Before this one, she had received a couple of other hall of fame honors over the years.
In 2004, Kameisha Bennett Martin was added to the Penn Relays’ Wall of Fame.
And long before that – going back to her start with the Northwest Track Club in Trotwood, then on to her days at Meadowdale High, where she was a state champion at 800 meters and a Parade All-American, and finally to her glorious career at the University of Tennessee, where she was a five-time All-American – she had her own personal shrine of sorts on the walls of Jesse’s Barbershop in West Dayton.
Although her grandfather, Jesse Bennett, passed away three years ago at age 100 and the place is now called Bennett’s Barbershop and run by her dad, Darryl, the walls of the place still feature various track photos of her.
But this latest honor was different, Darryl said.
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Ten days ago in Tennessee, Kameisha was inducted into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame. Among those in the crowd of 1,300 at the gala ceremony was a contingent of her friends and family, especially her husband David Martin, the former NFL tight end, and their two sons, Darius and Devyn.
Darryl was there too – as was his wife Artia and Kameisha’s mom, Gloria Harper – and he admits he had tears in his eyes when his 38-year-old daughter was spotlighted.
“It was really a tear jerker,” he said. “For the first time she was being honored for the total person she is, not just for her track. Part of this honor was for that big heart she has and all her kind-heartedness and caring when it comes to others. Before that it never really came out.”
When she was selected for induction this year, Kameisha said she was told it was for her track exploits and the impact – beyond just sports – that she’s had on the Knoxville community.
Although she was a Nike-sponsored pro athlete and was at her peak, she surprised many folks when, at age 27, she retired from competition in order to dedicate herself to being a mom.
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Much of it had to do with her oldest son, Darius, who was diagnosed as autistic at age 3.
Today he’s a handsome, 6-foot-5 basketball player for his Knoxville high school and a true testament to the time, effort and love his parents have put into his development.
That Kameisha especially immersed herself in learning everything she could about autism surprised no one who knows her.
“That’s kind of a normal thing with me,” she said. “I’ve always been a little bit extreme when it comes to success and meeting my personal goals and not letting anyone down. But I think those are some of the characteristics of a lot of good athletes.
“You could talk to my dad and he’d tell you when I was a little girl they used to have to pull me off the track to come home. I could barely walk, but I wanted to keep training and getting better.”
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And when she got pregnant after her junior year at Tennessee, a lot of people wrote off the remainder of her college track career. They thought she’d never be able to compete at a high level again, especially after she’d gained 40 pounds while carrying her son.
“But I wasn’t going to just go on and graduate and never run again,” she said. “I was determined to at least finish my career as I started it. I felt I had let my teammates down, so I was going to make it right. I wanted to come back and be one of those success stories.”
And after returning to the Vols, she anchored the sprint medley team that set a Penn Relays and collegiate record and the next day she paced the 3,200 meter relay to a victory, as well. She finished second in the 800 meters at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships and nearly made the U.S. Olympic teams in 2004 and again in ’08, that time with her second son in tow.
She finished fourth in the 800 at the 2004 Olympic Trials in Sacramento and only the top three made the team headed to the Athens Games. Four years later, she finished third in the 800 at the Trials in Eugene, Ore., but hadn’t met the Olympic qualifying time, so the fourth-place finisher went to Beijing instead.
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And now that drive to overcome is being passed on to others. Although she coached high school track for a year, she decided she wanted to make a difference in other ways.
She now works with a Knoxville agency called Breakthrough Autism and is an instructor and coordinator with the B.E.S.T. program (Bridge to Employment in Service and Tourism), where she helps adults with autism and other significant disabilities prepare for the work force and find internships and jobs in a hospitality, service and tourism setting.
“The job didn’t pay a lot of money, but that wasn’t what this was about for her,” Darryl said. “It was about following her heart. It was about doing for others. And that’s why we all were so proud the other night when they honored her. Everybody learned about the true Kameisha, the Kameisha we all know.”
“Make it work for you”
Gloria said when Kameisha was in grade school, people “used to taunt her about her little, skinny legs and thin body. I’d just tell her to turn it around on them: ‘Make it work for you. Everybody is good at something.’ And she was a runner.
“I remember when she was little, I’d meet her after school at the bus stop on Princeton and we’d race the two blocks home. Right from the start, she almost could keep up with me.”
Gloria started to laugh: “And when she began winning ... I quit.”
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Kameisha’s parents divorced when she was young and when she was 8 her dad remarried Artia Perkins.
As Darryl told me several years ago: “What’s been good is that Kameisha’s mother is such a good person. When there’s a divorce it can be tough, but we have a blended family. She allowed Artia to be a mother, too. And since then my daughter has had two strong women she can go to on matters of life.”
Artia had been a track and basketball star at Roosevelt High and, like Gloria, she quickly saw Kameisha’s ability to run.
“I went to pick her up at a birthday party once and when I saw her run I came home and told her dad, ‘That girl can RUN!’
“I’d heard about a summer track program that was run by Lefty Martin and went to talk to him about taking Kameisha on. And, well, the rest is history.”
Kameisha, who would grow into a willowy 6-footer, won a National Junior Olympic title in the 800 meters and at Meadowdale High she was the team captain three years, won the state 800 title with the third fastest time in Ohio history and was ranked No. 2 in the nation by Track and Field News.
Her success continued at Tennessee, but then came her pregnancy.
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David Martin, her boyfriend, was a former Volunteers football star, who had been a sixth round draft pick of the Green Bay Packers and would go on to an 11-year NFL career that included stints with the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills, as well.
Today he’s an assistant coach at Maryville College, an NCAA Division III school just south of Knoxville.
After Darius was born, David was off playing pro football and Kameisha was trying to re-establish herself in track while caring for their son. With her family all in Dayton, it was a challenge for her.
Although Darius wasn’t verbal she said she wasn’t alarmed until she said someone at a new day care she had begun taking him to pulled her aside:
“They told me what they were seeing. They said he’d be on the playground in the vicinity of other kids, but he wouldn’t really play with them. They said it reminded them of autism or a behavior similar to that. That kind of scared me.”
She knew a little about the subject. She’d gotten her degree in child and family services and her mother worked for the Montgomery County Board of Developmental Disability Services for 30 years.
Kameisha learned everything he could about autism and she and David got him the best help they could, including special speech therapy in Maryland.
“He had never said my name before that, so the first time he said it, that was pretty cool,” she said with some quiet reflection and finally a loving chuckle. “It definitely was cool.”
Today her son’s autism is barely noticeable and Kameisha said he instead says his issue is with ADHD, not autism.
“He’s just on the spectrum, so a lot of people don’t notice it,” Gloria said. “People do notice his sports though. He’s a basketball player and a good swimmer, too. In the water he’s like Michael Phelps.”
It was the right decision
After the 2008 Olympic Trials, Kameisha made a decision.
“Everybody may not agree with it, but for me I just couldn’t continue to chase a medal and not be there for my kids,” she said. “My career didn’t end the way I wanted it to, but I was OK living the rest of my life with how it did. I didn’t want my kids to wonder, ‘Mom, why weren’t you here?’ Not when my answer would be ‘Well, Mom was trying to get a medal.’
“A medal wouldn’t be important in their eyes if I wasn’t around for them. And in the end (the decision) taught me a lot of things about myself. And to be truthful, after I retired I never missed running track a day in my life. I never wanted go back.”
Instead she’s watched her two boys grow and blossom.
Like Darius, Devyn plays basketball, too. Last month his AAU team made it to the Final Four of the U.S. Amateur National Basketball Championships.
Kameisha said her main concern when she retired was “to find something I could do as well as track, Some people might not see that as a real concern. They’d say ‘Well, you were really good at track before this. That should be enough.’ But I wanted to be successful in whatever I did for the rest of my life.”
She’s showing that now with her work in the autism community and especially in the nurturing of her oldest son.
But when she heard him talking with his friends recently she had to smile.
“You wouldn’t think we paid all that money for speech because he likes to talk in slang,” she laughed. “I said, ‘All that money and listen to you …’”
Gloria though put it in perspective:
“That’s a good thing. At least he’s talking now.”
And he has been ever since he uttered that first important word: