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‘Ring’ Inductee Marty Lyons: No Quit, All Heart

Posted Oct 11, 2013

Marty Lyons was a superb contributor to the New York Jets as a player and has been an unparalleled giver to the community as a member of the Green & White family ever since.

"That tagline to me, anytime you get introduced as a former New York Jet, there's a responsibility that goes with that, an obligation that the players have to understand," Lyons said in advance of his enshrinement Sunday in the Jets Ring of Honor. "You have to live your life with the same type of dignity that the organization represents."

Lyons also is a champion barer of his soul. He spoke with me about the direction he needed in his formative years before he became the person he is today.

One episode he remembers was when he was just starting out in the game, the next in the line of top Lyons athletes that his father, Leo, and his mother, Thelma, sent to St. Petersburg Catholic in Florida.

"The freshman team went out early, and then if the varsity team needed extra players, I would always go up there and really take a whipping that day, and then I'd have to go back to the freshman field," Marty recalled. "One day, I said, hey, that's it, enough's enough."

The conversation the next morning when his brother, Dan, a junior, came to wake up Marty for school went like this:

"I'm done."

"What do you mean, you're done?"

"I quit."

"I'm not going to allow you to quit. I'm not letting you."

"Since when are you my dad? You're supposed to be my brother."

"You quit now, you'll continue to quit the rest of your life."

"So," Marty concluded, "I went to practice and the rest is history."

The Alabama Years

Well, almost history. As a St. Pete's senior, Marty Lyons became a hot recruit of SEC and ACC schools, but he said, "Something drew me to Coach Bryant, something drew me to Alabama."

But before Marty became a top college defensive lineman worthy of the 14th pick of the 1979 NFL Draft by the Jets, eventually to be a first-ballot inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame, he had to get through his sophomore season under Paul "Bear" Bryant.

You see, Lyons was also a very good baseball player, and the unwritten rule at 'Bama was that after your freshman football season, you could play baseball in the spring. And after Lyons was left off of the list of "A Club" letterwinners from that year's Liberty Bowl team, he recalled he was "hurt" and was determined to meet with the Bear and tell him of his intentions to play baseball.

Bryant explained in his fatherly manner that "I don't think that letter means anything to you," then he gave his blessing to Marty playing baseball. But when Lyons was almost out the office door, Bear asked if he could offer his young DE some advice.

"Before you try to be good in two sports, try to be good in one. And make sure it's the one you're on scholarship with."

End of baseball career.

"Coach Bryant was exactly right," Marty said. "That letter he gave out, to some of the guys, they needed it. For me, not getting it was just motivation. Don't ever think you're entitled to something. Work for it. Earn it."

Twelve Seasons in Green

That's what Lyons did with the Jets. He was never selected to play in a Pro Bowl (although he twice was named an alternate). But he was a defensive tackle starter from his rookie season, an indefatigable worker, a relentless motivator.

Bob Wischusen, Lyons' partner in the Jets radio booth for their 12th season, first saw No. 93 up close and personal from behind the team's bench for the 1986 AFC Wild Card Game against the Chiefs.

"What I remember about Marty that day was that he was a lunatic," Wischusen said. "He was not just encouraging his teammates but he was ranting and raving at all of them. I know Joe Klecko was a leader, the quarterback is obviously always a leader, but I don't know that there were too many guys on that team that were move vocal than Marty."

Lyons was a Jet for 12 seasons, 1979-89 as a player plus '90 on Injured Reserve. He had 43 career sacks, ninth on the franchise's all-time list. He played in 147 games, most ever by a Jets D-lineman. He holds the franchise career record with two safeties.

Yet the pinnacle of his playing days? There was hardly a pause between question and answer.

"Being a part of the New York Sack Exchange," he said. "We had Mark [Gastineau] and Abdul [Salaam] and Joe on the other outside. We had something special that really developed, and nobody could have predicted it. Halfway through the 1981 season somebody came up with the name and it stuck.

"Then in 1982 we lost to Miami in the AFC Championship Game, the now-referred-to Mud Bowl. And everybody gave us a little pat on the back and said, 'Hey, don't worry, we'll get 'em next year.' I retired after the '89 season. That next year never came."

Foundation for the Future

But what did come for Marty Lyons was a long affiliation with his pro team and his adopted hometown. He worked the MSG New York Jets Journal Show for eight years, the radio game broadcasts for the last dozen.

And in 1982 he began what could be called his real life's work, starting the Marty Lyons Foundation, which has thrived to this day helping children find the courage and strength to fight terminal and life-threatening illnesses through the fulfillment of more than 6,000 wishes. For that and other community work, Marty received the prestigious NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year award in 1984 and the Heisman Humanitarian Award in 2011, among many others.

From those early years of seeking the right direction and yearning for credit, Lyons is dedicated to helping others with their direction and passing around the credit.

"Look at the players who've accomplished more on the field than I did, and I'd be the first one to admit that," Lyons said. "When their playing days were over, if they stayed here in New York, they've represented the organization. Guys like Bruce Harper, Greg Buttle, John Schmitt, Kenny Schroy, guys that played their entire careers for the New York Jets and have carried the banner out there. I truly believe that being inducted into this year's Ring of Honor opens the door for some of them in the future."

Many of the people who've been touched by Lyons will be at MetLife Stadium on Sunday to celebrate with him at halftime — his siblings and members of his family, former high school, college and Jets teammates and coaches, members and beneficiaries of his foundation. Marty's message to one and all is the same, and it captures the essence of the man:

"This honor is their honor."
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