He was “the calm in the water,” said Modesto Christian High football coach Mike Parsons, and a catalyst in the Crusaders’ run to a share of the Trans-Valley League championship last fall.
Assistant coach Jeff Martin died unexpectedly Saturday. He was 47. Martin is survived by his wife Nicole, son Austin, and the Crusader football family.
The team gathered at Parsons' home on Saturday afternoon to honor a football coach whose commitment went beyond the Xs and Os. Among those hit hardest by the news was senior linebacker/fullback Paul Puaauli, Martin's neighbor. Martin often gave Puaauli a ride home from practice.
“I lost not only a football coach, but a brother,” Parsons said. “When I got my first head job, I asked my coach what the most important thing was, and he said, ‘No. 1, loyalty by the coaches.’ You can coach coaches and give them drills, but if they’re not loyal to you, you’re going to have issues. Jeff was the epitome of a loyal friend. He gave me input, but at the end of the day, he understood it was my program. He was good about the way he had my back. We became good friends, like best friends.”
The cause of death is still unknown, Parsons said, but may be related to an enlarged heart. Martin, a strong man with a wide smile, firm handshake and passion for the game of football, had recently been hospitalized with atrial fibrillation.
Still, Parsons thought Martin’s health concerns were behind him. Together, they had made a pact to take better care of their bodies. They had begun to work out more and eat better, and Parsons could see the difference in Martin’s appearance. He was leaner.
“We were holding each other accountable,” Parsons said. “We were talking food. We’d see an article and share it. He was getting healthy and looking good. … This is a rough one. He was a great friend.
“The (atrial fibrillation) procedure was supposed to do the trick,” he added. “He was excited and feeling better every day.”
Martin coached the defensive line at the junior varsity and varsity levels for the Crusaders, who rallied from a 1-4 start to win a share of the TVL title and qualify for the Sac-Joaquin Section postseason.
Modesto Christian won six of its final eight games, including three straight in November to reach the Division VI section final at Lincoln High.
An off-campus coach, Martin also represented Modesto Christian at the weekly Modesto Quarterback Club luncheon at Coach’s Corner, where he’d exchange highlights and scouting reports with the city’s other football coaches and fans.
Martin graduated from Beyer High, where he played linebacker.
“He looks like a linebacker – goatee, tattoos everywhere – but he really was a teddy bear,” Parsons said. “He was big time on second chances, because he didn’t get a second chance in high school. He was the calm in the water and a good peacemaker.”
The Crusaders' struggles resurfaced in the section final. Modesto Christian was beaten by TVL rival Hilmar, 42-13, but the coaching staff didn’t waste time bemoaning the loss. They went back to work, and at the top of Parsons’ list was naming Martin the new head coach of the JV team.
“To give us a spark, we were going to put Jeff at JV,” Parsons said. “The kids love him, and he was excited and fired up. If you had a problem with Jeff, well, you better look in the mirror. He was loyal and everyone loved him. He had that gift; he was a kid magnet. They wanted to play hard for him and didn’t want to let him down.”
Parsons won’t make another football decision until after Martin’s memorial on March 31 at Calvary Chapel at 1 p.m.
“I can’t replace him. I’m just pushing the pause button and focusing on honoring Jeff,” Parsons said. “I want to take this time to mourn him … to honor him. We’ll see about JV and D-line football down the road. We’re in no hurry.”
A GoFundMe page has been established to help Nicole and Austin.
“Jeff was known for his energy and full-throttle encouraging spirit,” Rob Sauser wrote on the page. Sauser is the father of Modesto Christian quarterback Hayden Sauser.
“He loved people from every walk of life. He hugged, fist-bumped and love-tapped people everywhere. We have an incredible opportunity to encourage his family in this time of need. I know he was known for encouraging his teams to come together and become a fist. As individuals, we are like fingers. Not impressive by ourselves, but if we put our energy together we can become a fist of tremendous power.”