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Forty-two years.

Who — even a beloved teacher and coach — stays at one school for 42 years?

Anthony Samuel Martino — that's who. And on Saturday afternoon at the Hixson High School football field that bears his name, more than a few from the Hixson community ignored 94-degree heat and stifling humidity long enough to celebrate the remarkable life of the Wildcats coach, athletic director and mentor who passed away February 2nd at the age of 93.

"He made an impact on so many lives," said Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who was the starting quarterback on the best Hixson football team Martino ever coached in 1972. "I know he made a huge impact on me."

To honor that, Coppinger presented the coach's family a written proclamation that made Saturday "Anthony Martino Day" throughout the county.

State representative Robin Smith, another Hixson High grad, rightly labeled Martino a "legend," then handed his daughter JoEllen Martino Collier a resolution from the 112th General Assembly that was signed by Governor Bill Lee and recognized her father's vast contributions to the school and community from 1952 to 1994, when he retired.

Pastor Courtney Kruegar of First Cumberland Presbyterian told of Martino being without a car when he was first hired after his days as an undersized offensive lineman for Scrappy Moore's University of Chattanooga Mocs.

The Hixson principal at the time, Dean Petersen, agreed to pick up Martino at his and wife Billie Jean's downtown residence and take him to school each day. But because the coach was always there later than Petersen in the afternoons, "He had to hitchhike home each night," Kruegar explained. The couple bought a '53 Chevrolet the following year.

"If one word could sum him up," said Kruegar, "it was perseverance."

Then the stadium portion of the event ended, first with nine white doves being released into the bright blue sky, then bagpiper Gary Youngberg, appropriately dressed in a black and gold kilt, serenading the crowd with "Amazing Grace."

But it was the stories told once the celebration moved into the school's air-conditioned interior that most stood out.

Former Hixson basketball, volleyball and softball coach Janet Tate remembered feeling unusually nervous about a softball playoff game with East Ridge one spring. She finally went to Martino for advice.

"Never let them see you sweat," he told her. "If they see you're nervous, they'll be nervous. Be positive and calm."

"I did what he said," Tate recalled. "And we not only beat East Ridge that day, we went on to win the state. He was such a mentor."

Pat Murphy — not only one of the best wrestlers in Hixson High history, but also UT-Chattanooga — remembered injuring his knee in football his senior year, which put his chances to defend his state wrestling title at 185 pounds in jeopardy.

"Coach took me under his wing," said Murphy. "There weren't scopes (micro-surgeries) back then. They put you in a cast. I thought I was done for the year. But when the cast came off, he started running me up and down the hills at St. Jude. I was able to wrestle again about a week before the district meet. I couldn't get down to 185, but I won the state heavyweight class at 205. I couldn't have done that without him."

Scott "Quake" McMahen recalled when a couple of student suicides stung the school in the late 1980s.

"Coach encouraged everybody to talk to somebody," said McMahen. "He told all of us, 'I'm here for you.' He cared about every student at this school."

Not that Martino didn't have a tough side, as one might expect of the son of Italian immigrants — his father was also a coal miner — who grew up in Pittston, Pennsylvania, before Moore brought him south.

"He controlled the halls of the school," said Coppinger. "He was a guy a lot of the student body feared."

Gary Brown, one Martino's best basketball players during the 1960s when the Wildcats won three straight county championships, recalled one practice when he couldn't hit a layup.

"This was during the days of Beatles haircuts," said Brown. "Coach stopped practice and sent a teammate to fetch a pair of scissors from the training room. He sat me down under the goal and started cutting. When he was done, my Beatles haircut didn't have any bangs."

Wayne Emery was a star running back on that '72 team. He remembered meeting with Martino the Monday after he'd fumbled three times against Tyner.

"You know what we call running backs who fumble three times in a game?" Martino asked him.

"What, coach?" Emery responded.

"An offensive guard," replied the coach.

Smith recalled Martino yelling at her to, "Get off the (gym) floor wearing those boots."

They all had stories, and they came from everywhere to tell them, including Emery from Franklin and Larry Sims and Charlie Myatt from Murfreesboro. It was the kind of love and loyalty one might expect for someone who was married 70 years to Billie Jean, who was a warm, wonderful father to JoEllen and Tony, a grandfather of four and great grandfather of four more.

Nor did Martino retire from life when he retired from Hixson High. He worked out weekly at the Sports Barn until COVID-19 hit. He helped Murphy renovate his home, building a deck and a porch. He also built beautiful stone walls around the family's Big Ridge home. He even helped build the football stadium that would eventually be named for him.

"He was a Yankee who never went back home," said JoEllen.

And isn't the entire Hixson community lucky he didn't?

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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