During an eventful week in March of 1982, Marty Lyons experienced the birth of his son (Rocky), the loss of his Dad (Leo) and the loss of a young child (Keith) he befriended as a Big Brother. Most people would turn inward to heal their wounds but Marty, recognizing the need to help others, established The Marty Lyons Foundation (www.MartyLyonsfoundation.org) which specializes in granting wishes (over 3,000 wishes) to children ages three to 17 who have been diagnosed with either a life threatening or terminal disease. Subsequent chapters of the foundation were established and serve New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Presently, Lyons is the director of marketing and sales for The LandTek Group, Inc, a company specializing in the construction of athletics fields and golf courses. During the football season, you can hear Marty on the radio as an analyst for the New York Jets broadcasting team. Marty lives in the New York area with his wife Christine. He has four children, Rocky, Jesse, Megan and Luke.
We talked with the former Alabama All-America defensive lineman, defensive player of the decade (1970s), Bama All-Century team member, and tri-captain of the 1978 National Champions.
BAMAMAG.COM: Could you talk about your first memories of playing football?
LYONS: I started playing in either the fifth or sixth grade. At the eight grade level I started with the pads. I was actually overweight with the pads. I think to have the pads on you had to be 140 pounds with the pads and I was 160 pounds without the pads. At the time, my father said you are going to have to sit out the year because you will need that weight in high school. So I actually sat out and played my freshmen year at Saint Petersburg Catholic. It really wasn't a lot of fun. I had a brother who was a junior. It was a small private school in Saint Petersburg, Florida where they would bring up some of the better athletes to participate in the varsity practice. I just happened to be one of those guys that was brought up and my brother was one of those guys just beating me every single day in practice. He was kicking my butt and it wasn't fun, so I just quit. My brother said you're not going to quit and I said I am going to quit. My brother Dan to this day, I owe him a great deal of thanks because it would have been easy for me to quit then. He told me something then. He said if you quit now, you're always going to quit. You'll be a quitter in life. At that time when you're 15 years old, you take those words from your brother, and you say you don't know what you're talking about but there's a lot of truth to it.
BAMAMAG.COM: You were born in Maryland but moved to Florida? Why?
LYONS: I was born in Takoma Park, Maryland. My Dad was a Washington, D.C., policeman in the 1960s. When he retired, we moved to Pinellas Park, Florida. So, I always tell people I was born in Maryland and raised in Florida.
BAMAMAG.COM: You played a number of sports in high school–football, basketball and baseball. There was interest shown by the New York Mets as a pitcher. Why did you select football?
LYONS: I loved baseball. Baseball was my first love. I had an opportunity to go to a lot of colleges but everybody was always telling me at that time, don't worry, if you come here, you can start. Coach Bryant, I remember my meeting with him. He said, son if your good enough to play I'll give you the opportunity. I felt that being 18, to go 700 miles away from home and to challenge yourself, was a great opportunity. I also knew that if I came home early it's because I quit. When you're 700 miles away from home and you dream about playing football in the 1970s, Alabama was the place to go.
BAMAMAG.COM: Would you talk about your recruitment to play football?
LYONS: I was leaving every Saturday morning and I would go to a different university. I would arrive early enough to go to the game and I would fly back on Sunday. I would meet with my high school football coach Monday after practice. I would tell him about the visits, all about the coaches and he helped me make a very difficult decision. He said at the end of this process, I'll tell you if you selected the right school. And when I selected Alabama, he said that's where you need to go.
BAMAMAG.COM: Do you remember the assistant coach who recruited you?
LYONS: Ken Martin. Also, there was a defensive back coach there who really took me underneath his wing. Great guy. When everybody went home on Thanksgiving, I went to his house and I ate Thanksgiving dinner with his family.
BAMAMAG.COM: Can you describe the first time you met Coach Bryant:
LYONS: I went up on a recruiting visit during the 1974 season for a game. I met him the next day for a brief moment. When I decided to sign, he came down and personally signed me. I came in from a basketball game and Coach Bryant was sitting there with my Dad on the couch having a one on one conversation. It meant a lot to me to have Coach Bryant meet my family. So they were comfortable and he was comfortable. So when I got up there, it was a whole new world.
BAMAMAG.COM: Do you remember the other schools that recruited you?
LYONS: I had a chance to go to Florida, Florida State, Miami, Tennessee and Kentucky. It was just something about the opportunity to play for Coach Bryant and the opportunity to be a part of that tradition and the opportunity as a young man to say, hey, if you're good enough, go where the best go.
BAMAMAG.COM: How did Coach Bryant motivate you?
LYONS: I remember we had what was called a controlled scrimmage. I was playing behind Bob Baumhower, who later went on to play for the Miami Dolphins. This particular day, you start at the 40 yard line and the offense drives. No one comes out of the scrimmage unless Coach Bryant yells your name from the tower. So before the scrimmage started, he went over to Bob Baumhower and told him to take off your pads. He told me, "Lyons you're starting." So you're going into your sophomore year and you're feeling pretty good. The only problem was I didn't get substituted for during the entire scrimmage and I played 90 straight plays. I remember telling myself, just don't break down man, don't break down and cry. Because it was hot and you felt sorry for yourself and at the end of the practice Coach Bryant came by and gave me a little pat on the butt. He said, "You know what Lyons? You might be a player." To this day, I remember when I was a senior and Mike Inman was a sophomore, he did the same thing to Mike. I think he challenged people in different ways. I think that's what made him so unique and so special. You can't treat everybody the same. You've got to know their personalities and what you can say and what you can't say to them. Coach Bryant had the whole package.
BAMAMAG.COM: You are tied for fifth all-time for tackles during a single season at The University of Alabama (119). You are the only defensive lineman. All others listed are linebackers. How did you make so many tackles from the defensive line position?
LYONS: I ran a lot. The one thing is, if you hustle until the whistle is blown, you can catch a lot of players from behind. If the ball goes away from you and the other side of the line is doing their responsibility, then the ball carrier has to try and cut back. I was fortunate to play under Coach Ken Donahue at The University. He believed in fundamentals. He believed in hard work. He believed in dedication. As much as the players sometimes became frustrated and we felt he overworked us, we really appreciated him. He never asked you to do anything he didn't do himself. So if you were running laps or doing sit-ups or doing pushups, when all was said and done for that day and the lights went down, you could see this little hat bobbing around the field. It was Coach Donahue running. I just think a lot of hustle and determination. The linebackers at that time, Rich Wingo, Rickey Gilliland and Barry Krauss rotated in. None of them played the whole game, where I had an opportunity to play the whole game.
BAMAMAG.COM: What are your best moments on the field while playing for The University of Alabama?
LYONS: A lot of people still remind me of the Penn State game because I'm up here in the northeast in Penn State country. I think winning the national championship and just the experience of playing with those guys for four years and building the friendships. Looking back at the four years we were there, we never lost to Auburn. We never lost to Tennessee. In those four years, we only lost six games. We won three SEC championships and one national championship. That's pretty good.
BAMAMAG.COM: Talk about that fourth down goal line stand in the Sugar Bowl against Penn State.
LYONS: One of the techniques we used on the goal line in short yardage was you slid in between the gaps and you got low enough so the offensive lineman couldn't block you and you came up. So if the running back was running in that hole, a lot of time you could take his legs out. Right before the fourth down, there was a time out. I had just met Chuck Fusina (Penn State QB) at the Bob Hope show. We were standing there at the far sideline looking in with the referee. Just in casual conversation, he said, "Gee Marty what do you think?" And I said, "Chuck, I think you better throw the ball." Who would think so many years after the fact that it's one of the lines that went down in the history of Alabama football? It was a heck of a play by Barry Krauss, Rich Wingo, Murray Legg and if you look at the side profile, David Hannah. David Hannah did a tremendous job. David Hannah knocked his legs out. So he (Mike Guman, Penn State RB) was coming forward and Barry came over the top. Football is such a team sport. If everyone does their job, then you can be successful.
BAMAMAG.COM: What are some of the lessons you learned from Coach Bryant that you practice each day?
LYONS: The biggest thing I've learned is to prioritize my life. To realize that football is just a game. It's simply a game. If you keep your priorities in the right order with family, religion and education. And then whether it's a job or playing football, keep it fourth in your priorities. So that if you're always successful in keeping the first three in order, then the fourth one is easy to do.
BAMAMAG.COM: Do you feel The University of Alabama prepared you to play in the NFL? Did you realize at the time that you were playing with so many future NFL players at The University?
LYONS: No. You start thinking about it in your junior and senior year. I don't think anything can prepare you for the NFL especially if you're drafted high in the first round and you go to one of the worst NFL teams. You go from a winning tradition to just trying to win the game. Coming up here to New York, at the time, I was an undersized defensive lineman at 245 or 250 pounds. What kept me in the game and made me successful early until I could make the adjustment to gain the weight was technique. And that was the technique that you went over and over again with Coach Donahue. I think that was the important factor in making that transition from college to the NFL.
BAMAMAG.COM: What were some of the good moments off the field for you at The University of Alabama?
LYONS: Some of those good moments you can't even talk about (smiling). I think it was the friendships. At that time, we all lived in the same dorm. You wake up, you eat, and you go to the meetings. You sleep, you party together, and you had a good time. I think the other good quality was we covered for one another. We policed ourselves. We didn't let anyone get out of line where they were going to be detrimental to the team or the program. I think the good times definitely outweighed the bad.
BAMAMAG.COM: What are some of your best moments with the New York Jets?
LYONS: One of the best moments was being part of the New York Sack Exchange, where we led the NFL in sacks. The second was playing in the AFC championship game, but unfortunately we lost 14-0. You play 12 years; you have seven operations with them. You never make it to the Super Bowl but your God given tools took you as far as you could go.
BAMAMAG.COM: You have been honored by numerous civic groups and organizations ranging from citizen to hero to humanitarian to man of the year (almost 20 such awards). What does that mean to you?
LYONS: I think it means you have surrounded yourself with good people. It also means you understand the value of life. You understand the importance of giving something back. To make sure the people that aren't as fortunate as yourself, that don't have the opportunities that I had, you're telling them you don't have to be a football player to feel important. All you have to do is let people know. Say a kind word to them. For the last 24 years, I have been working with terminally ill children. Seventy per cent of those youngsters do not live to see the age of 18. To build a friendship with a child and then understand that at any given time they can be taken away, you sit and you learn from them. You learn the values of life from these youngsters that never ask why. They never complain but they are here for a reason. I think everyone of us is here for a reason. Some get a little big longer of an opportunity to prove it and to learn it. For these youngsters, we have to take the time to listen to them. And you have to listen to them very closely because some of them can't speak. Some of them might communicate with you just through their mannerisms. It might just be a quick smile with a tear running down their face to thank you.
BAMAMAG.COM: How did you get started broadcasting?
LYONS: I retired in 1991 for two years. I did a lot of fishing, hunting and a lot of golf. Bills kept coming in. I had the foundation here in New York and I couldn't relocate. I went and started at the high school and college level. I just kept plugging away. You learn and it was an opportunity for me to surround myself with some of the best broadcasters in the business. You sit down and you take corrective criticism. You work your way up. I have been fortunate to be involved with the New York Jets organization for 27 years. I did their television show for 10 years. It's a great organization and a class organization. Beside myself and all these hundreds of thousands of fans, we are just waiting for that championship.
BAMAMAG.COM: Who are some of the people who influenced your broadcasting?
LYONS: I listened to Marv Albert a lot. Marty Glickman was one of the broadcasters I listened to. And a guy that I work with now. He is a young, energetic guy named Bob Wischusen. He does a fantastic job. You have to be objective, you have to be yourself and you have to be honest. You can't sugarcoat it sometimes, so the best thing to be is yourself. Whatever comes out, it comes out. You learn from it.
BAMAMAG.COM: Who are the biggest influences in your life?
LYONS: I think without a doubt, you start with my dad. Then, my three older brothers. And then without a doubt, Coach Bryant. I think Coach Bryant probably had the most influence because he gets young men at an early age, at 18 where you think football is the only thing in your life. He makes you understand that there are more important things in life and not all of us are fortunate to play in the NFL. One thing he told us is "I prepare each and every one of my players to play the game of life." One of the best quotes he ever told us was "A winner in the game of life is a person who gives of themselves so others can grow." And when he told me that, I was 21 years old. It really didn't have any true meaning in my life because I was in the NFL. It went in one ear and out the other. Then when I went through that week in March of 1982 where my son was born, four days later my dad died, and then two days later a little boy that I was a big brother to died. You wake up two months later and you look at yourself in the mirror and you don't like the reflection. All of a sudden those words from Coach Bryant came back. It was a reminder to do something. Do something. The good Lord gave you the ability to play the game, now do something with it.
BAMAMAG.COM: You spend so much time with your charitable organization. How do you relax?
LYONS: I play a lot of charity golf events. I relax when I do the charity events when I see the kids. You can't describe walking into a room. I had almost 1,400 people last year in a holiday room. I gave out 14,000 toys. Seventy of those kids were in wheel chairs. A lot of them are physically handicapped, mentally handicapped, on respirators or deformed. To see the love and joy in that room and to understand as the parents would say, this is the only day out of their lives out of the year that they can enjoy themselves, tells me we live in a very cruel world where we point and we stare. If we can create a safe environment where these kids feel accepted, then just maybe, they can live another normal day and maybe they can survive their illness.
BAMAMAG.COM: Marty, would you tell us about your family?
LYONS: I have four beautiful kids. My oldest son Rocky (from first marriage) is a second year medical student at UAB. I am extremely proud of him. He got a lot brains from his mother, Kelly. My other son, Jesse is 13. He plays soccer and lacrosse and has a little interest in football. My daughter Megan is in gymnastics. My youngest son Luke is 10. He plays soccer and lacrosse too.
BAMAMAG.COM: What did it mean for you to wear the crimson and white?
LYONS: When your there, it meant a little because you were part of a tradition. You didn't understand the tradition when you were there. After you leave, a great deal. It's something now nobody can take away from you. Now you know what Coach Bryant was saying what the word tradition really means. When you're 18 and you want to play football, tradition can be anything you make it. When I was a sophomore, we won a game. I think it was 36-6. Coach Bryant told us we embarrassed the red jerseys. He took us out the next day and replayed the game. I looked at Bob Baumhower and I said, "Boy, I thought we won." Coach Bryant had a different understanding of tradition then we did. But now 30 years later, 25 years later, I understand what he meant. And I'm proud to be a part of it.
Editor's Note: A.P. Steadham is a special contributor to ‘BAMA Magazine and BamaMag.com, concentrating on the coverage of former Crimson Tide athletes.