between classes and his odd jobs on campus.
All this time, once a week, he sent an email to the Irish football department, expressing his interest in trying out for the team. Finally, his emails — and prayers — were answered. In the spring of his sophomore year, Martinez was invited to join the team. Most of his three years were spent helping as a defensive lineman on the scrimmage squad. And that was fine with him.
In Martinez’s senior year, he became a resident assistant at Alumni Hall, which became a catalyst for him to look deeper into his faith. “Seeing how the director, Father George [Rozum, CSC], trusted me to do the job of looking out for these guys and providing an example to them made me start looking at what I needed to change in my life,” he says. “I told him at end of year I was like a lost sheep and he was the shepherd that came and got me. I started reading spiritual books every day. I tell people the Bible is the manual for your life. It’s very relevant.”
In fact, Martinez started a weekly group called Scripture Off the Grid in the basement of the dorm to study the Gospel for the upcoming Sunday. “It was a very relaxed environment,” he says. “Father George liked it, so he’d fund pizza and ice cream. We averaged about nine guys, but sometimes we had as many as 20.” At home for the summer, he invited friends over to smoke cigars out on his patio, read the Gospel and talk about it.
Martinez was granted a rare exemption to continue with varsity athletics while working as an RA. In January 2013, he was thrilled to travel with the team to the national championship game against Alabama in Miami, his hometown. During that homecoming, Number 86 visited kids in the cancer ward. “God gave me the gift of life and the gift of health, and there’s a reason he gave me all that, there’s a reason why he put me on that team, and there’s a reason why the national championship was in Miami,” he says.
The trip home brought him full circle. Although he had been called upon often in the intervening years to reach out to a child with cancer, this time he was able to talk about being a walk-on to the Notre Dame team. “Not so that I can beat my chest, but because the kids could see, this guy right here, he actually went through cancer,” he says. “I showed them a picture of what I looked like when I was sick. I was bald and had no eyebrows. ‘I was like you,’ I told them. ‘But I didn’t let this cancer stop me. And you’re going to do that, too.’”
Soon, Martinez will be back in Miami, working for Ernst and Young in its transactions practice, where he’ll deal with mergers and acquisitions. He’ll continue to visit children in the hospital, as well as do motivational speaking when called upon.
But he’s thinking about what it is he’ll be bringing to the business world, the same way he thought about what he stood for when he was undergoing cancer treatment, what he stood for when he trained to win a walk-on spot on the football team, what he stands for every time he tells another person his story.
“Maybe that’s why God gave me a position in the business world today,” he says. “Maybe that’s where it’s important to be a person that lives out his Catholic virtues and values. Maybe that’s where I can do the most good.”
Originally published by Sally Anne Flecker at bizmagazine.nd.edu in Spring 2015.