By Christie Rentschler
Guest Author, submitted by Greater Morris County Chapter, National Football Foundation
As each generation of players pass through their high school’s football program, they learn the legacy of the hometown heroes who walked the same hallways and wore the same numbers. For most, this enduring brotherhood becomes as important as the game. While memories of lifting, hitting, and scoring may fade with time, the fraternity between players as they push themselves at practices each day remains unchanged. It’s a brotherhood that grows from spotting a teammate in the weight room, then blocking for him on the field, and then giving him a hand to help him stand after a big hit. Football, especially in high school, is known for that deep bond, that trust that says, I’m here for you, and I know you’re there too. It’s the ultimate insiders club: don’t even try to join if you are not willing to work hard enough to wear the jersey.
But at Vernon Township High School, the legacy of this brotherhood is found in Tommie Martino, motivational coach and former student manager, and a young man who will never play in a game. Standing around 5 feet tall and weighing only a little over 100 pounds, Tommie has become the epitome of Vikings athletics since his second-to-last year of high school in 2012. “When he met [physical education teachers] Phil [Hardin] and Chuck [Tepper], they saw something in him,” says Ellen Martino, Tommie’s mother. “They saw how he always wanted to help, so when Phil had Tommie in gym class, he went to Chuck to make him the manager of the sports team…. Since then, Tommie just flew with it.”
Despite graduating in 2014, Tommie has continued to work with the Vernon Athletics program, and has recently been hired by the Board of Education as the “motivational coach” for Vikings sports. In fact, Tommie is so ingrained in the Vernon athletics program he traveled with Athletic Director Bill Edelman to Atlantic City for the Athletic Director’s Conference to receive Edelman’s Athletic Director of the Year award.
Like much of life for Tommie, the fight to stay on the sidelines after graduation was a challenging one. “The superintendent at the time said Tommie couldn’t do it because he was no longer a student,” says Ellen. “We came up with a way that Tommie could do it as long as I signed a contract that said I would be totally responsible for him.” As a consequence of legal issues with the school, Ellen is required to attend all games and practices with Tommie. “He never misses, so she never misses,” says football coach Chuck Tepper.
After being born three and a half months early, spending the first 22 months of his life in the hospital, and having a feeding and oxygen tube until his fifth birthday, Tommie has always managed to come out on top.
“They said he won’t have a quality of life so we should just institutionalize him,” says Ellen. “He proved that doctor wrong. Everyday, Tommie gets up, even when he’s sick, he says ‘I can do it.’”
Tommie is a medical miracle, as despite having multiple surgeries, surviving a coma and an incredible rare streptococcal-based autoimmune disease known as PANDAS syndrome, regaining sight after temporary blindness due to an allergic reaction, traveling to the cerebral palsy center for physical therapy after being told he would never walk, living with severe asthma and apnea, and only hitting 100 pounds in eighth grade, he has never lost his passion for life or his overwhelming enthusiasm for Vernon High School sports.
“He’s been through a few things,” says Tepper. “So the fact that he cares this much about our athletics is pretty cool.”
“He helps set up drills. Anything that the other coaches need, he does. He’s always running up to the office. He’s in charge of the radio. He has my radio at all times. He’s usually got the practice schedule,” says Tepper. “He might be running the show, for all I know.”
As for games, Tommie is the icon of Vernon pride.
“He’s at the varsity games, JV games, and freshmen games whether they’re home or away,” explains Tepper. “He’s everywhere. He’s Vernon sports.”
Edelman agrees, saying, “Tommie has outstanding comprehension. He understands everything you say, it’s just a matter of how he verbalizes it. Tommie [is] a real asset to me and everyone else because he does understand and he can do things.”
For his service to the school and community, Tommie has been awarded the Kris Michael’s Award, the highest honor in the Vernon athletics department. Kris Michael’s story is very similar to Tommie’s, as they were both Vernon High School graduates with a love of sports despite the odds against them. Each year, the award honoring the character and integrity of Kris Michael is given to a candidate with a dedication to athletic excellence who exhibits sportsmanlike qualities. After his 2014 graduation, the award was renamed Kris Michael/Tommie Martino in honor of the only student to win twice in consecutive years.
“He’s just done so much, and nobody ever realized that he could do all he could do, even with his challenges,” says Ellen. “He’s just a happy, happy kid. Even when we’re losing and just getting killed, he still has a way of making the kids feel good.”
It was for this steadfast devotion that Tommie has been asked to join the Vernon staff as a motivational coach for all sports in his first paying job, and it is easy to see how imperative Tommie has been to the success of the team.
“If they’re not motivated, they don’t have a chance of winning,” explains Tepper in regards to Tommie’s coaching position. The sentiment is echoed throughout the players, including senior football players Nick DeMattheis, Zach Jano, and Seamus Hughes, who serve as leaders on the team.
“He may not function and act the same way we do, his spirit is always what we need when times are down,” says Jano. “His spirit never changes no matter the situation at a game, the situation at practice, and that is the most uplifting thing.”
DeMattheis agrees, saying “everyone around loves him and he’s someone who keeps us together as a team.”
“His love for the game is just crazy because he’s been around the team for [five or six] years now and his passion has never wavered,” says Hughes.
Like any coach, Tommie primarily motivates his players in the locker room during the after-practice meetings. As Tommie’s speech is limited, “Tommie gives them a thumbs up or thumbs down as an end of practice speech,” says Tepper.
In addition to football, Tommie has also been hired as the motivational coach for all fall, winter, and spring sports, although he particularly is involved with the basketball and lacrosse programs. “For lacrosse, he dresses up in a helmet every day, comes out with a stick, and pretty much practices with us,” says football senior leader and lacrosse player Brandon Lockhart. “He just brings a good energy to practices for both football and lacrosse.”
No matter who you ask at Vernon, they all say the same thing: Tommie gives more to Vernon athletics than they could ever give to him. And, Tommie’s influence does not stop after his players leave Vernon.
“When the kids graduate, they still keep in contact with Tommie,” says Ellen. In one instance, Tommie emailed back and forth with a former student who was struggling to adapt to college. Tommie was able to convince the former Viking to stay in school. “This dad came up to me randomly at a game and thanked me for Tommie,” says Ellen. Since then, this student turned to studying special education and wrote a thesis in Tommie’s honor.
None of Tommie’s achievements and influences would have been possible without the dedication of his mother. Ellen still is Tommie’s #1 fan in the stands at every practice and every game.
“I sit there because especially in the beginning, I didn’t want Tommy to be a burden. I’m not dropping him off [so I can have] free time,” explains Ellen. “When Tommie first started doing this, I cried when he ran on the field because he was smiling like you couldn’t believe and I kept flashing back to the doctors telling me he would never do anything. It was the best present I ever could’ve received.” Ellen believes she has received “the greatest job [she] could’ve asked for,” saying “I’m just a mom, and any mom I think would do the same.”
“We’ve never treated Tommie as handicapped or used it as an excuse,” says Ellen, regarding Tommie outside of Vernon sports. Tommie was once offered a job cleaning tables at a local diner but “he turned it down because it interfered with his sports,” laughs Ellen. “Tommie is self-sufficient. He cooks, he cleans, he does his laundry, and he learns his lessons,” teaching everyone around him that “you can’t sweat the small stuff and you just have to laugh.”
Despite everything she does, Ellen credits the coaching staff at Vernon with Tommie’s success. “There’s been a lot of proud moments, but meeting this great group of guys that were willing to take a chance [on Tommie] has changed all our lives for the better.”
While all of the coaches at Vernon have impacted to Tommie, he particularly loves his main man, Coach Tepper. “Tepper is Tommie’s hero. He wrote Tepper’s dad a letter thanking him for letting Tepper be his hero.” explains Ellen. “If it wasn’t for Tepper, we wouldn’t be here today.”
For all that Tommie has had taken from him in his lifetime, he still has obviously given his community and his school so much more, proving the value of including kids with disabilities in athletic programs despite legal and other societal hurdles. Unfortunately, other students with stories similar to Tommie’s may not have the same opportunities. “When I go to other schools, [the coaches and administration] all say it’s the fear that [worrying about the safety of a handicapped student] would distract them from their jobs,” says Ellen, “but other schools should not be afraid to take the risk and the challenge” because Tommie is the proof that it works.
Not every high school football player is going to become a professional, and sometimes the hardest working kid on the team may never have the chance to play, let alone start. A love of sports does not guarantee success, but it does provide a family of brothers, even for the kid that can never take the field with them. If anyone today truly understands that winning isn’t everything, it is the players at Vernon, alongside Coach Tepper and Ellen, who come together under Friday night lights each week to celebrate their family, win or lose, with the core of the Viking brotherhood, Tommie Martino.