Saint Joseph's coach Martelli taking a walk of inspiration

Posted: February 16, 2011

PHIL MARTELLI WAS in his office one day last season, the door closed, the word out that he was not to be disturbed. If you have been around the Saint Joseph's coach when he watches tape, you know he occupies a world all his own.

One of the student-managers got a call in the basketball office. She thought it important enough to knock timidly on the coach's door.

"She said, 'You really need to take this call,' " Martelli remembered.

It was Leti Martelli. She wanted to tell the coach about her son Lenny. Seems Lenny, then 15, had been paralyzed from the chest down in a snowboarding accident. He had been told he would not walk again.

"She was very emotional," Martelli said. "She said, 'Do you think you could visit him at Magee [Rehabilitation Hospital]? It would really mean a lot.' "

Why did she call Martelli? Well, Leti lives in Plymouth Meeting, a block from Norristown. Everybody she knew there knew Phil Martelli, who once lived in Norristown and coached there at Bishop Kenrick. Her friends figured they must be related. They are not.

"Prior to the accident, my friends always asked me if I was related to Phil Martelli," Leti said. "Then, someone at Magee had asked Lenny if he was related to Phil Martelli. He said, 'It would be kind of cool if I just met him.' At that time, I would have done anything to make that kid happy with everything he was going through."

So, she made that call.

"Never did I expect him to come visit Lenny in the hospital and bring him shirts and hats and talk to him," Leti said.

And the day he was there, Leti remembered Phil saying, "I want you to work hard and promise me you'll walk out on the court with me one day."

Tonight, Lenny Martelli will be in the St. Joe's locker room before the Hawks game with Xavier at Hagan Arena. And when Phil Martelli walks out into the arena 2 minutes before the game, Lenny Martelli, after another Magee miracle, will be walking next to him.

Lenny is back in school at Pope John Paul II High in Royersford. Tonight will be 1 year and 1 day since the accident.

Martelli's encouragement was just the right push for Lenny.

"That definitely helped out a bunch coming from a coach because I was an athlete," Lenny said. "It meant more coming from a coach than it would a doctor or somebody I didn't want to pay attention to because I was so involved with wanting to just get better. Hearing it from a coach was definitely motivational."

His mom never stopped believing.

"I never accepted that my son would never walk again," Leti said.

She has been told that her son has "come farther in a year than they've ever seen anyone progress. The surgeon said he's not reached a plateau. He went from completely paralyzed from the chest down where he was lifeless. You could pull the hair on his legs or punch him. He would be like, 'What's going on?' to now where he really does feel about 90 percent of his body. And he walks."

Each Friday at Magee, Adam Taliaferro, the Penn State cornerback from New Jersey and another Magee miracle, came to visit Lenny.

"We became good friends," said Lenny, who played football and lacrosse.

Phil Martelli won't forget his visit.

"I went to Magee and basically saw a 15-year-old kid immobilized in a wheelchair, but the room was so full of love," he said. "When I walked in the room, the mom and the dad were so appreciative that it was a moving experience for me."

It is not just the name that binds the family, the son and the coach. Leti is a 1987 graduate of Bishop Kenrick. The coach's last year there before coming to St. Joe's as Jim Boyle's assistant was 1985.

"I don't have the strongest stomach for hospitals and things like that," Phil said. "There were two things, the optimism that was in his room and I could feel the love in that room and it wasn't just family love. It was clear this kid has a lot of people pulling for him so if I could be one more person to help pull, then I'm in."

Tonight, they will all be in.

Lenny is in a band. Leti goes to watch.

"My one girlfriend put her arm around me and said, 'Isn't that wonderful, listen to him, how good he is,' " Leti remembered. "I didn't even hear him sing. I said, 'You hear him sing, I see my son standing.' The first time he stood up, it took four therapists. He stood up for 3 seconds and got sick. Now, he's standing there and walking around. To watch Lenny walk out [tonight] on that court, it just proves to me how motivated he is and how determined he is."

Lenny sees the court as a perfect step for an athlete. He was searching for the right word and settled on "victorious."

"It will be like I'm back on the field, back on the court," Lenny Martelli said. *

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