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RUPERT • The sun begins to set behind the press box at Bill Matthews Field, but Martin Okelberry's busy Friday night is just getting started.

An hour before kickoff, players put on their pads and game faces in the locker room while Martin rummages through the equipment room making sure the tool boxes are filled with athletic tape and spare helmet parts.

Martin fills large orange water coolers. Years ago he used to carry them; however, by the time he got across the field, they would be empty and he'd be drenched. Nowadays he doesn't spill a drop loading them onto the John Deere utility vehicle, which he refuses to drive.

"I don't think so," he says when someone suggests he take the wheel. At 27 years old, Martin doesn't have a driver's license.

"My mom won't let me," he says, so she drives Martin around town and Minico head coach Tim Perrigot takes him home after games.

Now in his 12th season as Minico High's manager, Martin has watched a lot of Spartan football games.

"Eighty-five," he says proudly.

He says he's keeping track so that he can, "set the record" - whatever that might be. He remembers Minico games the same uncanny way he remembers everybody's birthday. However, ask him who his favorite players on the team are and he'll say, "Dane Broadhead and Brady May and Poke Morgan and Landon Barnes," although all but May graduated years ago.

"They're good and they're nice to me," Martin says of the players' kindness, which he returns with fierce loyalty.

"Hey Martin," someone calls out as Martin makes his way to the home sideline. Fans, players and coaches have all embraced their passionate manager. "Minico going to lose tonight?"

"I don't think so," comes the predictable reply.

                                              ***

Martin started managing the football team during his sophomore year of high school. Like most managers, he was expected to move on after graduating in 2003, but fate stepped in. The movie "Radio" was released that fall, and Minico's coaches found a way to bring Martin back as a paid manager.

"You couldn't take it away from him," said his father, Randy Okelberry. "It would probably break his heart if you took it away from him."

Randy Okelberry is the head custodian at Minico's cross-river rival, Burley High. He's learned not to talk about the rivalry at home.

"If I start saying something about Minico, then I guarantee I'll have a fight on my hands," Randy Okelberry said. "In fact, we've come to the point that if I bash Minico, I guarantee we're going to have an argument. So I just don't say anything and we get along just fine."

The blonde-haired young man is shy by nature, but if you're foolish enough to question Minico, the Broncos, the Lakers or the Red Sox, Martin will let you have it. To get him fired up, just ask about Denver quarterback Tim Tebow.

"He's gonna do good," Martin said, his blue eyes lighting up. "He needs to get reps. They got a bye this week. He did good, took over Kyle Orton's place, almost they win. Doubt him, he's, he got doubted in high school, became good in high school. He was doubted in college, he did it. He don't care."

Martin's Minico relationship seemed too wonderful to confine to autumn, and soon he became the manager of Minico's boys basketball and track teams as well.

One day at track practice, one of the girls asked, "Martin, what exactly is your job?"

"I cheer for the Spartans," he replied.

"All you do is follow Perrigot around and cheer for the Spartans, so we're going to call you Spartan Martin."

The nickname stuck.

Every morning Martin goes to his day job, cleaning the lobby at the Mini-Cassia jail in Burley. Every afternoon he transforms into Spartan Martin for his second job and his first love.

"Martin is completely dedicated to the Spartans," said Mike Hoey, Martin's favorite high school teacher. "He likes to rip the refs a little bit if he thinks they're not making good calls. He wants us to win so bad that I'm not sure he even realizes he's yelling at the refs."

The players realize it, though.

"When we were playing Jerome my junior year at home, it was an intense game as usual," said former Minico basketball player Casey Christiansen, who graduated last spring. "There was a bad call and (Martin) just stood up, threw his hat as hard as he could to the ground and started to stomp out on court. (Coach Mike) Graefe had to send (an assistant coach) down to calm him down. He cared about us winning as much as we did. He would get so intense."

A few years ago that intensity cost Minico a technical foul as Martin was ejected from the bench during a basketball game at Idaho Falls.

"I was arguing with a ref, ‘That's a bad call!'" Martin recalled. "I told him he foul my players. He throwed me out, told me I gotta sit where the fans sits. I think he didn't like me. I'm one of the coaches, man. Gimme a warning, not a technical."

If Martin catches an official making a bad call, the ref better watch out: "Only you can catch ‘em is on films. You send the film to the state."

Martin keeps people on their toes and holds everyone accountable, especially Minico's coaches and players.

"I remember when I would be out on the field, I could always hear him arguing the calls with the refs," said Barnes, who graduated in 2009. "Then if something was going wrong he would tell us all that we need to step it up and stop being babies. He always helped us with our equipment and if we needed anything he was on top of it. He is one of the nicest kids I have ever met and he would always make me laugh, no matter what was going on."

All the players who have gone through Minico's athletic programs know Martin has their back.

"They all love him because he's 100 percent a Spartan," said Hoey. "The kids give him the respect back that he gives the kids. They treat him like one of the guys. He always fits in with everybody."

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Well, almost everybody.

"Some freshmen think they know it all," Martin said.

By the time they're seniors, however, the players grow to love Spartan Martin.

"Every single person on our team considered him a part of it. We loved him," Christiansen said.

Spartan Martin has been the teams' manager for more than a decade, in part, because of the continuity of coaching staffs. Martin has never had to endure a coaching change in football or track. That's why he felt uneasy when longtime basketball coach Mike Graefe left at the end of last season.

But new head coach Adam Johnson plans to keep Martin on staff - as if he had a choice.

"One of the conditions when I was offered the job was I had to keep Martin on as team manager," Johnson said. "Martin is one of the best things about Minico. He represents everything that high school sports and Minico is supposed to be about."

When your name is Spartan Martin, job security in a place they call Spartanville is easy to come by.

"They don't want to get rid of me. If they get rid of me they might go downhill," Martin said.

                                                    ***

By kickoff time, the water bottles are full and Martin is revved up. Players grab a last-second drink and some give their manager a high-five as he barks encouragement. When Brady May takes the first handoff of the game and goes 76 yards for a touchdown, Martin goes nuts.

"I push the players to their limits," he says. "I yell ‘Defense' and get the crowd going."

Nobody smiles bigger when the Spartans win, and nobody takes it harder when they lose. The playoff losses hurt Martin the most because suddenly the season is over and the football team won't need his water again until next year. Martin still recalls the "terrible loss against Jerome in the playoffs. We had the lead and we lost. That's how we can't go all the way. I seen the players cry hard, more harder than me."

But this night ends in another Minico victory and Martin seems to be floating while he helps clear the field. He jumps in Perrigot's car and they grab a Mountain Dew for the drive home. Just because he knows it will get Martin riled up, Perrigot ribs him about the Red Sox missing the playoffs.

"I don't think so," Martin chimes.

The coach and the manager rehash the game's big plays, and it's hard to tell who appreciates the ride more.

"One of my favorite moments of game day is driving home after the game with Martin," Perrigot said. "I do it because I just enjoy our conversations. He's fun to talk to after a game because he gets pretty excited, especially when the Spartans win. We're a better football team and we are better human beings by having guys like Spartan Martin around."

 

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