Martin has woven together quite a varied life for himself in his 51 years on this earth, and shows no signs of sitting back and resting on his laurels.
“I’ve always been active. I’ve got to be doing something and involved in things. I don’t want to wake up to nothing [going on that day]. When I go to my grave, you can bet I’m going to jump out and try to do something,” Martin proclaimed. “I will keep going until I can’t anymore. My health will have to pin me down.”
One area that has always had a place close to Martin’s heart is sports, whether it is basketball, football or baseball.
“I come from a very athletic family. I’m kin to athletes all over Cleveland,” Martin said. “I remember playing my first sporting event in the second grade at Mayfield Elementary School. I made the sixth-grade team over there so I thought I was a hot dog at an early age.”
Martin was the 12th of 13 children, and credits growing up surrounded by his “tough” sisters as helping him develop a strong mental game.
“There was a house full of us when I was coming up. I had to be tough and it was the girls who made me tough, really. They helped my sports mentality,” Martin joked.
According to Martin, he never noticed much racial tension growing up in Cleveland after the Civil Rights Movement took hold. In fact, it was a young white teacher who made quite an impact in his life.
“I came around early in the ’60s when they had just integrated the school systems. The first school I went to was the Allen School and I can remember a white teacher, Ms. Watkins, and it was her first year teaching school. She was sent to a mostly black school. She was scared to death and at the time her daddy had died, making her even more emotional,” Martin explained.
“When she walked in there she was shaking, but you know she took up with us and we helped her. We didn’t know too much about the racial issues at that time, being young. She was just a nice teacher who we could cut up with. To this day we keep in touch with her and she still remembers us and calls us her black angels.”
As the years passed and Martin grew older, he began to realize how much the racial barriers were beginning to break down in the community.
While all of his family had gone to Cleveland High School, the proud and storied sports programs of Bradley Central lured the athletic-minded Martin to switch to the county school system.
Despite being one of a handful of African-American students in Bradley’s predominantly white student population, Martin never felt out of place.
“As I got older it seemed like the barrier was kind of breaking down and racial tensions were getting better. How I know it got better for me, when I was in high school, I was elected as Mr. Bradley in my senior year at a predominantly white school. That let me know that we had come a long way as far as racial barriers,” Martin described. “I got along with everybody — black, white, anyone. You should be treated like a human being no matter what color you are. I don’t look at color and I didn’t look at it back then, because of how I was raised.”
While athletics took up the majority of Martin’s time, he was never just your stereotypical campus athlete.
“I wasn’t the typical jock. I made good grades and studied a lot. I guess playing ball kept me out of trouble. If I wasn’t playing ball, I was hitting the books. I was a ‘B’ student all throughout high school and college,” Martin proudly proclaimed. “You can play ball and get good grades at the same time. Everyone is being held accountable for education now, and that’s a good thing.”
After graduating in 1981, Martin signed to play baseball with Seminole (Okla.) Junior College (now Seminole State College).
During Phonnie’s run with Seminole, the baseball team was ranked first in the nation, and in 1982 went all they way to the JUCO World Series in Grand Junction, Colo.
While the team ultimately lost to No. 2 Middle Georgia, the JUCO World Series still ranks high in Martin’s memories.
“Another highlight of my life has to be scoring the first run of the JUCO World Series in Grand Junction, Colo., after my daddy died. I remember that bus ride all the way from Seminole, Okla., to Colorado. I even told the governor of Oklahoma that I was going to score the first run of the World Series for my daddy. It was a very emotional moment in front of 10,000 people as I got on base in that first inning, then someone hit that ball down the baseline and I never stopped running.”
Martin returned to his home state of Tennessee to play ball for the Volunteers, and even played some semipro baseball in Illinois.
Unfortunately for Martin, his 5-foot-6 frame left him “undesirable” for the baseball scouts of the time, and he was never drafted.
“I didn’t get drafted for baseball so I wasn’t sure what to do with my life. My buddy, Eric Bradford, and I were talking one day and we decided to go into the service. He went into the Marines, while I decided to join the Navy,” Martin detailed. “Joining the military was always my last-resort plan. I got to see a lot of the world and really enjoyed the experience of being in the Navy.”
It was while in the Navy that Martin was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, which would have a lasting impact on his life.
“I always thought I took care of myself, so when I was first diagnosed I was in denial. It came as a shock because throughout all of my career playing sports I had never been hurt or had any serious injuries,” Martin stated.
After his four years in the Navy were up, Martin came back to Cleveland, got married, had three children (Blake, Brandi and Jaylon) and began working at Bowater until he retired 23 years later in 2012.
The first year of retirement has been quite an adjustment for an always active and involved Martin.
“I’m bored to death because my life had a routine to it for 23 years. Now I’m waking up every day not sure what to do. I’ve been getting involved more in my organizations and getting back into a routine.”
Part of Martin’s routine and lifestyle that has never changed, and will never change, is his desire to give back to the community, serving as a role model for the young people of Cleveland.
“I like to give back because I had a lot of people who influenced me through sports and life. I coached around in the Cleveland area for a long time once I moved back home. I took time to coach whatever sport I could. I just like helping kids and trying to steer them in the right direction in life,” Martin commented.
“I’m a life coach: I coach life, not just sports. I try to make sure that I give them a little extra advice and teach them right from wrong. I’m not their mama or daddy, but I’m real close.”
As well as being involved with the 100 Black Men of Bradley County Inc.’s mentoring program, Martin is also trying to bring back a Big Brother, Big Sister Program to Cleveland.
“I came up through the Big Brother program and watched Phil Bazel and Larry Carpenter over at Lee. I had several role models growing up. I watched everything and everybody and had many positive influences,” Martin explained.
Martin’s health has been reduced due to his diabetes, which has made him lose kidney function and forced him into undergoing dialysis regularly.
Despite the blow to his health, Phonnie is still determined to be that positive light in someone’s day.
“I’m going through a bad situation now with my health, but because I know who is on my side and the life I’ve lived ... I stay upbeat. People always wonder why I’m always smiling and never seem bothered by anything. I don’t see the point in being miserable,” Martin said. “I’m a positive person, always have and always will be. You never know who needs a smile.”
The feedback Martin has received from those whose lives he has influenced over the years has helped to keep him moving in the right direction.
“That’s what has been keeping me going and feeling good. Some of the kids I used to coach or have been around have come back and said, ‘Phonnie, I really appreciate all you did for me. It really helped me.’ That’s a reward for me and the positive feedback keeps me going,” Martin explained.
According to Martin, the Lord has blessed his life in numerous ways, none of which have been taken for granted.
“God has allowed me to do so much, so well, that if I didn’t have to do anything else, I would feel that my life has been a success. If my life ended today I’d have to be thankful to Him for what He has done for me,” Martin declared. “There’s been some ups and downs, but I’ve had more ups then downs. I believe He’s blessed me because He knows my heart and knows what I’m about.”
In his efforts to continually serve God, Martin has seen the value in serving others as well.
“We’re here to serve Him, and other people. That’s our mission and our purpose,” Martin stated. “Whatever someone needs, if I’ve got it I’m going to give it. He’s taught me how to give because He’s given me the greatest gift there is. I feel like it’s my job to make people happy and enjoy life. I think that’s my purpose right there: I’ve been doing it all along, but I’ve just now figured that out after 51 years.”