By Jenny Neyman
Most of the football team at Pacific Lutheran University, in Tacoma, Wash., never met Mathias Nikola Martin. They never saw for themselves the Kenai 9-year-old’s blue eyes, every-which-way blonde hair and mischievous smile, which, even when posed, looked like he was on the verge of being up to something.
They’d never witnessed Matti’s independent streak, making him decide pet rats would be cool. Or his fearlessness — why not go barefoot in January? They’ve never had to hide their gum from his creative attempts to filch it away or been worn out by his endless energy, which carried him up and back the junior Mount Marathon race in Seward on the Fourth of July, finishing second in his age group.
But they know their teammate, Richard Isett, knew Matti, loved him as part of his extended Kenai family, and was grieving from Matti’s death this summer. That was enough for the team to extend their hearts to the towheaded boy, who now smiles at them from a blown-up picture hung in the locker room.
Isett, 24, a junior at PLU, finds inspiration in Matti, and can’t help but imagine what a welcome ruckus the little boy would cause if he were able to climb down off the wall and into the midst of all the guys.
“I think Matti would have been blown away. He’d be having a blast giving high fives to the guys on the team, trying on the helmets and stuff. I can see the big old shoulder pads on little Matti,” Isett said.
Ronna Martin and her family didn’t know what to expect when Isett came to live with them at Diamond M Ranch on Kalifornsky Beach Road in Kenai about three years ago. Having him escorted by police officers got things off to an awkward start.
Isett is from Juneau, where he played football in high school and dreamed of going on to play college ball. An injury had him sidelined from the field with a prescription for pain meds. The injury abated, but his interest in the pain meds didn’t, and he ended up in legal trouble, Martin said. He was sent to serve his sentence in Kenai in 2006.
Isett was eligible to get out early for good behavior, and serve the rest of his sentence under house arrest with an ankle monitor. But Isett had no family or friends in Kenai, no place to go. His dad, Richard Isett Sr., made his way through the Kenai phone book, trying to find a lodge, bed and breakfast or anywhere else that would be willing to take in his son.
He finally tried the Diamond M Ranch and talked to Blair Martin, Ronna’s husband. He’s a good kid, Dick Isett said, won’t be any trouble, really wants to put this behind him and get on with his life.
“Blair said, ‘Well, we’ll think about it.’ Like, ‘A drug addict on our property with five kids? I don’t think so,’” Ronna Martin said.
But the next time Dick Isett called, he got Ronna, whose heart softened like butter in a sunbeam.
“We thought about it a little bit more. ‘Well, what do we have to lose? He messes up, we call the cops, they come take him back.’ My heart just went out to his dad and the situation. We have that kind of heart, so we were like, ‘OK, we’re going to go for this,’” she said.
A police escort brought Isett to the property in April. The Martins set him up in a barn apartment at first, but it was already reserved for the summer, so they moved Isett into a 1976 bus they had used to tour the Lower 48 on a homeschool family trip in 2003. The bus had furniture but no facilities, so they parked it out in front of their home next to the bathhouse, where Isett could be close enough to a phone line that his ankle monitor would work.
At first, Isett and the Martins sort of left each other alone. But with all the activity on the ranch, it is difficult to be anti-social. Especially with five kids who are as friendly to people as they are to the ranch’s many animals, particularly the younger three, Darius and Sonora, who are 8 and 6 now, and Matti, who was 9 when he died this summer.
“Whatever’s cool with Mom and Dad is cool with them. I don’t think they had any preconceived issues there,” Ronna said. “He just right away was ‘Yes ma’am, yes sir,’ just very respectful. He just was an absolutely lovable guy right from the beginning.”
It wasn’t long before Isett fit right in. He’d get up early to help the kids milk cows at 6:30 a.m. He paid the Martin’s oldest, D.Anne, to wash and fold his laundry for him. And the kids were always up for some kind of game. D.Anne had the best arm in football, Isett said, but it was Matti that ran him ragged.
“Matti had more energy than anyone I’ve ever met before,” Isett said. “He was extremely creative, too, and extremely smart. He was full of life and almost always smiling. He was a bright kid, very smart and fun, but energetic — phew.”
Once summer was over, Isett moved into an apartment in the main house, next to the Martins’. He’d help Matti and Darius with their reading in the afternoon, and reward them with gum for good behavior. They weren’t above finding the gum on their own in Isett’s apartment, though, and that was a running game between them. When Isett lived in the bus, he’d occasionally get woken up by Matti and Darius climbing up onto the roof, Ronna said.
“They just loved Rich. They’d run and he’d grab them and throw them in the air. He just loved the kids. He was good with them right away. By the time he moved to the bus, we had a real good relationship,” Ronna said.
The ranch has a tradition of a potluck meal on Saturdays, and the Martins would bring Isett a plate of food, or cookies or whatever other goodies came out of the oven. In June, the ranch hosted a Christian music festival over solstice weekend. The Martins designated him as “security” so he could attend the concert, because if he was working, he could be off the ankle monitor. He stayed on at the ranch after finishing his house arrest that winter, and enrolled for a semester at Kenai Peninsula College’s River City Campus. After that, he got accepted into PLU and made their football team. He lived with the Martins for about 10 months, Ronna said.
“He was really just always fun and had a really cool sense of humor and was just really cool to hang out with,” D.Anne said. “We’d play football with him a lot out in the yard. He taught us some tricks and stuff. He was just really cool.”
After Isett headed off to PLU, he and the Martins stayed in touch, with e-mails and text messages between him and the two oldest kids, D.Anne and Josiah, phone calls back and forth every few months, and reading the Martins’ newsletter.
“He just kind of became part of the family,” Ronna said.
Isett was at a football retreat in August when he heard about Matti’s death. It happened Aug. 21 at the Kenai Peninsula State Fair in Ninilchik. Matti was grazing a milk cow, and tied its lead rope around his waist. The cow spooked and bolted, and dragged Matti with it. Isett’s dad called his son to tell him what happened.
“That was definitely not the news you wanted to hear,” Isett said. “They had just become really close. They became my family when I moved there. They’re still my extended family. I like to think of myself as an adopted member of the family.”
Isett’s coach, Scott Westering, and teammates rallied around him for support.
“I asked Scott if we could do something for the family. Scott said, ‘Absolutely, we’ll get on it as soon we get home,’” Isett said.
There’s a team tradition of sending out rainbow signs — a rainbow on butcher paper with all the team’s signatures and well-wishes on it — for family members or close friends needing support. But they were out of signs, and Isett didn’t want to wait, so they instead filled out Lute Salutes — postcards with the Lute logo on one side, blank on the other. Each and every one of the 102 people on the football team filled out a card to send to the Martins.
“They all sat down and wrote the Martins an individual paragraph, each expressing remorse and that their heart goes out to them,” Isett said. “And they went to a lot of effort on those, too. Not just, ‘My thoughts and prayers are with you.’ Some of the cards, I think, put it best. They said, ‘If the Martins are family, then they’re also my teammate’s family.’ I have the best teammates in the world. It didn’t surprise me that they came through. Not the least bit.”
Isett may not have been surprised at the effort his teammates put forth to show support over Matti’s death, but the Martins sure were. A box with the cards showed up at the ranch, and at first Ronna let it sit on a counter, thinking it was a recruitment package for D.Anne. They were going to get away to a friend’s lake house, and Ronna grabbed the box, thinking it’d be something to read while she was there.
“It totally blew me away,” she said. “Every single player sent us a card, and they weren’t just little unthoughtful thoughts, were very heartfelt. Just very, very touching.”
From Erik Hoium, No. 4: “Getting to know the type of person Rich is leads me to ask where it is he came from, what his family was like. Rich speaks so highly about your entire family and all you have done in his life. It takes amazing people to have that kind of effect on people they’re not related to. Thank you for all you have done for him, and know that an entire football team is thinking and praying for you. We want you to know God and know a few different communities are pulling for you.”
From Mike Wickens, No. 10: “As we heard the news of your tragic loss, our hearts go out to you. It’s always a sad day when a loved one is lost, just want your family to know that your family is in our thoughts and prayers. Although none of us have met your son, Rich tells us that it’s our loss to have never met such an amazing person. God bless.”
The friends the Martins were visiting suggested they should go down to PLU and watch one of the team’s games. The idea is not one that would ever have occurred to them, Ronna said, especially with having to get six plane tickets on short notice. But the more they thought about it, the more they thought it would be fun, especially for the younger kids, who really needed a dose of fun at that point.
Ronna asked Blair’s mother, JoAnne, to look for mileage tickets for them. Sure enough, they were able to reserve enough tickets to get the whole family down to Washington.
“I was like, ‘OK, awesome, I get to see the Martins,’ but more than anything I wanted the kids to have a good time coming down, especially Toad (Darius). It hit him pretty hard. Toad and Matti were right there together all the time,” Isett said.
The Martins arrived Oct. 22, visited Isett, toured the campus with him and watched a video of Matti’s memorial service together. On Oct. 23, they visited the team’s practice.
“I said I wanted an opportunity to personally thank the football team for the heartfelt cards that they sent,” Ronna said.
On the flight down, she wrote up a little speech to make to the coach and team. She soon realized the team had made preparations for the visit, as well. They presented the girls with T-shirts and the boys with jerseys.
“They just totally loved on us, and it was just so awesome,” Ronna said.
The next day, the Martins attended a PLU home game against crosstown rivals University of Puget Sound. They sat with Isett’s dad, down from Juneau, and his mom, down from Anchorage. During halftime, the family went to hang out with the team in the locker room, where Coach Westering had hung up a photo of Matti. Some of the players had written his name on their eye black, or around their wrists. PLU won the game, 35-13.
“Rich was the point kicker for extra points. He made five of those 35 points. And he got to play some defense and tackled the guy with ball once. We were sitting with his mom and dad and just were all keeping an eye on him. It was, ‘Oh, Rich is out. Everybody watch.’ It was cool,” Ronna said. “We thanked (his parents) for letting us also adopt Rich and be part of the whole family.”
“That was really cool, I’ve never been to a real football game before,” D.Anne said. “It was really fun to watch that, and all his teammates were all really cool and fun to be around. They were just really awesome. They kind of made us part of the team and family.”
After the game, the Martins were invited to the traditional After Glow, where the team and their families gather, discuss the game and highlight a standout player.
“Scott talked about Matti and the Martins. He called them up and they got a standing ovation from everybody in there. It was very touching,” Isett said.
Isett’s team has since signed footballs and sent them to the Martins as a keepsake of the trip, although they’ve already got memories of the trip to add to their memories of Matti. None of which will be fading anytime soon.
And at PLU, Matti’s picture is still hanging in the locker room, that impish little grin an inspiration of how people, even strangers, can pull together as a team, and as family.
“Coach wanted the team to see him, just to show them who they’d been praying for and who this was. It’s always tragic when you hear of someone passing away, especially a child, but when you don’t see the face, it’s tough,” Isett said. “It blew my mind that coach went out of his way like that. I can’t thank my coach enough for that.
“As far as Matti, I love Matti and I miss him. He was a great child, just full of energy and kind of a rascal. And I love the Martins. They are my family, and the least I could do was talk to my coach and help to get some fun and get them to have a good experience down here.”