Chris Martinez has known since he was 5-years old that he would be going to Upper Iowa University. The freshman athletic training major from Miami, Fla., has heard his step-father’s Upper Iowa stories for many years.
Hector Vega graduated from Southwest Miami Senior High School in 1996. The Eagles were ranked sixth in the nation that year with Vega as the starting outfielder. Several of Vega’s teammates went on to bright collegiate futures and a few even played professionally. Vega, however, was small for a baseball player. At 5-foot, 7-inches and 150 pounds, he knew he had the skills, but kept getting overlooked. “I was stubborn,” he said. “I didn’t want to accept junior college offers.”
In the end, Vega ended up attending Miami-Dade Community College but did not play baseball at all. His decision weighed heavily on him. He missed the game. He missed being on a team. “I had the passion still in me, but at this point, no hope in ever playing college ball.”
In the spring of 1996, Vega went to see his former high school coach, and he told him that he would go to the ends of the Earth just to smell the grass on the field.
“He quickly called me out, ‘Are you sure you will go wherever I can get you an opportunity?’” Vega said. “I quickly said, ‘Yes, coach! Anywhere!’
“He picked up the phone right then and I saw him dialing, 5-6-3, and I thought, ‘That seems VERY FAR!’ On the other end of the phone was Coach Rick Heller. “They talked for about 20 minutes as I sat in my coach’s classroom waiting, hoping and praying,” Vega recalls. “Then he walked in and said, ‘You are going to Iowa this fall to be a Peacock.’
“I thought this was a mean-spirited joke. I had never left Florida, much less knew where Iowa was on the map; and a Peacock?
“I asked him, ‘Coach, are you serious?’
“He replied, ‘The question is – are you?’”
Vega told his mother and stepfather about this opportunity to play for Upper Iowa, and they agreed that he needed to leave Florida if he wanted to succeed. The family traveled to watch the Peacocks in action at Fort Myers, Fla., and Vega met Coach Heller. “It was intimidating because he is a very tall, slender figure, and I knew I only had one chance to impress him as I wasn’t much to look at size-wise.
“He said to me, ‘At Upper Iowa University, we will help you become a Peacock.’
“I replied, ‘A Peacock?’
“He said, ‘A ferocious bird that adapts; Can you adapt to our program? Do you have it in you to become a Peacock?
“I looked at him and smiled, and said, ‘Yes I do!’”
Vega trained hard that summer to get himself physically and mentally prepared for baseball and college, but Upper Iowa University was nothing like he expected. He boarded an airplane headed for Iowa – his first time in an airplane ever – and landed at the Waterloo, Iowa, airport.
“I was in complete shock to say the least,” he said. “Here I am, a Miami native surrounded by the smallest airport I have ever seen with two bags in my hands, and not a soul in sight. During that time, I didn’t have a cellphone, so I sat on the curb waiting for someone, anyone, to come and get me.
“In the distance, I saw a minivan drive up. The woman inside rolled down her window and called, ‘Are you Hector?’ With fear in my eyes and a grip on my bags that can only be described as ‘holding on for dear life,’ I nodded my head. She told me to get in the van and she would take me to Upper Iowa University.”
Vega said he was a reserved young man when he first arrived at Upper Iowa. He didn’t trust easily and barely spoke to his roommate. It took a couple of weeks before Vega realized that the staff, faculty and even students, actually cared about one another. “They cared that I was on this journey to get an education and play baseball,” he said. “They wanted me to succeed.”
Vega worked for Kari Solheim as a work study for the Office of Student Development. Dean of Student Development Louise Scott was a sounding board for Vega when he needed to talk. “And, they made me laugh,” he said. “They helped me develop my communication skills by having me answer phones and speak to others when they walked into student services. They even encouraged me to become a resident assistant.
“I never spent time alone, now that I think about it, as I always had my new Peacock family around supporting me and guiding me.”
Vega also found support in professors, Dr. Gail Moorman-Behrens, Dr. Janet Kehe, Dr. Lew Churbuck, Professor Mike Ryan and Professor Joel Kunze. “They have had an impact on my life even until this day,” he said.
“Whenever I make a family or professional decision, I think back to what my professors instilled in me and my abilities to think outside-the-box,” he added. “’Will this make you better? Will this make those around you better?’ It’s not what others think or what the standard might be, but how will this help you to be a better person.”
It was these life lessons that Vega wants for his son, Chris, and his other children, Nicholas, 12, and Mia, 6. College at Upper Iowa for Vega wasn’t just reading a textbook and going to class and practice, it was developing his creativity and passion for life.
“It’s about being better than you were yesterday,” he said. “I realized that I could adapt to living in a small town. I could meet international students and learn about different cultures. I could open my heart to others outside my family and become a more well-rounded person. All of these blessings would never have happened if Upper Iowa University didn’t have faith in me. I had to have faith in the university’s process.”
In learning how to adapt at Upper Iowa, Vega said he has been able to adapt and change through three different successful career moves from working as a teacher at a local high school to a human resources recruiter, and now as an analyst in information technology.
After graduation in 2000, Vega returned to Miami where he met his wife, Joana, and Chris.
Everyone who knows Vega’s story knows how passionate he is about Upper Iowa. “I have always told my wife that my children will attend UIU, and she agreed that no matter what it took or how much it would cost – we would give them the honor of attending,” Vega said.
Chris said he is very excited to be attending Upper Iowa. Just like his dad, he too hopped on an airplane bound for Iowa alone. However, he was able to visit a year prior to coming. With his dad and mom alongside him last September, Chris finally got to meet the people that have helped shape Vega. Scott and Solheim now have the opportunity to mentor Chris just as they did his dad 17 years ago.
That’s just a couple of the similarities between the father and son. Although not biologically related, they are both southpaws and outfielders. Chris will also play for the Peacocks this season.