By Bryan Burwell
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
10/10/2005


From his hospital bed late Monday afternoon, Mike Martz's voice was still choked with emotion. No doubt there was an IV tube stuck in his arm and all sorts of folks in lab coats and drab green hospital garb urgently coming in and out the door. There would be medical charts dangling from the edge of his bed, and unknown gizmos with strange tubes and pulsing sounds hooked up to him, letting you know that whatever it was that's ailing him was not a trifling thing.

This was an incredibly sobering moment in his life, a frightening flash of reality that finally struck Martz square on his obsessive, workaholic coach's chin. It was time to walk away from the game, because, well it is just a game. It was time to walk away from football because the potentially deadly virus that's creeping through his body clearly is no game.

"Last Friday, I finally realized I couldn't do this anymore," Martz said during a telephone interview from an undisclosed local hospital about an hour after it was announced that he was taking an indefinite medical leave of absence because of a bacterial infection in his heart valve. "I can't begin to describe the feeling of pain I felt. I've never felt anything like this before in my life. I knew this was deadly serious, and for the first time in my life, there was this incredible frustration to deal with. I've been in sports all my life, but this was something I wasn't able to outhit, outcoach, or outwork."

So now he laid flat on his back, maybe even a little woozy from the medication pumping into his veins. He didn't want to be there, and quite frankly probably would have been behind his desk at Rams Park getting bleary eyed watching game film if not for the scared-straight conversation with team doctors and heart specialists who let him know in no uncertain terms that the workaholic tough guy in him was going to kill him.

But the more Martz talked, the more his conversation drifted away from the seriousness of endocarditis. I reminded him about his retirement plans. I reminded him of how excited he was when he talked about the vacation home in the hills and the ranch in the wilderness, and how important it was to get well so that he could actually grow old enjoying those special places. But Martz didn't want to talk about that. All he wanted to do was talk about his football players, his football team, his football life.

"This job is what I love," Martz said. "I do love all those other things in life, but I'm a football coach. That's who I am, that's what I do. I can't imagine doing anything other than this."

A few hours earlier, Martz stood in front of a room full of puzzled players in the giant auditorium at Rams Park. The players had no idea that their head coach was about drop a bombshell on them. "I've been playing football for a long time and I can tell you, you don't have many meetings like that," said defensive captain Tyoka Jackson. "Mike came into the room and he had a big smile on his face. Then all of a sudden, boom, he drops the news on us ... and you could tell he was getting emotional, getting choked up, so he quickly said what he had to say then walked out of the room before we could see the emotion he was going through."

The meeting began at 2 o'clock sharp.

It was over at 2:03 sharp.

"As he left the room," said Jackson, "there was this 30-second count where no one in the room moved. It was totally still. It was like, 'What the heck just happened here?' It was like, 'What are we supposed to do now?' Then one guy slowly got up, then another one, and then the whole room slowly emptied. Guys were stunned."

As they came streaming out of the big glass doors and onto the Rams Park parking lot, the players slowly walked to their cars without uttering a word. Leonard Little looked devastated, just shaking his head as he was approached.

And inside the building, already upstairs in his office, Martz was an emotional wreck as well. I asked him what took him so long to get to this point. I wondered why he kept ignoring the obvious signs that his health was clearly declining.

He had almost fainted on the sidelines in San Francisco. He could barely walk after the game in New York. An hour before last Sunday's game against Seattle, he sat inside his private office at the Edward Jones Dome with an IV stuck in his veins.

"It's so complicated, really," Martz said. "But I guess it's because of the players. I feel I have this tremendous obligation to the athletes, as if I'm letting them down ... They're like my own kids. I worry about them. I truly do."

Outside the walls of Rams Park (and maybe inside, too), there are cynical minds who look at what is happening to Martz as a blessing in disguise. They are already imagining that his illness could open the door to a coaching-staff housecleaning at the end of the season.

I'm looking at this as a blessing in disguise, too, but for entirely different reasons. I no longer care very much about all the frustrating moments that have come to define his very successful, yet highly controversial era as the Rams head coach. That all seems so inconsequential now when compared with the real-life seriousness of an ailing heart. So as we finished our conversation, I asked Martz if he was finally scared straight.

"Can you finally walk away from the game now?" I wondered.

"I didn't think so before," said Martz. "But I can now ... But that's not going to happen. I'll be back. I'll be back on the sidelines again."