June 2, 2010
Bronx, N.Y. -
When the Fordham University graduates walked across the stage on May 22nd, there was one member of the Rams' football squad who had an even bigger reason to celebrate. For Tommy Martin, graduation marked the end of four years of his life that he could have never expected after enduring major struggles in his life prior to arriving at Rose Hill.
In front of his parents, Debbie and Jose Santiago, and his girlfriend, senior Jamie Rocha, Martin proudly accepted his degree while thoughts of his journey to Fordham, and his experiences at Fordham, surely went through his head.
It wasn't the first time that the Santiago's were at Fordham to support Martin. The first was on football Senior Day back in November. Only it wasn't the Senior Day that Tommy Martin expected. When he arrived at Fordham, he probably imagined having a big game in his final home game, leading the football Rams to a win on Jack Coffey Field. Martin surely couldn't have envisioned watching the game perched high above the goal post, as Fordham fell to Lehigh.
But not every unexpected occurrence for Martin on Senior Day was a gloomy one, thanks to Rocha.
The Santiago's had never seen Martin play at Fordham as they live in Nevada and didn't have the resources to travel to the east coast. So Martin had no reason to expect them to attend his Senior Day ceremony. In stepped Rocha, who saw to it that the Santiagos were able to fly to New York and arranged for their accommodations so that they could be here for Martin's special day. And that was the easy part.
The hard part was keeping it as a secret from Martin, who isn't one to easily keep in the dark about anything.
"It's not easy keeping a secret from Tommy," said Rocha. "We had to be very careful but he was totally surprised when we went to the hotel."
The Santiagos arrived on the Thursday night before the Saturday game and Martin found out on Friday when Rocha suggested they go for a ride. The only stipulation was that she had Martin wear a blindfold. When they got to the hotel, she told him which door to knock on and when the Santiagos threw open the door, Martin's soon-to-be senior day took on a whole new significance.
"We were so excited when Jamie called us and invited us out here," said Debbie Santiago at the game. "We never saw Tommy play in high school or college and even though we didn't get to see him play today, it's still a very special day for us."
The interesting thing about Martin's Senior Day was that it ever happened as his life's story is anything but normal, unless normal is being adopted by your aunt and uncle at age 11, becoming estranged from them in high school and living for a couple of nights in a car in your high school parking lot your senior year in high school.
Martin's story starts with an unhappy childhood, starting when he was kidnapped by his father when he was 2 ½. His mother, Tina Karpinski, divorced his father and later remarried, moving to Oregon with Martin and her husband. But it wasn't a good situation for Martin.
"We lived in a trailer park," Martin told the Press-Enterprise in an interview prior to his freshman year at Fordham. "It was not a good neighborhood."
Things got worse when Martin was taken away from his mother and put into foster care when he was nine because authorities thought that the bruises he incurred while playing football were a sign of abuse.
After spending two years in foster care, which Martin described as "being treated like a piece of garbage that they're trying to find a place for", Debbie Santiago, the sister of Martin's mother, and her husband, Jose, decided to adopt Martin.
But it was a challenge for both sides after the adoption as Martin has a tendency to do what he thinks is best, without listening to others. But despite the problems, Martin still referred to Jose Santiago as "Dad." And Santiago urged Martin to start working when he was 13, hoping that it would instill in him a life lesson.
That lesson stayed with Martin in high school as he worked Monday through Thursday night during football seasons, leaving practice early for his position at Starbucks. After the football season, he worked 30 hours a week as a credit union teller.
But he didn't allow work to interfere with his schooling, often studying until 2:30 a.m., finishing high school with a 3.5 grade-point average, or his football accomplishments as he was named first-team All-Riverside County and All-CIF Division 5.
Still, something was missing from Martin's life as he became estranged from the Santiagos, bouncing around from home-to-home as a senior in high school, even spending two nights in his Mustang in the parking lot of Norco High School a few days before he graduated. His high school coach, Lou Hatton, took him in following graduation until Martin started his first football camp at Fordham. Prior to his senior year, he stayed for a while with the families of various high school teammates.
"My life wasn't perfect but some of the problems I brought on myself," said Martin. "I didn't always make the right decision and could be very stubborn."
After he arrived at Fordham, things seemed to be turning around for Martin, who moved into the starting lineup as a freshman in 2006, showing his versatility by playing both wide receiver and defense back. In 2007, he was a vital cog on the Fordham team that won the Patriot League championship, playing defensive back and returning punts. But his life turned again open the final day of summer camp before his junior year when he suffered a career-ending knee injury, which kept him off the field for his senior day. But as he has done with most of the curve balls that life has thrown him, he adjusted. Martin remained with the team, taking over film duties for the squad, video taping every game and practice. He could often be heard cheering on his teammates from his loft in a bucket lift high above the goal post.
"It's obviously not the way I wanted my career to end but having my family here means so much to me," said Martin. "I can never thank Jamie enough for everything she has done to make it possible. Coming to Fordham really helped me grow and realize just how fortunate I am to have a family that cares."
"We have a much better relationship with Tommy now," said Debbie Santiago. "He realizes that having family is really important. He has grown into a great young man."
The Santiagos made the trip back to Rose Hill in May to see Martin graduate with a degree in Accounting, a day that a few years ago seemed like it would never happen. But Martin made the choice four years ago to leave California for Fordham and, though he leaves Fordham this spring taking with him the numerous life lessons he had learned over the past 21 years, Fordham will never leave him.