Saint Joseph's coach teams with paralyzed student

Updated: February 15, 2011, 2:32 PM ET
Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA -- Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli on Wednesday will take the court with the most inspirational walk-on of his career.

No scorecard needed -- but keep the tissues handy.

Lenny Martelli Jr., no relation to the famous Hawks coach, remembers little about the Feb. 15, 2010 snowboarding accident that left him paralyzed. Only 15 years old, he lay motionless on the snow, fearing his normal life was finished.

"As soon it happened, I just thought about not playing football," Martelli said. "I thought about not being able to do certain things. I had to accept that right away."

His acceptance wouldn't last long.

He had a broken neck, not a crushed spirit.

Lenny Martelli survived surgery and rehabilitation, and was tutored for months in a hospital bed. He listened to doctors tell him he may never walk again.

With the aid of canes, though, Martelli has ditched the hospital and started walking. He even plays guitar in a band. And on Wednesday night, he'll walk onto the court with Phil Martelli before the Hawks (7-17, 2-8 Atlantic 10) take on No. 24 Xavier (18-6, 9-1).

"I told him when he gets healthy," Phil Martelli said, "I want him to walk on the court with me at a game."

Because one Martelli kept his promise to a coach, the other delivered with a chance of a lifetime. And he'll do it the day after the one-year anniversary of the worst day of his life.

Lenny Martelli was like any teen who seemingly had it all. He played sports, went to school at Bishop Kenrick, played drums with a passion. He also enjoyed snowboarding.

But one freak accident nearly robbed him of his ability to walk and fulfill his future. When the accident happened near Schwenksville, Pa., where he was with two close friends, he immediately had no feeling from the chest down. He told his friends he couldn't move. They didn't touch him and he was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery.

His family, of Plymouth Meeting, Pa., was called and only told their son was in an accident.

His mother, Leti, recalled a harrowing scene of hearing paramedics yell in a hall "Code blue! Code blue! Move out of the way!" She saw them rushing a stretcher with a white blanket covering the body and knew it had to be her son.

"He had a smile on his face saying, 'It's OK, mom. Don't cry, mom. Don't cry," she said. "He said, 'I just can't feel anything.' That made me cry even more."

He underwent six hours of surgery and doctors fused bones from his hip with vertebrae in his neck. His spinal cord was bruised in the accident, as well.

Lenny Martelli spent a week in a Philadelphia hospital, then three months in a rehabilitation facility. Leti Martelli stayed by her son's side and lived at the hospital while her husband was at home taking care of their other two children. Leti Martelli rented an apartment in Philadelphia and pushed her son in a wheelchair every day to a new therapy center.

During this confusing and depressing time, Lenny Martelli never cried.

"I think I shed one tear when the priest from our church came to talk me," said Martelli, who turns 17 in July. "I didn't want to let anyone to see I was hurt."

The time around doctors and staff eventually led to many questions that had nothing to do with adjusting to his unexpected new life: Are you related to Phil Martelli?

The answer, was no. But Lenny was a sports fan and he certainly knew all about the coach who led the Hawks to a No. 1 national ranking in the 2003-04 season. He told his mom it would be cool if he had to chance to meet the basketball coach.

His mom called the basketball office and startled a work-study student who answered the phone with her tale.

The student told Martelli he had to take the call. At first, he declined because he was watching tape and it almost seemed "made up." Not only did they share the same last name, Martelli once coached at Bishop Kenrick.

But when the student insisted he talk to the crying woman on the other line, his interest was soon raised.

"I said is your name really Martelli," he asked. "You really went to Bishop Kenrick?"

He started visiting Lenny and keeps in monthly contact with him.

"People touch me, too," Phil Martelli said. "I'm fortunate."

The SJU coach made Lenny, still in a wheelchair at the first meeting, promise he'd work hard and use all his will to complete his goal of walking again.

"He's fun and motivational," he said. "I kind of took what he said more importantly than what some of the doctors said sometimes. I always listened to coaches and always followed what coaches said. So when Coach told me what to do and to keep pushing and try harder, that's what I kept in mind at all times."

Lenny shocked doctors with his progress (updates are posted on the "Prayer's for Lenny Martelli" Facebook page). He took steps with a walker in June and now relies on two canes. He could probably walk without them, if not for some balance issues and occasional leg stiffness and spasms.

And there are bigger plans ahead. The surgeon told the family he could pass a driver's test at a rehabilitation center in order to get his license. It is a driver's test for quadriplegics, and it will determine if any special needs will go into his ability to drive a car.

He had to give up the drums, but that's OK for now. He plays guitar and sings in an alt-pop rock band called The Summer Assault.

His old school closed, but he's now studying for the SATs as a junior at Pope John Paul II High in Royersford, Pa. Along the way, he found that fitting in with his classmates kept him motivated to break free from the wheelchair.

"I could never picture myself in a wheelchair rolling through the hallways," he said. "I pictured myself back up, back walking, doing everything I used to do."

Tuesday is not only the anniversary of the accident -- it's his parents 19th wedding anniversary. Lenny Martelli talked his way out of attending a celebratory lunch last year for his parents, so he could use the snowboard he received at Christmas. His parents took the call about the accident at that lunch.

"I can't go back to that day," Leti Martelli said.

But she'll be able to remember Wednesday forever. Even though her son hasn't decided if he'll use the canes for his big trek to the Hawks bench.

Either way, Lenny Martelli is just thankful he'll be able to walk on the court at a school whose motto boasts of a spirit that will never die.

"Every day's a new day," he said, "and a blessing."


Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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