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Life coach

Even as Martinez’s health fails, he’s there to help Brady

Tom Brady and Tom Martinez have always had more than a passing connection. Tom Brady and Tom Martinez have always had more than a passing connection. (Karen t. borchers/Mercury news)
By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / January 28, 2012
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REDWOOD CITY, Calif. - The needles have been removed from his arms, the blue and red tubes pushed away. Tom Martinez, his eyes closing, sits on the edge of the uncomfortable beige chair next to the dialysis machine that filters out toxins four hours a day, four days a week.

His wife, Olivia, holds his hand as he stands up, a bit unsteady, and helps his arm through his blue warm-up jacket. She fixes the collar.

They celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary just three days earlier with football and pizza as Martinez watched his star pupil, Tom Brady, reach his fifth Super Bowl.

Martinez - who has coached Brady since the Patriots quarterback was 13 years old - was given less than a month to live back in June, a death sentence that forced the family to set its affairs in order.

Martinez got a reprieve soon after. A faulty pacemaker was identified and removed, and a new drug, midodrine, was added to raise his blood pressure high enough to keep him on dialysis. And yet, without a new kidney, he would only have three months to a year to live.

That was seven months ago.

“I just try to wait,’’ said Martinez, 66. “Occupy my mind with silly things like football.’’

He spends those four days a week here, at Satellite Dialysis. Another day is lost to doctor’s appointments. His life is consumed by his disease, brought on by diabetes, by all the hope that so far has mostly been in vain.

“It’s pretty invasive of your time,’’ Martinez said. “But the alternative is you don’t live. So you understand the severity of not getting this - which is you die.’’

Fighting chance

Johns Hopkins could call at any moment. The phone could ring and his life could change, a donor identified and matched, his dreams answered. It needs to happen soon.

There are 60 potential donors lined up, the result of a series of posts that Brady put on Facebook, urging people to be tested through MatchingDonors.com to see if they are a match. That fact brightens a situation that seemed lost not long ago, when Martinez was rejected for transplant by UCLA - something that still makes him angry.

“It’s really exciting and yet I don’t want to get too optimistic because I have before and then it didn’t work,’’ Martinez said. “In the back of my mind I’m really excited and in the front of my mind I’m saying, ‘Be careful, don’t buy in too much.’ I don’t want to go through that again.’’

They don’t want to. They can’t. Plus, they know Martinez’s time is limited. There is only so much longer the dialysis machines can keep him going.

“What’s so important about people like Paul Dooley [CEO and co-founder of MatchingDonors.com] is that the transplant doesn’t save me, it saves our family,’’ Martinez said. “Somebody has to drive me here. Somebody has to come pick me up.

“So when they save one of these lives, they’re saving a family’s life. They’re saving mine and hers [Olivia] and our daughter’s.’’

He mentions how much time Olivia has spent nursing him, giving up her job as a school administrator. She says, “Hopefully not too much longer.’’

“Are you hoping I die?’’ Martinez jokes.

“Either way,’’ she says, with a smile.

There is humor sometimes, even in this sterile room in the dialysis center, surrounded by patients waiting for their own kidneys, attached to their own machines. They call Martinez “Coach’’ as they shuffle by.

“We have six grandchildren and every time I see them I want to teach them how to throw,’’ Martinez said. “And they’re starting to ask me. When they look in your eyes at 4 or 5 years old, you say, ‘I’ve got to be here for this.’ So many times that’s the motivator that really keeps me going, looking in their eyes.’

The drugs and the dialysis have kept him alive. The football, too.

“I always preached as a coach that you never quit, that you battle to the end,’’ Martinez said. “And so I’ve brought that to my own life as it stands now, that I’m not going to give in. I have to keep fighting and at some point my body will probably say, this is it, enough’s enough.

“One thing that I believe is that there’s nothing stamped on your foot when you’re going to go. So you fight as long as it takes and as hard as it takes until it’s over.’’

Special bond

There is another child. He’s grown now, 34 years old, and preparing to lead the Patriots against the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI Feb. 5. Brady learned from Martinez, followed Martinez, and now is trying to help Martinez save his life.

“He’s been a great friend of mine for a long time,’’ Brady said. “He taught me how to throw the football at a very young age. A lot of people are looking for kidneys or some different type of transplants, but he’s very deserving. He’s a great man.’’

And Martinez, who spent day after day working with Brady on his mechanics, teaching him the basics of being a quarterback, getting him to understand the tiniest details, has always appreciated their relationship.

“It’s just so gratifying to look in his eyes and see the appreciation and see the love,’’ said Martinez, who coached three sports at the College of San Mateo. “One thing that we do is at the end of every text we write ‘Love you’ or something. Men don’t do that. It’s just very special.

“I’m not his dad. I’m not trying to be his dad. I have three children. So I have enough children. And yet, there’s something very, very, very special about our relationship. It’s hard to explain. I think he would do anything for me and I’d do anything for him.’’

Like travel to meet Brady twice this season, despite the dialysis, despite the weakening of his body, despite the risks. Martinez journeyed to Boston before the start of the season to help his friend correct mechanical issues that had cropped up in preseason. He journeyed to meet Brady a second time, in a road city, though he declined to name the location.

When Brady calls, Martinez never says no.

And after each time they meet - the corrections made - Brady excels. In the opener against Miami, he threw for 517 yards and four touchdowns. That’s why Brady makes the calls, why he uses the figurative pay phone quarters given to him by Martinez, who vows to always pick up the phone when one of his quarterbacks calls for help but who vows never to initiate.

Martinez was watching the AFC title game against the Ravens, evaluating. And when he heard Brady beating himself up after the game, saying, “I sucked pretty bad today,’’ Martinez could only shake his head.

“You have to know him to understand that his standards are so high, he’s like the kid who gets 99 and he’s upset because he missed one,’’ Martinez said. “There’s a whole lot of people in life [who say], ‘I got an A, 91,’ well, he wants to get 100. If he gets 99, he’ll take it, but if he starts getting 95s, which is still an A, then he’s [upset].’’

He tries not to be Brady’s cheerleader; the quarterback has more than enough of those. But in this case, he e-mailed back to tell Brady to lay off himself, to give himself a break. The QB had set such a high standard the week before with a stellar performance against the Broncos, and went up against an exceptional Ravens defense. For now, Martinez said, focus on the fact that he beat a great team. Mechanical adjustments will come later in the week.

“Working with Tommy Brady has been a godsend,’’ Olivia said. “It keeps [Martinez] going, gives him something to look forward to. He has this group of young men of all ages [that he coaches]. It invigorates him. They help him with the wheelchair; they help him with the walker. He’s slow and he has to sit. They don’t care. They just hang on every word.

“I think that keeps him going.’’

Someone always seems to call, always seems to need help. Martinez is, after all, one of the best quarterback coaches in the country. As Steve Clarkson, a fellow quarterback coach, said, “He doesn’t get nearly as much credit as he should. Tom Brady calls him for a reason.

“I think as much as Tom needs Coach, Coach needs Tom, and I think they feed off of each other in that regard and their relationship is truly unique.’’

Olivia remembers the last time Martinez flew to help Brady. She was waiting for them, and they had just finished. Martinez was sitting on his walker, while Brady sat on the ground, legs crossed, looking up at his mentor. He was, as she said, listening to every word, taking it all in - the perfect picture of a teacher and a student.

“He’s a dear friend who has enabled our son to accomplish everything that he ever hoped he could accomplish in his life,’’ said Tom Brady Sr., who has known Martinez for 50 years, since the two had summer jobs in Daly City together. “Without Tom Martinez, this would not have been possible.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.

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