Beneath every scar there is a story.
Riley Martin hasn’t told his often. When he has, it’s rarely in full detail.
“I’m just like my dad,” Martin said. “We don’t talk about our feelings. I suppress it.”
Yet, the relationship Martin built with Roudey Hensley through more than a decade as teammates and side-by-side cohorts is a story ripe with emotion. It’s rooted in competitiveness, determination, compassion and trust.
Tragedy and tears lie at the heart of it, too.
That’s why Martin has struggled to share his story.
Six years ago, before Martin even heard of Quincy University let alone became the winningest pitcher in QU baseball history, his career and life were interrupted. Martin and four others were hanging out on a summer night in June near their hometown of Salem, Ill., as teenagers are wont to do.
“We were just going to get ice cream,” Martin said. “Just a normal thing.”
At an intersection outside of town, a drunk driver behind the wheel of a pickup truck jumped across some railroad tracks, sped through a stop sign and smashed into the side of the teenagers’ car.
Seated in the front passenger seat, Martin hit his head on the windshield, suffering a concussion and a laceration above his right eye that left the scar which remains visible to this day. Seated on the passenger side in the backseat, Hensley suffered the brunt of the crash. He had to be life-flighted from the scene to St. Louis University Hospital.
Three days later, Hensley died. He was 17 years old.
“There are still days I break down,” Martin said.
But Martin understands his story doesn’t have to be about grief, anger and despair. It’s more about the love and respect for a friend he considered a brother and a life which won’t ever be forgotten.
“I know he would not want me to sit around and mope and feel bad for myself and feel bad about the situation,” Martin said. “Maturity has really let me see that I need to cherish all the good times we had together and carry on his legacy and honor him each and every day.”
He does that every time he pitches.
‘That’s me looking up at Roudey’
Martin went into the final home start of his QU career on April 23 against Rockhurst energized by the historic moment in front of him and buoyed by the constant support of his family, but he did his best to stay composed and keep his routine intact.
He got loose in the bullpen, tossed his warm-up pitches to Hawks catcher Jacob Kalusniak and waited for the infielders to throw the ball around the horn. Martin took the ball from third baseman Dayson Croes, stepped off the back of the mound while facing the center field wall, and took off his cap.
The he looked to the sky.
“That’s me looking up at Roudey, and I know he’s looking down on me,” Martin said.
Bolstered by such inspiration, Martin promptly dispatched of Rockhurst the way he has dispatched of most opponents this season.
The left-hander struck out six of the final seven batters he faced, matched his then-career high with 16 strikeouts and led Quincy to an 11-1 victory. It was the 28th of his career and moved him to the top of the program’s all-time win list. He has since added two more, improving to 9-1 this season, and he now has a chance to challenge the single-season record of 11 wins.
It would be another benchmark in a series of historic accomplishments for a pitcher whose college prospects were limited by a broken ankle suffered late in his junior season at Salem. He had been unable to take the field the summer during which the accident occurred.
“Maybe if he’s pitching and we make a state playoff run, he gets seen by more schools,” said Brian Lipe, the head coach of the Salem Community High School baseball program. “He was our ace. He was our rock. It hurt us losing him.”
The injury happened in a late-season game at Marion when Martin doubled off the right-field wall and trotted into second base standing up. Yet, when the right fielder went to throw the ball back to the infield, the ball slipped out of his hand.
“Riley sees that going into second and says, ‘I’m taking third,’” Lipe said.
As he hit second base, Martin stepped squarely on top of the bag and rolled his ankle. He nearly made it to third base before falling because he couldn’t go any further.
“It hurt to see it happen. You could see it in the players’ faces, too,” Lipe said. “They knew it. They knew our chances of going deep into the playoffs were slimmer because he was not there.”
The interest from college coaches waned, although Quincy University stayed intrigued.
At a summer showcase in 2015 in Bloomington, where Lipe took Hensley to show his wares as a second baseman and would have taken Martin had he been healthy, QU coach Josh Rabe happened to be in attendance.
Because of his relationship built playing baseball in Clinton County with former QU players Roger Freeze and Jason Rakers, Lipe felt compelled to approach Rabe.
“If I don’t go over and introduce myself and shake Coach Rabe’s hand, Roger Freeze would have whipped me,” Lipe said with a chuckle. “I went over and talked to Coach Rabe, and he brought up Riley’s name. I talked about Riley a little bit, but I did not have any inclination he was going to end up at Quincy University.”
How could he. Martin didn’t know anything about the program or its surroundings.
“I had never even heard of Quincy, ever in my entire life,” Martin said. “I had never been here.”
Rabe sent him pictures of the main campus and QU’s north campus, as well as QU Stadium and all of the baseball training facilities and implored him “to just come take a look.” Their phone conversation prompted Martin to schedule a campus visit.
“My dad and I pulled in and we were like, ‘This is pretty cool. This is a nice place,’” Martin said.
Rabe proceeded to show him not only the campus, but the off-campus facilities as well.
Consider Martin sold at that point.
“It’s the best decision he ever made,” said Martin’s mother, Trish Woods. “We love Quincy.”
When Martin arrived on campus the following August, he felt confident this was the place he needed to be.
“I was like, ‘All right, this is why we win. This is why it’s fun here. This is why people want to come play here,’” Martin said. “It’s because of the atmosphere we have here.”
Still, he had to earn his spot and his chance to become a legend.
‘It’s really a special thing to see’
Martin didn’t know how he would fit into QU’s plans as a freshman, but he believed he was good enough and healthy enough to be an immediate contributor.
The sizable scholarship offer Rabe extended to him strengthened that belief.
“I knew he wanted me to come in and play,” Martin said.
Yet, nothing Martin did the fall of his freshman year suggested he could be a dominant starter.
“I was getting outs and it was good,” said Martin, who was throwing his fastball in the 83-85 mph range and topping out at 87-88 mph. “But I wasn’t overpowering anybody.”
He went home for Christmas break knowing he needed to do more.
“I just really worked my butt off to get to where I was,” Martin said.
When he returned, he started consistently hitting 89-90 mph and impressing coaches.
It was enough to get pegged to start the fourth game of a season-opening road trip to Millington, Tenn., where he handcuffed Tiffin for five scoreless innings. He allowed one hit, struck out one and earned his first collegiate win.
“We just knew he had the capability of being an ace,” Rabe said. “You could see it from that first start. “
The trust he gained throughout a season in which he went 6-3 with a 5.19 ERA led to Rabe handing him the ball against Northwood in the winner-take-all championship game of the NCAA Division II Midwest Regional.
Martin blanked the Timberwolves for six innings, allowing just four hits and striking out three as the Hawks won 2-0 and earned a spot in the NCAA Division II World Series for the first and only time in program history.
He’s been the ace of the QU staff ever since.
Heading into the Great Lakes Valley Conference Tournament this week with a berth in the Midwest Regional expected thereafter, Martin figures to have at least two more starts to add to his resume. He already owns the QU career records for wins, strikeouts and innings pitched.
“I see how hard he works off the field, so when it translates into success onto the field, it’s really a special thing to see,” said Mo Rooney, a former QU women’s soccer player who has been Martin’s girlfriend for the past four years. “In the summers, he lifts for two hours and then goes and throws for an hour.
“During the season, he does yoga twice a week and has changed the way he prepares. He’s the most dedicated, hard-working person I think I’ve ever met.”
He’s even made her fall in love with the game.
“Funny enough, I really didn’t care about baseball,” Rooney said. “I only kind of went, especially to Cardinals games, because it was something fun to do, get the concessions and hang out with friends. Now, I take it so seriously, and I never thought that I would.
“It’s because he’s kind of like me. We’re so competitive, although I think he’s a little more competitive than I am. It’s really fun to see out there.”
It’s brought fans to the ballpark, especially this season.
Martin ranks first in the nation in NCAA Division II in strikeouts per nine innings (17.7) and first in total strikeouts (130). He struck out a career-high 19 batters in Friday’s 3-2 win over No. 4 Illinois-Springfield, setting the single-game school record. He’s struck out 16 batters four other times and at least 11 batters in nine of his 10 starts. Couple that with a solid 3.20 ERA and he’s the leading candidate for GLVC Pitcher of the Year.
And when his career is complete, he will have his picture hanging from QU Stadium’s stone façade.
“I still haven’t even felt the entire impact of me breaking all those records,” Martin said. “I’m still going. Hopefully, we have a month and a half left of this season. I’m not trying to take any focus off the team. I’m locked in, and I know our team is locked in to make a playoff run.”
It’s why Martin chose to postpone enrolling in pharmacy school in order to return for one more season with the Hawks.
“I knew I was coming back to chase that ring one more time,” Martin said.
It’s a ring he’d like to win for himself, his team and his best friend.
‘I’m excited for the day we meet again’
Woods always maintained an open-door policy to their family home, especially for Hensley.
“He would never knock,” Woods said. “He would just come right in the door.”
His first order of business was to find Monkey, the family cat.
“He’d grab Monkey and go to the basement,” Woods said. “Roudey was always welcome at our house no matter what. He was always welcome. I remember him spending the night, all the boys spending the night. I’d wake up and make a pancake, egg and bacon breakfast for them while they were sitting at the breakfast bar.
“I loved it. We miss Roudey. We miss him so much.”
It’s the smile, the fun-loving nature and the warm embrace he had for life that defined him.
“He was kind of like everybody’s little brother because he wasn’t big in stature,” Lipe said. “He was a neat kid. The thing that stuck with me when I coached him was his determination.”
During his junior season at Salem, Hensley struggled defensively on the infield, but refused to let any error get the better of him.
“He would stay forever after practice taking ground balls, ground balls and more ground balls,” Lipe said. “You’d stay and hit them to him because he was trying to get better. He wanted to make it happen, and he did. He was a fantastic infielder.”
He did it for himself and his team.
“He was humble,” Woods said. “He was not out there showing off or being a ‘me, me, me’ kind of guy. He was a team player. He was just a fun-loving kid.”
It’s how Martin still thinks of him today.
“I always said he had little man syndrome,” Martin said with a smile and a chuckle. “We fought like brothers, but we were best friends. At the end of the day, if there was anything that happened to either of us, we would always have each other’s back.
“He was funny. His smile was infectious. He was everyone’s friend. He was accepting of every person, and every person will tell you they loved him. He was just the best.”
Martin keeps Hensley’s spirit alive by sharing those descriptions and countless stories of their youth with those he trusts, like Rooney and QU reliever Alex Pribyl, who was Martin’s roommate when they came into the QU program as freshmen in the fall of 2016.
He’s opened up to both about the trauma and the days and weeks that followed. Because of his own injuries, including the concussion, some of the details remain fuzzy. Others are quite vivid, like the car rolling over a couple of times and him hobbling 30 or so feet on a broken ankle from the corn field where the car stopped to the side of the road to wait for first responders.
When he talks about it in an open and transparent way, tears follow.
“We’ve broken down together talking about it,” Martin said of telling Rooney about the crash.
But the beauty behind those stories is it allows those who never met Hensley to feel like they know him now.
“The details I get about Roudey are vivid,” Rooney said. “So I know him. I know his mom. I know his siblings. I know his nephew. Without getting the pleasure of knowing him, I do know him. Riley has helped me get to know him.
“I know Riley wishes he was here, and I think he does a lot of the things and works as hard as he does in Roudey’s honor and to let his legacy live through him as well.”
Martin’s family sees it, too.
“I feel like every time he’s out there on the mound he’s pitching for Roudey,” Woods said. “He carries Roudey with him every day.”
Because of that, Hensley’s legacy will never fade.
“I’m going to keep playing my career in honor of him,” Martin said.
Someday, they will celebrate together the incredible journey Martin has taken.
“I’m excited for the day we meet again,” Martin said.