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Mario Martinez, the Strongest Mexican-American in History (Part I)

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  • Mario Martinez, the Strongest Mexican-American in History (Part I)

    This is a two-part piece inspired by my having attended the memorial service of Mario Martinez, who passed away on January 14, 2018.
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    How do you define strength?

    Is it how big your muscles are?

    Is it how tough you are, how macho?

    Is it how much you can Bench Press? Deadlift? Squat? How well you do in "Strongman" competitions? Or, is it how much weight you can put overhead?

    At a funeral on January 19, 2018, I witnessed a remarkable show of strength by family, friends, and fans of America's best Olympic Weightlifter of the last 40 years, Mario Martinez. I wish Donald Trump had been there. It would have been world-transforming.

    But, alas, Donald Trump was not there. There were close to 300 people who were, and for them, it was an exceptional celebration of the life of a quiet, humble, extraordinary man.

    I only met Mario Martinez on one occasion. In August, 2013, he was inducted into the Salinas Valley Sports Hall of Fame's inaugural class. This fellow Salinas native wanted to congratulate him. My son, an "Elite" powerlifter, drove over 80 miles to be there with me. You see, 25 years earlier, my son met Mario at "Northridge Mall" in Salinas. At the inaugural banquet, we brought a Polaroid photo of my then-kindergartner being held by Mario. When we found the Martinez table, filled with family, lifters, and long-time coach-mentor-friend of Mario's, Jim Schmitz, we gave it to Mario, figuring it would generate a chuckle. That it did, and about a half hour later, his daughter Annette Martinez, still a teen, came by with the photo to see what the little kid looked like now. The photo was taken almost a decade before she was born, and she was truly entertained, asking when, where, and other details.

    Honestly, I was surprised that Mario was chosen in the first year of the HOF's existence. Weightlifting is not a glamour sport, and many of the best lifters in America live in unrecognized anonymity. It had been close to 30 years since the Los Angeles Olympics, and Soldedad-raised Mario had lived 100 miles north of Salinas longer than that. The Hall of Fame was mainly full of local athletes who later played a few years of professional "mainstream" sports, coaches who served the community for decades, and legends known only to those with long memories. Luckily, a key committee member grew up near Bruce Wilhelm, and by knowing just a little about the sport, was not going to let the Salinas Valley's most qualified athlete fall through the cracks.

    To my son and I, Mario had "rock star" status. We were there because we were part of the "Iron Game", and he was our man. The local television station's sports anchor had the task of reading all inductees' names and accomplishments as each inductee or their surviving family member representative came forward, stepped onto the platform, received due recognition, had their photo taken, and returned to their seat. Because of such a large number of inductees that evening (21), sports anchor Dennis Lehnen delivered the resumes at a rapid-fire pace; otherwise, it was going to be a long night.

    As each new name was read, fans of the athlete would cheer. The more fans present, the more rabid the reaction. When Mario's name was called, the applause was lukewarm. Then Lehnen began his machine-gun burst. Three Olympic teams, Silver medalist at the 1984 LA Olympics, Pan American Champion and multiple Pan Am Games medalist, holder of numerous American records, etc. When Lehnen said "10 time National Champion", there was a collective "group gasp" in the house. Until that moment, most of the audience simply had no idea. All it took was 90 seconds for the locals to begin to appreciate what they had in their own backyard all these years. To say it was powerful, and made you feel good, would be an understatement.

    Later in the evening, the "Wall of Fame" was unveiled. Permanently attached to a concrete wall in Rabobank Stadium in Salinas are sturdy biographical plaques of each HOF member, with their photo securely implanted. Mario's "action shot" with barbell triumphantly overhead while setting an American record at Jim Schmitz's Sports Palace in San Francisco, four years and 40 plaques later, is, well, let's just say that to this writer, by far the coolest of the bunch.

    But the most personally satisfying moment for me came shortly after the curtain was pulled away from the plaques. Television man Dennis excitedly called out and motioned for Mario to have his picture taken with Del Rodgers and Anthony Toney in front of the wall. Both fellows were NFL running backs during the 1980s, and hearing Lehnen yelling "Hey! Let's get Mario's picture with Anthony and Del!", made you feel good. In one hour Mario had moved from obscure weightlifter to the status of NFL running back. He was a Rock Star!

    My son and I were among the last to leave that night, and we headed to the parking lot at the same time as Mario. We chit-chatted a little, and Mario at some point asked Andy what his best squat was. At the time, I believe it was 530 lbs., and Mario responded with "I did 630...front squat" in a matter-of-fact and (almost) humble manner. Both my son and I cheerfully practically choked. What do you say? "Pretty good"? It seemed like he just wanted to tell something to someone who could appreciate it. It was a nice way for us to end the evening. We got into our car with a good feeling about Mario, and looked forward to our paths crossing again.

    Part II: What I learned from a memorial service