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ALBUQUERQUE — It wasn’t supposed to go down this way.
The Class AAAA boys javelin competition wasn’t supposed to be much more than a formality. No one in the state had come within five feet of Ruben Martinez’s best toss of the modern day Roman spear.
Yet, after the first throw, Martinez was the one playing catch-up.
Saturday’s long-toss event, held in the nootime heat at the largest venue of its kind in the state, the University of New Mexico Track and Field Complex, might have gotten overlooked with such a heavy favorite in the lineup, but Kirtland Central’s Wesley Whipple made it clear he wasn’t quite ready to concede anything, besting Martinez 169 feet, 7 inches to 169 feet, 3 inches.
Ruben Martinez isn’t unaccustomed to being in the spotlight by any means.
At the tender age of 12, Martinez was already being spoken of as a possible future baseball star with signs of a blazing fastball and a bat that could drive balls out of Lou Caveglia Field almost at will. He was a head taller and a good deal stronger than just about every one of his peers.
Other sports would be in his future, however.
As a junior, Martinez became the centerpiece in a bruising rushing attack for the Los Alamos Hilltopper football team. Before the season was over, a season in which the Hilltoppers would make it to the state AAAA semifinals, he would become the top rusher in the state and attract the attention of New Mexico State University.
Before his senior year, Martinez had an offer in-hand. He would play for the Division-I school in Las Cruces. They would pay his way.
Other schools with more successful football programs, most notably the University of New Mexico, would come knocking on his door later, long after the ink was dry. Martinez thanked them profusely for their interest, but he had made a commitment and wasn’t going back on it now.
Standing at the north end of the UNM complex six months after his prep football career had ended, just a few days before reporting to UNM’s bitter intrastate rival, wasn’t something that was lost on him.
“It feels welcoming, even though it’s the Lobos,” Martinez chuckled. “You know, even though I’m an Aggie.”
Martinez’s future, long before setting foot in the expansive-yet-cozy complex adjacent to University Stadium, a football field he will play on no less than twice during his college gridiron career, was set.
So what if he didn’t win the javelin? Who, before the hardware had been handed out, would remember he didn’t take the second-largest classification’s javelin competition?
He wouldn’t be leaving the stadium without a first-place medal either way.
About 90 minutes earlier, Martinez took top honors in the state in the shot put. He didn’t waste a lot of time doing it, either. With his first throw, Martinez left a crater past the 50-foot arc in the hard-packed dirt of the shot put pit.
After nearly a dozen other throwers had finished, Martinez’s dent, 50 feet, 9 inches from where he’d let the rock fly, was still the only one past the white chalk semicircle.
Martinez, who had to leave for his second job of the day, running in the 400 meter relay — in which Los Alamos took second — headed back to the pit with two throws still left to finish. Hilltopper assistant coach Will Stolpe, however, stopped him and told him there was no need. The victory was his already.
But there was a title still to be won. It had nothing to do with Martinez himself. There was a bigger prize at stake, something that was in his grasp every year, but for three years had eluded him.
The state Class AAAA team championship.
For the previous six years, the AAAA team title resided at only one place: Albuquerque Academy. Academy’s Chargers, who take tremendous pride in holding that blue trophy, and like a heavyweight champion, would only give that title up if someone ripped it away from their unconscious body.
Every point mattered. The difference between first and second place in the javelin could well be the difference between first and second place in the team standings.
The Big Show
At any track and field meet, there are several things going on at once. The state meet, which combines Classes AAA, AAAA and AAAAA all competing at the same time, is no exception.
With boys and girls races going on in the background, a scant few — the javelin contestants themselves, their families, maybe a few athletes from the teams with competitors involved — are paying a lot of attention to the infield. Spears are flying, spears are dropping. What is the next running event?
Martinez steps up for his second throw. Because he’s the top seed in the event, he’s throwing dead last.
Going last has its advantages and disadvantages. The big advantage is everything is happening ahead of you. The big disadvantage is that everything is happening ahead of you. It doesn’t help that if your first throw isn’t up to par, you have plenty of time to think about it.
The competition stops for a few moments while a running event is starting. The javelin throwers shouldn’t be moving around too much because the runners might find it distracting.
Martinez is standing on the launching pad, obviously going over in his mind what he needs to do while tapping the toes of his shoes to the ground.
“I’ve only been doing javelin for two years,” Martinez said. “But I’ve been competing for four years. I knew there was a lot of game left. I had to stay calm, stay focused, do what I’ve got to do.”
He put the javelin on his shoulders. He took a deep breath.
Javelin is the track and field equivalent of ballet. It’s beautiful, and most observers know that if they practiced for 20 years, they might make it look half as good as the best of them do. If they do it right.
Martinez, on his second throw, did it right.
His javelin leapt from his hand, straight and true. It flew in a picture-perfect arc.
Those who had only been half-watching between running events looked up to catch a glimpse. What they saw was an ancient weapon slice into the topsoil at the 186 feet, 5 inch-mark.
Things suddenly got a little louder. There was applause where there had been none. They were applauding a throw better than most.
But, as they would soon see, not as good as all.
Of significance, Martinez’s second throw was the deal-maker. Not only was it the best throw of his life to that point, no other thrower would make the 186-foot mark even feel uncomfortable.
Game over. Thanks for coming. Drive home safely.
But Martinez wasn’t done yet. Not even close.
His second throw had earned him quite a following from the crowd. Not on the scale of the Grateful Dead or anything, but more than a few in the stands, more than not having to shade their eyes from the sun, were watching. And cheering.
Martinez had qualified for the finals, and was setting up for his last two throws of the day.
As he stepped onto the throwing lane, an unusual thing began to happen.
A clap started.
This was no ordinary clap. It was an orchestrated clap. It started slow, but as Martinez set up for his throw, the rhythm picked up.
The complex wanted to see something from him, and they were letting him know it.
They would not be disappointed.
Using the same textbook form that had netted him his 186-footer, Martinez scampered up to the line and let fly not an arrow, but a bullet.
This next-to-last throw netted him a cool 187 feet, 11 inches, not to mention a hardy round of cheering from the entire west side of the complex. Martinez couldn’t hide his exuberance, jumping up and down, fists in the air.
Had there been any doubt as to the outcome of the boys javelin at that point, his next-to-last throw would’ve erased it.
But two people — the crowd, now a collective unit, and Martinez — wanted more.
After another round of throwing by the finalists, went largely unnoticed, things fell silent as Martinez’s name was announced.
Finishing it off
Here’s how Ruben Martinez’s grandchildren will hear this story:
“All the events were done. The runners were off the podium.
“I’m looking in the stands, and all eyes are on me.
“I started to clap. That clap is something that started when I was a junior. And it got pretty loud.
“But everything muted when the javelin was in the air. Everyone gasped, and then they erupted when it landed.”
The javelin fluttered a bit out of his hand. Even Martinez himself thought he hadn’t gotten all of it when he let it go.
Martinez, amid echoing cheers bouncing from the east wall to his ears, stood right beside the event official eagerly anticipating the final mark.
One hundred ninety-one feet, ten inches.
Almost as one, Martinez’s family and friends ran to the barriers surrounding the track, giving hugs, fist pounds, wanting his picture taken with them. Martinez grabbed a cell phone and took a snap of his final mark on the spinning board.
This time next week, Martinez will be in Las Cruces, undoubtedly unpacking his goods into his new housing complex, preparing mentally and physically for the pounding he will take in Division-I football.
Memories of that moment, in which Martinez was the only thing happening at the UNM Track and Field Complex will fade eventually, but for that moment, Martinez rose to the occasion like few will ever do in the course of their lifetimes.
His biggest fan, boys track and field head coach Larry Baca, expected no less.
“I can talk about Ruben all day long,” he said. “He’s fantastic. He’s one of those kids who stays so focused. He’s one that comes to compete. He kept telling me all year, ‘we’ll get it at state, we’ll get it at state.’ that’s why he’ll be the next one to be famous.”