On a cool September night in 2014, members of the Queens University of Charlotte softball team, locked in a double-header against UNC Charlotte, were worried about one of their own.
Days earlier, sophomore Samantha “Sam” Martinez, Queens’ energetic, slap-hitting centerfielder, had left campus hastily to fly home to New Jersey to be with her mother, Sally, dying of breast cancer after a nine-year struggle.
In the dugout, her teammates hung Martinez’s No. 1 jersey. That wasn’t enough – they wanted to be with Martinez. So after the nightcap, the whole team and coaches, about 22 in all, climbed aboard a “Greyhound-sized” bus – with two former players following in a car – and rode through the night for 10 hours to be in tiny Bordentown, N.J., for the final day of Sally Martinez’s three-day “Irish wake.”
“I gasped when I saw that bus,” said Martinez, who had returned from picking up her boyfriend, Eric Suarez of Charlotte, when she first saw it. “I had no clue they were coming. I was so stressed, and now not only did I have Eric with me, I had my team. My sisters from Queens.”
Saturday, on the eve of Mother’s Day, Sam Martinez will be with five of her sisters and 275 other graduating seniors dressed in cap and gown at Queens’ 2016 commencement that typically kicks off the graduation season in the Charlotte region. The speaker will be Hollywood director Tom Shadyac, who directed such comedies as Ace Ventura, The Nutty Professor and Patch Adams.
“I am so grateful for Queens being there for Sam,” said Martinez’s father, Augie. “The professors, the coaches, the kids – they all helped her through a rough patch in her life; they helped mold her into the mature, smart, amazing young woman that she is.”
It was her mother who led Sam Martinez to Queens.
Sally Martinez, a competitive runner, coached track and field and cross-country at Rider University, 10 minutes from the Martinez home. She and Sam’s Cuban-born grandmother, Piedad, a former college president, encouraged her to start her college search early.
She began in 10th grade.
Mother found Queens
Her requirements weren’t complicated: She wanted to play softball, study psychology and music, particularly musical theater, and she didn’t want to “have to shovel my way out to get to class.” By her junior year, she’d narrowed her search to 30 schools, all below Maryland. Queens hadn’t crossed her radar.
Her senior year, the list was whittled to 20, then six – but she’d still not heard about Queens.
Her mother had, though, and on a Southern college tour, the Martinez family – at Sally’s urging – pulled off Selwyn Avenue onto campus and found a parking space at the Harris Welcome Center. A sign greeted “prospective student Samantha Martinez.”
The family got out and shot two dozen photos – just of the sign. They took a tour of campus, talked to head softball Coach Melanie Helterbran and looked around Charlotte.
Suddenly her list dropped to one.
“It was a rainy fall day, and the campus looked beautiful,” Martinez said. “I immediately wanted to enroll.”
Meantime, she’d worked on extra-curriculars.
She created a cookbook, collecting recipes and stories from friends and relatives, to raise money for a foundation researching pregnant women with cancer. In 2004, Sally Martinez had been diagnosed with breast cancer while she was pregnant, and spent years in and out of remission.
Sam collected books for fourth- and fifth-graders. She put together a YouTube channel discussing serious kid issues.
And she and her mother began “Scholarship Sundays.”
Every Sunday during the summer before her senior year of high school, the two explored available scholarships, big and small, to pay for college. Ultimately, she settled on four to pursue, including the coveted Gates Millennium Scholarship, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The bulk of “Scholarship Sundays” were spent filling out applications and writing essays. The Gates scholarship alone involved eight.
She got the Gates and was set for Queens.
Used to mom being sick
Her mother was in remission her freshman year, a “great year.” Sam went home that summer in 2014 and as her time neared to return to Charlotte, she noticed changes in her mother. As she was leaving, her mother cried. “My mother never cried,” she said. “I told her, ‘Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll be back at Thanksgiving.’
“I didn’t think too much of it. I was used to my mom being sick.”
At parents weekend in mid-September, the family drove down from New Jersey. Sam, her father and two brothers went to watch boyfriend Eric play soccer. Augie Martinez warned his daughter: “Mom is going to look a bit different.”
Sally was at relatives’ in Weddington. When Sam saw her, she wept. Her mother had trouble walking; she was swollen from chemotherapy.
“I told her I loved her, and she still had her sense of humor. She said, ‘Oh you sound like a broken record,’ ” said Sam, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in clinical social work next year at the University of South Carolina.
Two weeks later, Augie called his daughter. It was time for her to come home – her mother was dying and asking for her.
Sam and her roommate, Lyndey McCurry of Commerce, Ga., who also played softball, rushed home from practice. As Sam made flight arrangements, McCurry helped her pack.
Sam made it home in time. “I got to spend the final hours with my mom,” she said. “We got to talk and I was thankful.” Even in her final hours, Sally thought to ask about some new bras she’d bought Sam. “She asked, ‘How they working out?’ But that was just like her – thoughtful to the end.”
That night Sam and her three best high school friends and her mother’s best friends stayed with Sally. The next morning, she went into a coma. Many of her former athletes came to say goodbye. One told her he’d hid in the woods when he was supposed to be running and had felt guilty since. “He said, ‘I never told you this; I need to tell you now: I’m sorry,’ ” Sam recalled him saying.
She died early Sept. 27, 2014.
Now the daughter she led to Queens is graduating. The whole Martinez family and extended members will be there. Most will be wearing bracelets that Augie made with Sally’s ashes.
“I know she’ll be with me; everywhere I go I feel her presence,” Sam said. “A lot of what I’ve done through this journey at Queens wouldn’t have been possible if she had not steered us to Harris Center that day. I am so grateful she found Queens. It was the right place at the right time.”
Watching and cheering from the audience will be her softball teammates – all in new dresses.
Upcoming university graduations
Saturday: Queens University of Charlotte
Saturday, May 14: UNC Charlotte
Sunday, May 15: JCSU, Davidson