The Rebuilding Year — a Miraculous True Story

Lenny Martelli, 16, was able to walk onto the basketball court at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia — under the glare of television cameras from news networks and ESPN — following his recovery from an accident a year before.

In sports, it’s called a rebuilding year. It’s when everything’s gone wrong, but there’s still hope for the future.

In life it’s called faith.

Everything went wrong a year ago when 15-year-old Lenny Martelli fell off his snowboard in Schwenksville, Pa. His friends gathered round him as he lay in the snow, and they heard the words nobody wanted to hear.

“I can’t move,” Lenny said.

This is a story about a year when reason allowed no reason to hope. It’s a story about a miracle that culminated on the basketball court at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia — under the glare of television cameras from news networks and ESPN.

Lenny Martelli, a 16-year-old boy, walked out onto center court holding his canes in his left hand and waved. “It wasn’t my best walking performance,” he criticized himself later with a smile.

Doctors offered the Martellis a grim prognosis. The injury had left Lenny paralyzed from the chest down. They said the statistical likelihood of Lenny ever walking again was slim to none. But sometimes that little space between slim to none is all the space a miracle needs to slip in unnoticed and change everything.

Leti Martelli was there when doctors asked Lenny if he could move — and she watched his frustration when he couldn’t. She asked the doctors every medical question she could think of and prayed at his bedside to Padre Pio and St. Thérèse. And she was there when a therapist offhandedly asked Lenny if he was related to St. Joseph’s University basketball coach Phil Martelli. He said he wasn’t, but he’d love to meet him. That was all Leti needed to hear.

Leti called St. Joe’s and asked to speak to coach Phil Martelli. She left a message, and an hour later when she picked up the phone, the coach asked if her name was really Martelli as well, and then he said, “Tell me your story.”

In the end, she asked Phil Martelli for a hat or a note with his autograph to brighten Lenny’s day. But Phil said that wouldn’t do. That wouldn’t do at all.

“What’s the room number?” he asked.

To the surprise of just about everyone, a few days later, Phil Martelli walked into Lenny’s room. Lenny was startled this man he’d only seen on television was suddenly in his hospital room. “I was just a 15-year-old kid in the hospital,” he said. “I mentioned his name once, and he came. I was shocked and amazed.”

Phil stayed for over an hour, talking to Lenny about when he was going to get up.

Lenny remembers it clearly, because Phil said “when.” Not “if.”

There was no “if” in Phil Martelli’s voice. There rarely is. There was something about Phil’s way of talking that was different from all the voices of the doctors and nurses. Prognoses just sound different than faith. Statistical likelihoods sound nothing like inspiration. Phil told the young man he was going to get up and walk. That meant a lot — more than a lot.

Phil Martelli knows statistical unlikelihood. It was statistically unlikely that a short forward from Widener University would go on to become one of the most respected basketball coaches in the country. It was statistically unlikely that a little Catholic university in Philadelphia would ever rise to a No. 1 ranking. It was statistically unlikely that Phil would be recognized as National Coach of the Year.

Before every game, while his team warms up, Phil prays in the silence of the locker room. He prays the Rosary and a prayer on the back of a card he picked up at the funeral of his first basketball coach: a prayer to St. Francis. He doesn’t pray to win the game — not ever. He prays that he’s done enough; enough to prepare his young men; enough to inspire them to be what perhaps even they didn’t know they could be.

Phil promised Lenny that day that when he was able to walk he was going to walk out on the court with him for a game.

So that became Lenny’s goal. Lenny says now that Phil’s promise gave him something to strive for. “I think it was just that I was so tired of talking to doctors. It got to me,” he said in one news report.

Phil Martelli called often to check on Lenny’s progress. And Leti would call Phil on the milestone days when Lenny did something doctors thought he wouldn’t be able to do.

Faith in the Martelli family is strong. Someone had given Lenny a Padre Pio prayer card, and “so we started to pray to Padre Pio every night,” says Leti. “And we blessed Len with Padre Pio oil every day.”

One night in the quiet of the hospital, Leti looked up and saw someone else in the room. She knew what she thought she saw but didn’t know if she believed what she was seeing. She says she saw Padre Pio in the room. Oh my, now I’m thinking I see a dead monk in the room, she thought. Her mind knew what she was seeing was impossible. It’s impossible because we’re told it’s impossible — but she also knew what she was seeing. “He walked right up towards me, but focused on Lenny. He put his arm over Lenny’s weakest leg, his right one, and then he went away.”

The next morning the therapist asked Lenny to put his arms around her and see if he could put any weight on his legs. Lenny stood up and put his arms around her.

Lenny asked, “Now what do you want me to do?”

“Walk,” she answered.

So he did. He walked all the way down the hallway. When he reached the end of the hallway, he turned and wondered to himself, How did I get from there to here?

Then he told everyone, “I told you so” in that way that only a 15-year-old could. He said he told them he would walk, and then he did.

“I believe Padre Pio was with us,” says Leti.

Lenny knew that miracles take work. Hard work. Some days he knew, just knew, that he wouldn’t be able to make it through a whole day of school at Pope John Paul II High School. But he did.

Finally, a year after the accident, Phil and Lenny walked out onto the court together. Phil walked out to center court and then stepped out of the way of the cameras, turned and applauded Lenny. Even the Xavier team stopped what they were doing to applaud Lenny. It was a Xavier player who pointed out a 40-foot-long banner to Lenny that students at St. Joe’s had made saying: “Welcome Lenny, You’re Striding Towards Greatness.”

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Matthew Archbold blogs at