Bill Martens had a way of bringing out the best in others and making them feel important.
Whether teaching physical education or coaching distance runners, Martens found ways to make a positive impact on those around him.
In the week since his death, it’s become clear just how much the Aberdeen Central girls’ cross country coach and Lincoln Elementary PE teacher connected with others.
A De Smet native, Martens came to the Hub City to run for Northern State. Two of his teammates at the time happened to be current Central coaches Jim Appl and Greg Murley. The trio formed a lifetime friendship.
“I’ve never had a brother. Bill had all brothers,” Appl said. “I was fortunate enough that in my lifetime I’ve been able to call two people my brothers, and that’s Coach Murley and Coach Martens.”
Martens began his coaching career at Aberdeen Roncalli and then moved over to Central. Soon, the numbers began to soar in the girls’ cross country program.
“Bill just drew people in. People wanted to be a part of the program he was running,” Appl said. “That’s a credit to him.”
And once they were in the program, they never wanted to leave.
Even when runners knew they weren’t good enough to be among the elite, they stuck with it because of one man.
“When you have seniors on your team that may not be good enough to run varsity, but they still want to be part of the program, that’s the biggest compliment you can get,” Appl said.
The kids felt loved and appreciated under Martens’ guidance, regardless of their running abilities.
“The key with Bill was always this, whether you were his best runner or you were a JV kid, he was always trying to figure out what he could do to make you better and help you get better,” Appl said.
While Martens won numerous coaching awards during his career, it was never about him. Ever.
“It was always about the kids and getting better and improving,” Appl said, “and that’s all he cared about.”
When the training worked, it was the kids who got the credit. When it didn’t, it was Martens who shouldered the blame.
Appl would always ask Martens about how the distance runners performed on the bus ride home after track and field meets. Martens would talk about the kids who improved and then also talk about things he needed to work on for those that didn’t.
“If they ran great, he would give them all the credit,” Appl said, “and if not, he’d say I have to do something different to make them better.”
All the while, treating each of the individuals with respect and concern.
“Whether you were his first runner or his 50th runner on his cross country team, everyone felt important,” Appl said. “What more can you say other than that?”
As a result, through the years Martens earned the respect of all of those who worked with him, both athletes and fellow coaches.
“I have the utmost respect for him,” Appl said, “and I’ll never ever be as good a coach as he was.”
From the days of handing the baton to each other on the NSU mile relay team, to being in each other’s weddings, to watching each other’s family grow, Appl and Martens shared a special bond.
One that won’t ever be forgotten.
“I’m the lucky one,” Appl said. “I don’t know why someone as good looking, athletic and smart as Bill chose to be around someone like me in college when I was on the track team, other than I brought a little entertainment and humor to his life, maybe.”
Appl, like countless others, experienced through the years that when you were around Bill Martens, life always seemed a little better.
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