Three-time state champion wrestler Felipe Martinez says he does not regret picking family over athletics a year ago this week.
THE BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY
Felipe Martinez is grappling with a decision of whether to attend a wrestling tournament this weekend.
The maligned past state champion knows he should be in Bowling Green to support a former Genoa teammate at the Division III district meet. However, there is a personal history with that event that makes Martinez feel uneasy.
He faced a similar dilemma a year ago after his grandmother died. A three-time state titleist, Martinez chose to not go for four by picking family over athletics — a criticized selection influenced by his waning desire to compete.
“There’s a part of me that’s just like, I don’t want to be there,” Martinez said of the tournament, which begins today. “People are going to come up to me and ask, ‘Felipe, what are you doing here? You doing this? You doing that?’ I don’t want to worry about that right now. When people talk about that, it makes me upset.”
The wrestling community roundly rebuked Martinez’s no-show, with one Internet message board poster chiming that Martinez could have been an all-time great, “but chose to be a punchline instead.” Barbs rekindled in recent months after Martinez dropped out of a junior college and decamped for Toledo, resigned to the reality his career — of which NCAA titles and international glory was in reach — is over.
“I can’t make my son do something he doesn’t have the heart for anymore,” Cookie Martinez, Felipe’s mother, said. “Me and his father are to blame. He had no life other than wrestling from the time he was 5.”
Martinez, 20, resents the insults and believes his critics are unaware of the many hardships he endured. He hopes to some day be a coach and a teacher. Not a punchline.
Martinez had achieved national acclaim when he and his family uprooted to southern Ohio from Genoa after the fifth grade so he could compete for powerhouse St. Paris Graham. Martinez, who began wrestling at 5, captured titles at every major event, and in 2004, he was named the best 73-pound, 10-year-old in the country.
Ohio wrestling analyst Brian Brakeman recalls a conversation he had with Graham varsity coach Jeff Jordan about a standout wrestler at the school. Brakeman was floored to learn the kid could not beat a fifth grader in the program.
“I made an effort to find out who the fifth grader was,” Brakeman said.
Soon everyone knew of Martinez. After breezing to three titles at the junior high state tournament, he made a resounding introduction on varsity, upsetting the top-ranked 130-pound wrestler in the country in his first high school tournament. Martinez finished runner-up, suffering his only loss — minus a disqualification later that season for applying an illegal hold — during the next three years.
His talents were so profound that Martinez could go toe-to-toe in the practice room with the best 135-pounder in the country. That teammate, senior David Taylor, was an NCAA champion last year for Penn State.
“I could sit back and drink a can of Pepsi, or maybe a cup of coffee, and watch those two wrestle,” said Jordan, who guided Graham to the past 12 D-II team titles. “It was amazing to watch.”
Martinez repeated as state champion the following season and began hearing from major college coaches. The Web site Intermat pegged him as the nation’s No. 2 sophomore in any weight. Four state crowns seemed inevitable.
“One of the most charismatic wrestlers I’ve seen,” Brakeman said. “He was a crowd pleaser. If there were more wrestlers like Felipe, the sport of wrestling would be more popular, frankly.”
Had Martinez remained at Graham — “Where we eat, sleep, and breathe wrestling 24 hours a day,” Martinez said — things might have ended better.
His career took a turn after his freshman year when Martinez’s father returned to Toledo, leaving his mother alone to raise three children. Cookie, who was working three menial jobs, moved back to the area the following year to accept a nursing job in Genoa. Jordan, aware of the uproar that would ensue, denied Martinez’s plea to move in with the coach’s family.
“I told him one of two things will happen,” Jordan said. “The first is you’ll continue to train hard and win two more state titles. The second is you’re the big fish on your team, the big stud, and you lose some desire.”
Martinez, who was not getting along with Cookie, moved in with his father and enrolled at Clay. Their relationship, which had long been bumpy, reached an abyss several months later when an argument escalated into shoving. Martinez packed his belongings and moved in with Cookie.
“You see some of these wrestling dads out there that are crazy,” Martinez said. “My dad was beyond that.”
He could not practice or compete at Genoa, per transfer bylaws, which was evident when he made his debut in late January and appeared plump at 160 pounds. Nevertheless, Martinez capped off an undefeated campaign with his third state title, though his relative shortcomings — narrow wins in the semifinals and finals — led Brakeman to believe the former wunderkind was “a shadow” of his former self.
“There was so much going on in my life, so many ups and downs, and I was like, ‘How much longer am I going to do this?’ ” Martinez said. “I still wanted to wrestle, but my passion wasn’t as high.”
Given the benefit of hindsight, Martinez would do it all over.
He is secure in his decision to forfeit a run at a fourth state title, believing it was essential to support a family grieving after the sudden death of a beloved woman.
He likewise has no second thoughts on quitting the sport for good in September. The plan was for Martinez to compete one year at Labette Community College in Kansas — where he became bored, lonely, and unable to rediscover his passion — before going to Arizona State.
“He’s very capable of doing the schoolwork, and he’s very capable of wrestling at a high level,” ASU assistant coach Lee Pritts said. “I love the guy.”
Martinez is saving money so he can attend Bowling Green in the fall. He works two jobs and plans to conduct wrestling camps this summer. He still loves the sport. He just doesn’t love competing.
At some point, maybe today or tomorrow, Martinez will show his face in front of his detractors.
“Never once was I cocky in wrestling,” he said. “Never once was I disrespectful. I’m not a bum. I’m not a loser. I just didn’t want to do the sport anymore.”
Contact Ryan Autullo at: email@example.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.