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Unforgettable friend

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GREEN BAY – Blake Martinez wasn’t the “cool” kid in elementary school. If you don’t believe him, the Packers linebacker has the family photo albums to prove it.

With parted hair only a mother could love, Martinez was unapologetically goofy in his formative years. He loved video games, Pokémon trading cards, pizza and cartoons. Martinez was, by conventional definition, a nerd and proud of it.

His imagination was his best friend in those early years. It helped Martinez cope with a vagabond childhood in which he moved more than 10 times while his father, Marc, worked to get the family’s excavation business off the ground in Arizona.

Changing schools was the hardest part. His mom, Carrisa, remembers walking Blake to class in kindergarten and first grade to help her son get comfortable. It’s not that he was shy. It just took time for him to warm up to people, a luxury Martinez wasn’t often afforded with the constant moving.

“We were like a low, low income (family) in a trailer house, and then moved to another house once we got enough money, and then moved to another house,” Martinez said. “I went to first and second grade at one school, but we were too far away outside the district, so they made a big deal about it. So I had to switch to this school I ended up staying at, Ironwood, in third grade.”

Ironwood Elementary in Tucson, Ariz., was an important checkpoint in Martinez’s upbringing. It’s where he met Richard Blau, a gregarious and fun-loving child with dark hair that spiked upward once it reached his forehead.

The younger of Jeff and Rhonda Blau’s two children, Richard was charismatic and spunky from Day 1. He loved baseball, riding his bike, fishing and cracking jokes. Most importantly, Richard loved to make others feel welcome and smile.

So when Martinez strolled into class for the first time, Richard took it upon himself to ask the new kid in class if he cared to eat lunch with him and his friends. Martinez, overjoyed, jumped at the offer.

“He had a sense of security because he had this one person he knew he could talk to in class and he could sit with at lunch,” Carrisa Martinez said. “It felt good as a parent to know he had somebody because he hadn’t really had that before.”

The boys became inseparable in a tight-knit group of five friends. They’d go to each other’s houses after school, and play Pokémon, kickball, basketball, and baseball for hours on end. Brimming with energy, they’d wrestle occasionally, a halfway serious competition in which the bigger Martinez almost always prevailed.

When Richard bleached the front of his hair, Martinez ran home to ask his mom if he could do the same. The end result was the two running around for weeks with a quasi-orange tint to their naturally dark hair.

Their families grew close. Jeff coached the two boys in fourth-grade soccer and the Blaus would host pizza parties at their family pool. Bound by their goofiness and affinity for pranks, Richard and Blake became best friends by sixth grade.

It was around that time both boys began to shine in sports. While Martinez gravitated toward football, Richard developed a laser for a right arm in baseball. At age 10, Richard threw a no-hitter in the Thornydale Little League Championship game.

“It was unreal. I’d look at him like, ‘What the hell? How are you able to do this?’” Martinez said. “In sixth grade, I was throwing the ball into the ground two feet in front of me. He was a special athlete.”

Richard was a ball of positive energy who radiated those same vibes to every person he encountered. It seemed like nothing could stop him. That was until one day on the playground when Martinez, Richard and a few friends were playing basketball.

Richard, coming down after a layup, collapsed in the middle of recess and couldn’t get up. Teachers and faculty rushed to the scene, and for 30 minutes, the boy who could do anything was suddenly immobilized. A wheelchair was eventually brought out and Richard was rushed to a hospital.

From that moment on, Martinez’s life would never be the same.

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‘Everything happens for a reason’

Richard showed no signs of illness. He once complained of knee soreness, but his parents chalked it up to growing pains or maybe twisting his knee in sports. Other than that, he’d been a happy and healthy 12-year-old who never missed school.

“Every day he always wanted to go to school,” Rhonda Blau said. “I’m like, ‘Really?’ There’s no, ‘I need a day off. Can I stay home?’ He wanted to go to school. He wanted to be with his friends. It’s almost like he knew he had to do a lot in a short amount of time.”

Informed of what had happened at school, the Blaus rushed to a nearby hospital where a battery of tests was performed on Richard’s right knee.

X-rays showed a fractured femur, which snapped under the pressure of a large tumor above his knee. Within a day, doctors diagnosed Richard with osteosarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer that’s most common in children and teenagers.

“Most people hear the word, ‘osteosarcoma’ and just go, ‘Oh my God,’” Rhonda said. “We were told that, but we didn’t understand what people were talking about.”

Martinez didn’t understand what had happened, either. Richard was absent from school for two weeks before the school principal sat Martinez and his friends down and explained the situation.

Martinez went home crying to his parents, dumbfounded how a kid as energetic and positive as Richard could be afflicted by such an awful, unexpected disease.

“I recall perfectly the first time I figured it out and I was crying like, ‘Why? Why is this happening to my best friend?’” Martinez recalled. “My mom was there for me. She was just like, ‘Blake, God has a plan. Everything happens for a reason. You have to go with it and be there for him. Whenever he needs something, be there for him. Help him and just be that friend he’s been towards you.’”

Richard immediately began chemotherapy to begin attacking the cancer cells, and he underwent surgery in Florida to remove his femur. A titanium rod was inserted in its place, and after months of physical therapy, Richard was able to walk again.

It got to the point Richard was even able to jog a little. Always one to see the brighter side of life, Richard would even joke with his dad about how they both limped when they ran – Richard due to his surgery and Jeff due to bad knees and back.

“We were so devastated, but he would just not get down,” Jeff Blau said. “He’d never be depressed or complain or anything. We couldn’t believe it. Here’s this kid going through all this and still having an upbeat personality and demeanor and wanting to make people laugh. We were just amazed by it.”

The effects of the chemo treatments were obvious, though. Richard lost his hair and pigmentation. Due to the surgery, his activity was limited and he no longer could play baseball.

Despite his circumstances, Richard never lost his smile. He pivoted his energy towards new hobbies such as billiards, magic and chess. Instead of striving to be a pro baseball player, Richard told his parents he wanted to be a doctor someday.

No matter how weak chemotherapy left him, Richard would try to help others get through their treatments whether it was with a playful joke or simply a smile.

“I know what it’s like to go through this,” Richard told his parents. “I can help kids and get them through it.”

When Richard returned from Florida, his parents threw him a party. During that time, Richard, Blake and their inner circle of friends only grew tighter. When Richard couldn’t play outside, they’d watch cartoons and movies, and play video games.

The Blaus remember Blake as one of Richard’s most frequent visitors. Whenever Richard needed any kind of emotional support, Martinez was there to take his mind off whatever ailed him.

“He couldn’t even walk and they’d all still come over and hang out with him,” Rhonda Blau said. “They treated him like a regular kid, like nothing was wrong with him. They all took care of him. Nobody excluded him, which could have been easy to do. They were very supportive and Blake was there all the time.”

Osteosarcoma is one of the trickiest forms of cancer. While the initial scans came back positive after Richard’s surgery, the Blaus lived in hospitals for three years. Within a year of his first surgery, cancer reemerged in Richard’s lungs and back, requiring three more operations to remove the metastases.

It was after his fourth surgery to remove spinal metastases that Richard developed a blood clot that ran from his heart down to his groin, triggering a heart attack.

Richard passed away on March 28, 2009, three months shy of his 15th birthday. His death had a profound impact on Martinez, who hadn’t lost any of his close friends or family at that point in his young life.

“When it did happen, it made me grow up 10 times quicker,” Martinez said. “Because it got to the point I was asking my parents, ‘Why is this happening to someone so young? What does this mean?’ I mean he was my first best friend ever.”

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‘A purpose for life’

The impact Richard had on every life he touched was on full display when a baseball diamond at Arthur Pack Park in Tucson was dedicated in his name on July 11, 2009.

There was a huge turnout with Martinez and all of Richard’s friends coming out in support. Richard’s last Little League coach, John Carver, commissioned a sign in his player’s honor.

One year later, Blake also came out for a memorial in Richard’s honor. Although that was the last time Martinez would see the Blaus for a few years, he carried Richard’s memory with him.

“We just told him we have to find the reason behind Richard’s life,” Carrisa said. “As sad as that is, he’s no longer in pain and he’s in a better place. We just have to look for the reasons, the purpose for Richard’s life. What did it bring Blake, how did it affect Blake, how did it change Blake, how can Blake make Richard’s life, in his own life, better.”

Martinez took that to heart. He attended three different high schools, finally settling in at Canyon del Oro in Oro Valley, Ariz. There, he set a school record with 247 tackles and developed into a three-star college football recruit.

After committing to Stanford, Martinez looked for any opportunity he could find to visit children’s hospitals or speak about how childhood cancer affected his life. His message was simple – don’t take anything for granted. Because Richard didn’t.

A fourth-round pick by the Packers in 2016, Martinez made a beeline for player-alumni specialist Tony Fisher soon after he arrived in Green Bay and expressed a desire to get involved in the community as often as possible.

The same proactive approach led Martinez to Ben Haas and the Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation, which has partnered the past two years with the Packers and Bellin Health during their Packers vs. Cancer Initiative each October.

“It means everything when people who are affected by cancer see that athletes aren’t immune,” Haas said. “Cancer has long-reaching tentacles and unfortunately for people to see guys like Blake can be affected like anybody else, I think that’s important for people to know we’re all human and we’re all in it together.”

When the NFL began the “My Cause, My Cleats” campaign last year, Martinez used the opportunity to honor Richard with specialty baseball-patterned cleats with “Richard Blau” written on the side in support of St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.

Once the 2017 season was over, Martinez returned home to Arizona for a week and gave the cleats to Richard’s parents.

“It was pretty emotional because this was the first time Blake has seen them since Blake was 16,” Carrisa said. “Blake is who he is partially because of Richard. He knows how short life is. He knows how important it is to be there for a friend. I think a lot of that comes from Richard was always there for him, brought him in and made him welcome when he felt alone. That friendship meant a lot.”

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‘Live life to the fullest’

Richard’s cleats now hang proudly and peacefully in the Blau family’s office, a daily reminder of the child who had such a lasting impact on their lives and the lives of so many.

Today, the Blaus cherish their daughter, Gabriella Blau-Boudreault, and continue to find ways to carry on the memory of their son nine years after his passing.

Watching Blake’s successes on the football field from afar, Jeff and Rhonda have been blown away seeing how much Richard means to Martinez to this day and the lengths the third-year linebacker is willing to go to promote childhood cancer awareness.

“We didn’t realize it meant so much to him,” Jeff Blau said. “It made us feel good that Richard made such an impression on his life. We were touched by that. It was really nice to have him do that.”

This has never been about fame or fortune to Martinez. Sure, he still has goals to someday lead the NFL in tackles, but there’s also a bigger picture to keep in mind.

Whenever Martinez looks into the eyes of a child with cancer, he sees Richard. He tells them about how hard he fought and how he changed Martinez’s perspective on life.

In the end, football won’t last forever and legacy is worth more than money in your bank account. Now three years into his NFL career, Martinez remains ever grateful to Richard for their friendship at a pivotal time in his life, which taught him to just be himself and cherish every moment.

“Live life to the fullest,” Martinez said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a cool kid, whatever you think you need to do to have people like you, it’s like, ‘What am I doing every day to be better?’ Because nothing is guaranteed. At the end of the day, how are people going to view you when you do pass away? I know from Richard’s standpoint, everyone viewed him as this amazing kid.

“You look at that as he lived life to the fullest, especially at that point, when he was diagnosed, he did everything he could to make sure we always chatted or hung out. He always had a smile on his face.”

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