Amy Martinez poses in her son’s room, which she has brightened up with a myriad paintings. (Herron photo)
How about a feel-good story for the New Year?
This one — you’ll surely hear more as 2023 rolls along — is about a woman who once played basketball at Lincoln Middle School, where her two daughters attend and play basketball, with the eldest one playing for the Rio Rancho High School junior varsity team.
Unfortunately, as Amy Martinez (nee Stepic) says, “I fell into evil choices as a young adult.”
And for a young teen, getting pregnant was an “evil choice,” as was a subsequent drug problem.
“You have no idea the pain she caused my wife and I,” said local photographer Gary Stepic, Amy’s father. “When my wife had her stroke (and she passed less than a year later), my daughter turned her life around.”
Naturally, he’s proud of her 180-degree U-turn.
“I rebelled, so it took a long time,” Martinez said. “The more I tried to rebel and do things my way, the more I realized that what my parents had to say, what my coaches had to say … it was the same thing.”
Stepic’s a longtime fan of the University of New Mexico women’s basketball team, whose games he once took Amy to in hopes of getting her life back on track. Several of the Lobos, among them Jodi Cory, served as mentors to Amy — and it was Cory who informed Stepic his daughter was pregnant.
“My daughter was afraid to tell me she was pregnant,” he recalled. “She is the reason why I got so involved with the Lady Lobos. I was worried about the choices she was making and I wanted her to stay involved with sports.”
Now they’re both involved in Rams basketball, watching Amy’s daughter Angelina Perea in action for coach Eric Jack’s junior varsity team. Younger sister Victoria Perea is a teammate of Angelina’s on Jack’s Lady Goats club team.
“I had a very supportive family,” Amy says. “Now I have four kids and I’m super-busy.”
It turns out that Martinez and the late Jim Valvano have two things in common: basketball and the mantra, “Don’t give up; don’t ever give up.”
Martinez, raised in Rio Rancho and here to stay, has had a life that would make for a great movie, overcoming more adversity than anyone should face.
For example: suffering from a chronic back condition that took her away from soccer, the game she first loved, as a youngster; becoming pregnant as a 15-year-old; being hit on a dirt road by a drunk driver in Edgewood; being the victim of physical abuse from the father of her first child; and an addiction to cocaine.
In the back of her mind, Martinez believes “that my first introduction to drugs was at 11 years old, when I had the morphine in my veins — I remember that as clear as day.
“Count back from 100; you’re going to feel a little bit funny,” she remembers hearing. “At 11 years old, with all the middle school drama and everything, I remember that feeling.”
She found that “feeling” years later, when she was addicted to cocaine.
“They told me, because I was an athlete, I chose the uppers because it was the runners’ high,” Martinez said.
She had the addiction for about seven years; it ended in 2012.
Later, then 21 and while attending Narcotics Anonymous, her sponsor told her, “If you can do that high, imagine what you can do clean and sober.”
Life seems unfair
As a student at Rio Rancho Elementary, Martinez was happy to be playing soccer with a traveling club team.
“At 11 years old, I started having back pain,” she said. “They did X-rays and found that my spine was slipping, and they needed to do surgery. … It was my sixth-grade year when I had the major back surgery; I had to be tutored most of my sixth-grade year, because I couldn’t sit in a chair … I had a plaster cast that went down both my legs. Major fusion.
“But I was a soccer player for several years, so I had a real strong core,” she said. “I recovered very well. They told me I couldn’t have kids naturally — I had all four of my kids natural.”
After recovering from surgery, while at Lincoln Middle School for an event one night, she fell into a hole in the parking lot and “broke one of the pins in my back.
“Then I got hit by a drunk driver, walking, after my surgery,” she said. “I got two broken ankles and a (big) bruise on my back.
“I had an angel with me — I had to,” she said. “My mom said that was the one time God talked to her in an audible voice, saying I’m going to be OK.
“That caused PTSD for me at a young age. I just had back surgery, and now I think I’m going to get run over.”
After recovering from that second traumatic experience, she returned to sports, playing basketball as a seventh-grader at Lincoln Middle School.
At a basketball camp at Rio Rancho High School, where she hoped to one day play for coach Bob McIntyre, “I ate a bag of cherries my mom packed for lunch, and my mom had to take me to an emergency room — I developed an allergy to fruit, all of a sudden. My throat closed up and they had to take me to the emergency room.”
Although that dream of being a varsity Ram never came about, Martinez left RRHS after her ninth-grade year, following her older brother, who had transferred to Cibola High School.
“I played club basketball with Bri Rode (a five-season player at RRHS and a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in the state), and (her mother) Charlotte Rode was my coach. I can remember being in seventh grade, going to Sports and Wellness and lifting weights; they had us running hills and everything.
“I found out (about the pregnancy) in the nurse’s office at Cibola,” she said. “I was afraid to tell my dad.
“At 15, I met somebody at church — Calvary Chapel,” she said. “Shortly after that, I found out I was pregnant. I continued to play club ball until I was eight months pregnant.”
In December 1999, Martinez gave birth.
“Abortion was never an option; an adoption, no,” she said. “I was going to woman up, take responsibility.”
That daughter, Mariah, later became a cheerleader and graduated from RRHS. Now Mariah Wright, she works from her home in Albuquerque.
“Her dad was much older. I was exposed to a lot of things I shouldn’t have been exposed to,” she said. “I went down the drug scene.
“I ended up getting married at 21, and had Angelina three years into my marriage. She’s at Rio Rancho High — she’ll be 15 Jan. 21. And then, shortly after her, my daughter Victoria — they’re 11 months apart.”
She was married to the younger girls’ father for seven years; he died of a drug overdose, Martinez said.
She had taken the girls to Colorado because that husband became abusive, “a drug addict and an alcoholic. … He was stalking me and I had restraining orders against him; I didn’t want to put my parents in jeopardy.”
Martinez and her kids had initially stayed at Haven House, but once it was discovered her husband had located her, they fled north to the Centennial State.
“During that time, (my abusive husband) died of an overdose,” she said. “It was God — God’s hand was involved in all these things.”
She did jail ministry while there, she said, until God brought her back to New Mexico in July 2016. She’d been in Montrose for five years.
Shortly after that, her mother passed away — and Martinez was then seven months pregnant with her son Santiago, now a rambunctious 5-year-old.
“He wants to play basketball because he’s around his sisters. Our whole lives are consumed with basketball,” Martinez said.
Despite all the trauma and being a young mom, Martinez took college classes after getting a high school diploma in 2001.
“I have 48 credits toward my social work degree,” she said, which is 16 credits short.
Like she hasn’t had enough bad luck, “I was going to school at three different campuses; (my car) got broken into. They stole both my laptops and all my schoolwork.
“I was already on financial probation, so I have to pay $500 to go back to school. Being a mom, and now with my kids, (and) working full time, that’s something I definitely want to pursue and finish.”
Has she had any good luck?
“The things I’ve gone through, I guess, have made me tough and strong,” she said. “I need that, because I have three girls and a boy.”
Maybe this could be considered lucky: “I married my high school sweetheart from Lincoln; we met in sixth grade,” she said.
Christopher Martinez, a member of the RRHS Class of 2002, played basketball — surprise — for the Rams.
“Finding” Christopher and soon having a baby with him, she said, was a blessing, “based on my past, and turning to things that are not good.”
Those acquainted with her — through basketball — say Martinez is a joy to know.
“It seems like a whole lifetime ago,” Bri Rode says when asked about Martinez. “She hasn’t changed much, still going at 100 miles an hour. … Her kids play a lot like her — physical as heck, defense galore, always talking —hard-nosed, her energy was 100 all the time.”
Rode’s mother, Charlotte, said, “I coached for a long time, and for me, who these kids become through playing sports is far more important.
“You can always call me; I want you to be successful in life, more than sports. I think she got involved with the wrong crowd. She had a family that wouldn’t quit on her,” said Charlotte Rode, who bailed Martinez out of jail after she’d been arrested on a drug charge — and broke her cigarettes.
“If I remember right, she was pulled over and had something that was in the car, and smoking. … We were trying to help her out with her oldest daughter, who was then a baby; (Martinez) was 18 or 19 years,” she recalled, and went above and beyond by allowing Martinez and her daughter to live with her large family.
“It was unfortunate, but you know these kids to be really good people, and when they make mistakes, we want to help them — you do what you can. Her parents allowed me to help.”
“I felt like a victim at times,” Martinez said.
Basketball was/is her life
“My most favorite moments as a child were traveling with my club team,” Martinez said, rifling through photos of her successful daughters and the recent championships they’ve won on their club teams.
At Rams’ basketball games, you’ll probably see Martinez, either running the concession stand or cheering her girls on, so that passion for the game remains.
“Amy played for us back in the day, and she was a hard worker and a good kid,” remembered RRHS girls basketball coach Lori Mabrey. “Her daughters came in and began working with us this summer, and I told them a story about their mom, which prompted her to come in and say, ‘I wondered if you remembered me.’ Of course, I remembered her!”
Sports, says Mabrey, teaches you “to never give up on yourself. You can be down, but you do not ever have to stay there, and I think only students who play on a team truly understand that message.”
Mabrey has another connection to Martinez: “Her husband was a student of mine at RRHS also, so it’s full circle for all of us. Her daughters are going to be great little players for the Rams.”
Last season, Victoria set an LMS seventh-grade scoring record with 39 points in a game.
“Victoria is super competitive, and Ang has no idea how good she can be,” Mabrey said. “I see a lot of Amy in her daughters.”
So, what should those reading her story get out of it? Martinez was asked.
“I guess the message is, never give up,” she replied. “We all go through adversity and bad luck, some because of choices, some (because of) the hand we’re dealt in life and in sports. We must never quit because the rewards are always worth it.”
Martinez also has a job that her ambitiousness has paid off.
“That’s another blessing; I’ve had my job for five years,” she said, happy to be a claims adjuster in the Safelite administration department, working from her home, which is just down the street from LMS.
“I started my job at $12 an hour. I took every training I possibly could and jumped my pay to $16, and then because I worked all though COVID … I was among the first hundred employees called back … made tons of sales for them, (and) they gave me a $6 an hour raise — so now I’m at $22.”
Her story is being heard elsewhere.
“I’ve had the opportunity to go state to state and share my testimony,” she said. “So I’ve been able to publicly speak on stage.”
And now, “As a parent of four, I’ve learned ways to communicate with them. I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work. I’m excited to be a parent.”
Amy Martinez, Jim Valvano would be proud of you.