In tribute: Former Fort Sumner coach made impact

Figuratively, it could be said that Mario Martinez was always looking out for the little guy.

De Baca County News: Scot Stinnett

Mario Martinez is carried to the center of the field by his players immediately following the 28-27 win in the 1995 Class 1A state championship game, the first for Fort Sumner. They were surrounded by the more than 400 Fort Sumner fans who made the 400-plus mile trip for the game.

The fact that his own physical stature was small was certainly no impediment as the former Fort Sumner coach made a major impact throughout the state of New Mexico. And when Martinez passed away last weekend at the age of 58, his loss reached even beyond the state.

"It's definitely going to be a big void," said Robert Zayas, the executive director for New York State Public High School Association.

Zayas made the jump from an associate director at New Mexico Activities Association (NMAA) to heading an organization with approximately six times as many school members. Zayas credited Martinez for helping him make the step effectively.

"It was an incredible experience to work side-by-side with him," said Zayas, who worked in adjacent offices to Martinez. "He was a big mentor of mine. I'd probably talked to him every week since I moved to New York.

"He always said, 'Just make a decision,'" Zayas added. "That was a big piece of advice I got from him."

Martinez attended Springer High School and then the University of New Mexico before criss-crossing the state pursuing a coaching career. His stops included Moriarty, Pojoaque, Tucumcari and Carlsbad, but Martinez' biggest successes came in his old hometown and in Fort Sumner.

At Springer, Martinez coached the Red Devils to a state championship in 1990 after near-misses at the same school in 1988 as well as Pojoaque in 1984.

That was in boys basketball.

What Martinez became known for was an impressive resume of championships at Fort Sumner in football and track.

Starting in 1995, Martinez coached the Foxes to five football state titles in eight years.

"I don't think you can even measure his impact," said Scot Stinnett, publisher of the De Baca County News. "From (the girls state basketball championship in 1979) to the time he got here, nothing. The football team had made the playoffs one time.

"One of the things Mario preached was full participation," Stinnett recalled. "Once he got the numbers, things changed."

Ben Segura, currently the Fort Sumner girls basketball coach, was a senior quarterback on the first Fox football championship team.

Segura remembers a moving 1994 pregame pep talk by Martinez before a September contest with then defending Class 1A champ Loving – when the coach was about to turn around the program.

"He said something that day that is still said at Fort Sumner 10 minutes before game time, 'Fire in your eyes,'" Segura said. "I swear that day he went from five-feet-four to seven-feet-four."

Martinez also coached the Fort Sumner boys to five state titles in track and field – a sport often thought to be one of his biggest passions.

"Track was his biggest deal, by far. He almost always got 100 percent of the students to come out," said Gary Tripp, former executive director for the NMAA. "He was really a gifted track coach."

After Martinez himself joined the activities association as an associate director, he was a strong advocate for the small schools in New Mexico. In fact, his concern for anybody in general outside Albuquerque helped change the format of the state basketball tournament.

Already the largest sports event in New Mexico, the state high school hoops tourney got even bigger when the boys and girls tournaments were scheduled to take place at the same time – at the same location.

"He was the starting point," Tripp said. "He was one of the big proponents of putting it all together because he was concerned that parents couldn't afford to travel back-to-back weekends."

Martinez, who was living in Belen at the time of his death, was laid to rest on Friday in Fort Sumner.

"He was really one of the true coaching leaders," Tripp said. "Also one of my best friends in life."

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