January 25, 2023
By Michael Lewis
On a beautiful Thursday morning in January 2002 in Burbank, Calif., Rey Angel Martinez walked through the front door of the Hilton Hotel to the outside world and started running.
And kept on running. and running.
The Cuban national team forward never looked back.
He did not want to know whether he was being followed.
Martinez might have been by himself, but he was in a race for his life to hopefully find a better life.
He understood the risks.
As a Cuban native and a member of his country's national team that was participating in the Concacaf Gold Cup, Martinez, then 21-years-old, knew there was a better life for him in the United States.
"When I left, I didn't look back because the Cuban team had police travel with them and I was afraid they were right behind me with their guns," Martinez said in 2012. "I knew if they caught me, they would make me disappear."
They never did.
But the attacking player, known as Rey "Boom Boom" Martinez to Rochester Lancers fans, knew the risk he and his colleague were taking.
"The government has already taken my mother's job," Martinez said. "It could be 10 to 15 years before I see my mother or aunt again. My grandmother might not live long enough for me to see her again," he told the South Florida Sun Sentinel in October 2002.
A month prior in December 2001, six members of the Cuba's male volleyball team defected in Belgium.
Martinez and teammate Alberto Delgado, 22, were going to duplicate that feat - in the United States.
They had planned their escape for a while.
The night prior, Cuba had played its final Group B game, recording a scoreless draw with South Korea. The Caribbean side was eliminated with a 0-1-1 mark after opening the tournament with a 1-0 loss to the United States. Martinez went the entire way in that opener, while Delgado played in both games.
Martinez and Delgado knew they had to make their move on Thursday morning.
It was now or never as the team was to depart for home later in the day.
"The Cuban government always put the national team at the very best hotels," Martinez told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel through a translator in 2002. "They want everything available right there. They want you to have no reason to leave the hotel."
But Martinez and Delgado had their own reasons, like many Cubans - freedom.
"We realized that we had the possibility of reaching the dream of every young Cuban, which is to be free," Delgado told reporters several weeks after he and Martinez defected. "Though we were playing in the free United States, we realized that clearly we were not really free."
They told no one of their plans.
"We traveled here with many security people," Delgado said. "We couldn't call any family members; we couldn't write letters … We had to be in the hotel 24 hours a day."
After breakfast on Jan. 24, they were going to bolt. They told Cuban officials they needed to make a phone call and walked toward the lobby and entrance of the hotel. Delgado said he forgot his wallet that had important phone numbers to call after the teammates left. So, he and went back to his room.
With time at a premium, Martinez wasn't about to wait and took off.
The plan was to meet at a bridge several blocks from the hotel.
"We were scared the bridge was too close to the hotel," Martinez said. "I went my way and Alberto went his way. I just ran for 20-30 minutes. I couldn't have done it if I wasn't a soccer player. I wanted to get far away from the hotel."
They eventually met up, caught a cab and went to a relative's house. They drove to Miami to Martinez's uncle in the Los Angeles area, Tony Sanchez, where they both began their new lives.
"It was dramatic," Martinez was quoted by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in 2005. "Me and Alberto joke that we should about a movie about it."
Both players had gotten their freedom.
"Here, you can talk about whatever you want," he said in 2012. "In Cuba you can say nothing bad about Castro of the government. If you do, you ae in trouble."
Castro died in 2016.
Because Cuban soccer officials had their passports, flying or taking a train from Los Angeles to Miami would be difficult to pull off. Sanchez drove both players cross country, taking a "circuitous route" and that the trip took a week.
"Rey and Alberto's fear was not with the American authorities," Sanchez told the AP. Sanchez provided both men with a place to stay in Miami.
"The danger was [that] Cuban authorities still in Los Angeles, and that was the worry because they were still in danger of being caught."
Martinez had two goals in his new land - one short term, one much longer. He wanted to play in Major League Soccer and to become a U.S. citizen.
"I hope to become an American citizen soon," he was quoted by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. "That is the dream of every Cuban."
He did become a citizen, but it did not happen overnight.
Martinez was one of the top soccer players in Cuba, but given the salary structure, he and his teammates were never truly awarded for their talents and efforts. He played for Ciudad de la Habana in the country's capital and helped the team capture the Cuban National championship in 1998, scoring seven goals. As a forward, the 6-1, 161-lb. forward also helped team to a pair of championship games (1999-2000, 2001-2002).
His talents and achievements did not go unnoticed by the Cuban national team and Martinez made his international debut in a World Cup qualifier for Korea/Japan 2002 in a scoreless draw against Canada in Winnipeg on June 11, 2000. Martinez started the played the entire way as the Cubans were eliminated from the competition, losing 1-0, in the aggregate goals series.
Martinez also competed in the Copa Caribe, and Pan American Games before that fateful decision at the 2002 Gold Cup that transformed his life forever.
He realized he was leaving his mother, grandmother and aunt behind and feared he would never see them again. He has visited Cuba after travel between the Caribbean nation and the U.S. was eased up and most recently journeyed there in the winter of 2023.
Understanding how fragile life and soccer could be, Martinez decided to attend college after he moved to South Florida, at least for a while.
In the fall of 2002, he enrolled at St. Thomas University and played his first competitive soccer match since leaving the Cuban team on Oct. 22. He scored one goal and assisted on three others in a 5-1 win over Norwood University.
"I have to get an education in case I break my foot or can't play anymore," he was quoted by the Sun- Sentinel. "There were no such guarantees in Cuba. I also might get a chance to play in the professional league. After playing against the best players from countries like France, Germany, Brazil, Mexico, South Korea and America, I know this will be different, but my whole life is different.
"I only hurt when I think of my family that I left behind."
In 2004, he had a trial with the Colorado Rapids in Major League Soccer. They liked what they had seen, but the Chicago Fire claimed him as a discovery player. The Fire then dealt the 6-1, 161-lb. midfielder to Colorado for a 2005 conditional pick in the 2005 MLS SuperDraft. He then signed with the Rapids, becoming the first Cuban player to join an MLS club. That opened the door for other Cubans who defected to the USA to play in MLS, including midfielder Osvaldo Alvarez, who had played more than 340 games for three MLS teams (Seattle Sounders, Minnesota United and Atlanta United), Maykel Galindo, who played with Chivas USA and FC Dallas, midfielder Yordany Alvarez, who played in 112 matches for several teams (MLS and USL) in the states.
"I feel so wonderful right now," Martinez told the Miami Herald before he played his first Rapids match. "This is a great opportunity for me. All I wanted was an opportunity to develop as a player and make a living playing the sport I love. I didn't think it would take this long, but it was worth the wait."
Injuries limited Martinez to seven appearances and one assist, and he was cut prior to the 2005 MLS season. He moved onto the Rochester Rhinos (USL first) for three full seasons and part of a fourth through 2008, finishing with the Carolina RailHawks that season. Martinez also played the 2009 campaign with the Real Maryland Monarchs before entering the great indoors for good.
His indoor forays included time with the St. Louis Steamers, Baltimore Blast, Philadelphia KIXX, Rochester Lancers and Syracuse Silver Knights in the Major Indoor Soccer League and the New Jersey Ironmen in the Xtreme Soccer League (for the 2008-09 campaign) before retiring after the 2013-14.
For the record, Martinez participated in 116 indoor matches over eight seasons, scoring 35 goals and assisting on 28 others. His best season was with the Ironmen as he tallied 13 goals and four assists in 20 appearances. During his two-season tenure with Rochester from 2011-13, Martinez scored nine goals and added 16 assists (eight goals and a dozen assists in 2012-13).
"As a player in his earlier days was a blazing winger, a wide player who could break through lines and score goals," said former Lancers head coach Doug Miller.
"As he moved into the indoor, he was a little bit older and a little bit slower, but he made up for all those things, with his tactical sense and his technical ability because he's a really, really technical player."
One game during Lancers practice demonstrated Martinez's technical prowess.
"One would stand in the middle of the indoor field in the circle, and one would stand inside the box at half field, and they would have to volley and keep the ball up," Miller said. "So one touch would be a lob ball 30 yards. You'd have to take one or two touches and then lob it back. It's kind of like tennis, but you can't let the ball hit [the ground]. In all the years he was my teammate, I don't know many people who ever beat him."
Martinez found a home in western New York, and he has been an assistant coach with the Lancers' indoor team for several years, including the 2023 squad that is participating in Major Arena Soccer League 2.
"Our Lancers road trips became boring without Rey," team owner SoccerSam Fantauzzo said. "I’m so happy he’s back!"
As an assistant coach at Lancers indoor games through the years, you could tell Martinez apart from his colleagues. He usually was one of the most dapper dressers on the team.
"He loved his suits," Schindler said. "He was always well dressed for the games."
Added Fantauzzo: "Rey’s smile and personality made up for his lack of English when I met him during the Rhinos era. He would simply smile during interviews and our fans fell in love with Boom Boom!"
That was the nickname SoccerSam gave Martinez.
"He was always available for interviews," Fantauzzo added.
Formal and informal.
"A full of life human being who genuinely cares about everyone," Miller said. "He walks into a room and brightens it. He always makes sure that his teammates and players around him feel welcome."
Then and now.
"He was what you'd call a locker room guy," said former teammate Jake Schindler, who as the 2023 Lancers indoor head coach named the Cuban native an assistant coach. "He's just so full of life and personality. Just hilarious. ... A really great guy to have on your team. So intelligent.
"He's a lovable guy who I consider a good friend."
Even as a player, Martinez demonstrated is coaching tendencies.
"If he thought you were going to add value to the team and you had potential, Rey would help you in his own way," Schindler said. "He'd take you aside and talk to you to try and coach you up on certain situations. He was selective with who he helped because your potential can only go so far. Sometimes as a player, I felt like he knew more than the coaches."
Since making Western New York his home, Martinez has coached in several other capacities, including as an assistant with the Syracuse Silver Knights, five years as the assistant men’s and women's coach of the D'Youville College squads and most recently with Alfred University in the fall of 2022. He also was director of programming for the Delaware Soccer Club in Buffalo, working with youth players from three- to 19-years-old.
He didn't realize it at the time in 2004, but Martinez, including Delgado, made some history in 2002. They were the third and fourth Cuban soccer players to defect while the team was in the United States, whether it was for the Gold Cup, World Cup qualifying, or Olympic qualifying. Since 1995, 55 Cuban soccer players have defected.
In 1995, Rodney Valdes defected during the 1999 Pan-American Games football tournament in Winnipeg, Canada. Two years later, Lazaro Abuin Sanchez, then 17, left the Cuban national team, getting off a plane that had stopped in Miami to refuel. The team had participated in a tournament in Philadelphia over 10 days.
"There are so many players in Cuba who could easily make MLS squad, but they never have the chance to develop or prove themselves over there," Martinez said. "It's like our baseball players. All we need is a shot."
Rey Angel Martinez got that shot. He earned his U.S. citizenship and has made the most of his run for his life in 2002.
This is a chapter from Michael Lewis' latest book, ALIVE AND STILL KICKING The story of the 21st century Rochester Lancers. The book is scheduled to be published in 2023.