SAN DIEGO — Introduced last May as the San Diego Fleet’s head coach, Mike Martz wore a sports jacket under a warm sun and said he felt chills.

The longtime San Diegan stood in the Mission Valley stadium, home of the new football Fleet.

While some locals saw the old concrete stadium as a gray dump, long neglected, it’s where Martz said he had fallen in love in the late 1960s — with football and the Xs and Os of the San Diego State coach, Don Coryell; and with his Madison High School classmate and future wife, Julie, who attended State’s games with him.

Now on this afternoon a year ago, Martz wore a gaudy Super Bowl ring on a finger and a smile on his face. He had left San Diego to pursue a coaching career and had pulled it off, working for 20 years in the NFL. Applying Coryell’s teachings on offense, he twice reached the Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams.

His shift into semi-retirement in San Diego may not have made perfect sense, in light of other coaches of less distinction than Martz maintaining NFL careers well into their 60s. Yet, while the Fleet job gave him a chance to show he still had game, the 67-year-old Martz framed it as a “pay it forward” mission, allowing him to further others’ football ambitions.

Martz had driven from Mission Hills to Mission Valley, starting his new duties. If his version of things was a bit purple, it was also rooted in significant fact.

“Really, I feel chills,” Martz said, while standing near the west end zone.

Not even a year later, the whole venture imploded.

What did Martz feel and think, in the wake of the fledgling Alliance of American Football shutting down last month amid reports of $70 million in losses, taking the Fleet down with it, on the day after April Fool’s?

Only Martz knows. And he’s not talking.

“No,” Martz replied via text, when asked last month if he’d be willing to chat about the AAF and Fleet.

Further queries to Martz, who’d been a staunch defender of the AAF and co-founder Charlie Ebersol during the league’s hiccups, and who was a glib voice of the Fleet for 10 months, were met with silence.

It seems Martz, like a captain should, went down with the Fleet ship while doing his best to rescue others.

The picture painted by former Fleet personnel is that Martz showed concern not for himself but for his coaches, players and support staff as the league unraveled.

“Mike handled it first class, just like he is,” said Dave Boller, the team’s former personnel director. Boller said Martz tried to land jobs for Fleet players and staff, with some successes. His efforts there continue.

Former club President Jeff Garner said as the AAF cut expenses during the season, Martz picked up some slack with his own money. For example, the coach outfitted the team in new warm-ups for the final two road trips, to Phoenix and Salt Lake City, after new AAF ownership cancelled the order.

“He did it because he wanted the team to feel together,” Garner said.

Martz cut an intense figure in his return to coaching.

He reported to work — a trailer outside the stadium — by 5 a.m. most days, said Boller. He stood in heavy rain, even as lightning flickered, during a pair of three-hour Wednesday practices on a field next to the San Diego River.

He brought practices to a halt with stinging rebukes, either of linemen or skill players. Longtime Martz colleague and Fleet defensive coordinator Larry Marmie said Martz’s “passion” for coaching the Fleet — the quarterbacks, foremost — called to mind his efforts with the Rams and Arizona State.

Martz said late in the Fleet’s season that his zest for football, if newly channeled, was the same as it ever was.

“I’ve been the same my whole life,” he said. “It didn’t make any difference whether I was in high school. That’s what you do. You walk onto the practice field, and that’s who you are, that’s what you are. I can’t stop and go. That’s just where it is. To be any different would cheat these players. I love this game. I wouldn’t disrespect it by not being intense.”

Martz never got to coach his first Fleet quarterback, Josh Johnson, who joined the Washington Redskins eight days after Martz, standing on a stage in Las Vegas, handed him a silver-and-gold Fleet jacket at the AAF draft.

The Fleet ended up with a 3-5 record. In games started and completed by quarterback Philip Nelson, the team was 2-1; when Nelson exited at Memphis with a broken collarbone, the Fleet held a lead, only to lose after Nelson’s replacement amassed three turnovers.

Boller lauded the performance of Martz, whose previous full-time coaching gig came with the 2011 Chicago Bears as offensive coordinator.

“Mike’s still the best game planner out there; he’ll dissect any defense,” Boller said. “He still has the passion for football. Every week, there was a good message to our players. Just, life lessons. Like all great coaches, he is a perfectionist.”

Seven Fleet players joined NFL rosters, including five from Marmie’s defense. Five of the Fleet alums are still with NFL teams. The youngest of the seven, cornerback Kameron Kelly of the Pittsburgh Steelers, said he improved his situational awareness working under Martz and secondary coach Eric Allen. Playing center in Martz’s Fleet offense boosted the NFL versatility of Jeremiah Kolone. He had worked mostly at guard with San Jose State and last year in training camp with the NFC-champion Rams, who signed him last month.

The debut in February of another professional league, the XFL, could lead to jobs for other Fleet players and staffers.

If Martz set down the football headset for good with his final Fleet game, he’ll still have others’ football careers to track. He indeed “paid it forward,” across some 50 Fleet practices and the eight games.

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©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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