Martinez’s Path to Payton Nomination Started with Death of Best Friend
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Blake Martinez’s childhood best friend – “my first best friend” – died of cancer when they were high school freshmen in Tucson, Ariz.
On Thursday, the NFL announced Martinez was the Green Bay Packers’ nominee for the prestigious Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Martinez’s path to the man he is today begins with the friendship and premature death of Richard Blau.
“In third grade, I switched schools,” Martinez recalled on Thursday. “In the cafeteria, he came up to me and was like, ‘Hey, you’re a new kid? Why don’t we become friends.’ It was a cool moment. Ever since then, we hung out all the time, played ‘Pokemon,’ ‘Yu-Gi-Oh,’ all the card games you can think of. Throughout the years, we were great friends. In sixth grade, he was going up for a layup at recess and crashed to the ground. We thought he slipped and fell and he wasn’t getting up.”
Two weeks later, with Richard still not back in class, the school’s principal talked to Martinez and a couple other friends and told them the news they could hardly comprehend. Richard had been diagnosed with bone cancer.
For a while, Richard beat back osteosarcoma. With Richard in remission in eighth grade, Martinez recalls having a “huge party” to celebrate. The celebration didn’t last long, though.
“In ninth grade, it came back 10 times over and took over and he passed away later that year,” Martinez said.
A fourth-round pick by the Packers in 2016, Martinez has been active in the Green Bay community, including as a spokesman for the Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation, and has used his passion as a gamer to throw his support behind St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. It’s a way to pay tribute to Richard and to help those waging war against cancer.
“It was a tough thing for me to swallow,” Martinez said. “To have kids that age lose their life and not be able to do anything with them having such promise and to have their life cut short, that’s what’s motivated me. From doing those types of things, it’s allowed me to venture on to other things (in the) community. That’s been awesome to see the reactions from people that I’ve helped and the change that I’ve seen in little kids or even high school kids (and) adults, that when I had those moments with them, it’s changed their life in some way.”
Martinez’s list of off-the-field contributions is roughly equal to the number of tackles he’s made this season. Two in particular stood out. One was a visit to Syble Hopp School in nearby De Pere in September. Syble Hopp is for students with intellectual and other developmental disabilities.
“We played football and gave them a taste of a normal day, have fun and get them out of their norm and what they go through every single day,” Martinez said. “Just being able to see their reactions and talk to those kids – even saying hi or giving a high-five – it brightens up their day and they have a huge smile on their face. It’s a blessing for them and it’s also a blessing for me, because I go there and then I see this, and I’m like there shouldn’t be any day that I’m mad or any day that I’m feeling down. It gives you more of a perspective on life.”
The second was last year’s Tailgate Tour. During team’s annual trek through Wisconsin, which included Kenny Clark and team president Mark Murphy, the bus stopped at a retirement home.
“It’s a different spectrum but it’s the same aspect,” Martinez said. “All of these elderly people are stuck in this home every single day doing the same thing. All of a sudden, they get this opportunity to hang out with us and interact, catch footballs from us throwing it to them, ask questions. It’s those cool moments. You learn something, they get something out of it. It’s a cool perspective.”
It’s a perspective gained from a friend lost too soon, a boy who changed a life by simply saying hello.
“It’s amazing. When I started doing this, I was like, ‘If I could change one kid’s outlook on life, it’s a success for me,’” Martinez said. “To be able to have those moments and having kids come up to you and saying, ‘I remember you gave me a high-five’ or ‘I remember when you said hello to me.’ To me, it was just saying hello. To them, it could mean the whole entire world. It’s those type of moments that get you wanting more of that and to give more. If you can keep doing that over and over every single day, all of a sudden you’re changing a hundred lives, a thousand lives.”