“That’s the beauty of sports,” St. Martin said from his in-laws’ house on the Cape, where he’s working remotely as a special education teacher at Thurston Middle School in Westwood.
“If it’s done right, they teach you a lot about life. So all the adversity these kids are going through, it’s just going to help the younger kids blossom eventually, because they’re all going through it together.”
In his 11th year at Westwood, St. Martin has handed the keys to seven-year assistant Ryan Douglass, who played at Walpole High.
St. Martin was an assistant at Walpole under his brother, David St. Martin, along with Mike Harris. Mike’s son, Pat, later joined the Westwood staff and recommended his friend, Ryan, as JV coach .
Sitting at his home office with new-age glasses designed to filter the blue light he absorbs all day, St. Martin met Douglass on Zoom to debrief following Monday’s practice before the 31-year-old interim coach began commuting to his night job as a corrections officer.
While Douglass welcomes all advice from his mentor, St. Martin said he wants to remain in the background, and implicitly trusts his mentee. They will consult after games and practice, but St. Martin will be a silent observer during the action.
“The program [St. Martin] built is so strong that I have all the answers to the test,” said Douglass. “Then, to be able to ask the teacher, it’s invaluable. It’s just a matter of putting it on the floor at that point.”
Since St. Martin took the helm in 2010, the Wolverines have improved incrementally, posting a 20-0 regular-season record in 2014-15 and a 22-3 record with a second straight Tri-Valley League championship and Division 2 South semifinal appearance last season.
Beyond his duties at Westwood, St. Martin has helped found the “Foundations 4 Success” program to use basketball as life lessons, coached the Greater Boston All-Star Team on multiple trips to Europe, and served as a motivational speaker.
His inspirational story began when he collapsed mid-game during his freshman year at Thomas College. After an innovative surgery at Beth Israel during which he was awake for seven hours on the operating table, St. Martin said it took months to regain his strength.
A cerebral and gritty point guard, St. Martin transferred to Northwestern State in Louisiana but spent his first semester washing dishes and watching practice while waiting to get medically cleared, eventually losing his scholarship when he underwent another emergency procedure in Boston. During the five-hour surgery, St. Martin flatlined, leaving his heart permanently damaged.
“I went through hell,” St. Martin said. “They told me I’d never be able play again, never be 100 percent.”
Yet he refused to give up and eventually earned a scholarship to play at Assumption, where he turned a floundering program into a Northeast-10 champion and NCAA Division 2 Regional semifinalist over three standout seasons.
The first-known athlete to play with that type of heart condition, St. Martin kept extensive notes with trainers as he continued his playing career overseas. When he came home and was preparing to try out for the NBA Developmental League, St. Martin had another surgery following an incident in training, and his doctors pulled the plug on his playing career.
“When the doctors finally called it, I sat on my parents’ coach for three days, bawling,” said St. Martin. “As painful as that was, I have no regrets.”
“The most painful part was losing the relationships you form. When I was forced to retire, I lost that, but because of coaching, I got back into it, and met some of the best people I’ve ever met . . . now I miss the little nuances of going through a practice, and the relationships you develop with kids every day.”
Before tryouts began on Dec. 14, St. Martin met virtually with his four senior captains (James McGowan, Connor Danieli, Brad Nelson, and Michael Reardon) to break the news that he wouldn’t be coaching in person.
McGowan, a Bowdoin-bound sharpshooter with over 1,000 career points, resolved to finish his career in a way that would make the only high school coach he’s known proud.
“A coach can put in plays and all that, but [St. Martin] has been there, on and off the court, to use basketball as a way to teach us about life,” said McGowan, the reigning Tri-Valley League MVP.
“The biggest thing [St. Martin] talks about is, ‘What legacy do you want to leave behind?’ Without an opportunity to win a state championship, can I leave this program better than I found it? As seniors, we can do that by teaching the younger guys everything he’s taught us.”
Westwood opens the season on Jan. 8 at Medfield as part of a 10-game conference-only schedule.
Thanks to donations from school’s booster club, there are NFHS cameras in the gymnasium that can be used to livestream each game for spectators, and for a certain basketball junkie cooped up at home.
“I think [St. Martin] will like it and hate it,” Westwood athletic director Matt Gillis said of his coach watching from afar.
“I know he’d rather be in the gym with his team, but he made the right decision. He’s been playing basketball essentially his whole life and this is what he’s done every year around this time. Not being able to do that has to be wearing on him a bit.”
There are silver linings of course. St. Martin is able to spend quality time with his wife, Rebecca, and their 18-month-old son, Hayden, while enjoying the peace and quiet of Cape Cod. He also has easier access to high quality farm food and holistic medicines that are essential toward maintaining a healthy heart.
But what he really craves is hoops, which he accesses by watching old game film and living vicariously through his assistants and his brother, who is now on staff at Catholic Memorial.
And while the audience is a bit removed, St. Martin’s motivational message is still reaching players and coaches in a time where everyone needs to find hope.
“This [pandemic] shows that nothing is really guaranteed to us,” said St. Martin.
“All you really have is the present, and the most important thing is to be grateful for what we do have. The way you show that gratitude is to maximize your time, and make sure you have no regrets about your effort. That, to me, is what living is all about.”