On Sunday, Sept. 16, CSU alumna Kelsey Martinez will walk into the stadium of the team she grew up cheering for – the Denver Broncos – for the first time. And she’ll be wearing the colors of the team she used to cheer against – the Oakland Raiders.
And in the process, Martinez (B.S. Health and Exercise Science, ’15) will continue a tradition for female graduates of CSU: breaking glass ceilings in the world of big-time professional athletics.
“I’m super-excited for that game,” the Pueblo native said of the meeting of the AFC West rivals, set for 2 p.m. at Broncos Stadium at Mile High. “I know how big the rivalry is, but I’m also excited because my family will be there to see what I do for the first time. When I first left for Florida three years ago to begin this journey, they all thought I was crazy.”
Long journey from home
Actually, her journey began long before that in Pueblo, her hometown. Martinez always loved sports and was good enough to earn a spot on the softball team at Bethany College in Kansas, but she longed to live in her home state and found a home at CSU in the health and exercise science program.
Working closely with Wendy DeYoung, senior teaching instructor in the program, Martinez discovered a passion for working with athletes to help them reach their fitness and strength goals.
“When I gave up softball, I missed being part of an organized team and all that goes with that,” she said. “But when I picked my major (a concentration in health promotion), I looked at the people in the program as a team – kind of like a family. I had great teachers and the class sizes really gave me a chance to learn. And Wendy DeYoung was a huge influence.
“Honestly, I can’t imagine getting a better education.”
A turning point for Martinez came when she did a practicum with DeYoung in Smart Fit Girls – a program created by former CSU graduate students Chrissy Chard (now a faculty member) and Kellie Walters. Martinez worked with girls at Wellington Middle School, helping them achieve the program’s goal: empowering young adolescents to love themselves by embracing their own strength (both on the inside and the outside).
“Kelsey did a fabulous job in that practicum,” DeYoung said. “When she worked with those girls, she always went above and beyond, doing exceptional work. And she practiced what she preached, making sure she was very well-conditioned herself.”
Martinez still needed to do an internship to complete her degree, but she wasn’t content applying for just any internship. She convinced DeYoung to help her apply for a spot at Tom Shaw Performance at ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Fla., which has an international reputation for helping athletes prepare to compete at the highest levels of sports.
“We encourage our students to apply for these prestigious internships,” DeYoung said. “Kelsey buckled down, got prepared and did an amazing job in her interview. She was over-the-top excited when she got that internship. She went out and paved her own road.”
Martinez worked closely with founder Tom Shaw – a renowned innovator in the sports fitness and training world. Shaw had previously worked for Florida State and the New Orleans Saints before earning three Super Bowl rings as the strength and conditioning coach with the New England Patriots.
“Not only did I get a chance to learn from the very best strength coach (Shaw), I got to work with 10 or 12 current or former NFL players on a regular basis,” Martinez said, adding that clients included dozens of professional and college athletes. “It was an amazing experience.”
Shaw hired Martinez following her internship and she spent nearly four years in Orlando. Along the way she got to know Jon Gruden, who ran his annual quarterback camps in Orlando. When Gruden was hired to coach the Raiders, one of his first moves to bring Shaw to Oakland, making sure Martinez was part of his team.
Another Ram making history
As a result, Martinez joins a remarkable list of CSU alumnae breaking down barriers in the male-dominated world of professional sports. Former Rams basketball great Becky Hammon in 2014 was named the first full-time assistant coach in a major sport with the San Antonio Spurs, and Jenny Cavnar earlier this year became the first woman in 25 years to do TV play-by-play in Major League Baseball when she called a Rockies-Padres game.
Even though Martinez is the first female assistant coach in the long and storied history of the Raiders – and one of only a handful in NFL history – she doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about being a pioneer.
“I had a lot of encouragement from the professional athletes I worked with in Orlando, and I had developed a lot of confidence in my ability working with some of the best athletes in the world,” she said. “I actually expected the reaction from the players to be positive, and it has been. It has been a whirlwind since March 1 (the day she was hired) but it has been amazing.”
She has been scrambling for weeks trying to find tickets for about a dozen family members planning to come to see her in action Sunday. She can’t wait to see them.
“I realize that working in the NFL is an amazing opportunity that not many in my field get – especially women,” she said. “It has been a lot of work but it has been an amazing experience. I’m just going to keep working hard and learning every day.”