NEW YORK — Marty Lyons pauses, fights back tears and clears his throat nearly every time he mentions the children who are no longer here.
The former St. Petersburg Catholic standout, New York Jets defensive lineman and longtime team radio analyst has seen way too many youngsters enter his life and then die from the cancer and other illnesses that have robbed them — and their loved ones — of bright futures.
“I mean, these are little kids, but the pain that their families endure for the rest of their life is, sometimes it’s unbearable because there’s always going to be a missing face,” Lyons, a Pinellas Park native, said during a telephone interview. “There’s always going to be a birthday to celebrate.”
But also so many other days to remember the lasting impacts they made in just a few short years.
“These kids that are unfortunately dying at an early age are teachers in the game of life, even though they might only be 4 or 5 or 6 years old,” Lyons said. “They have a message. I remember one little girl I met, she looked at me and said, ‘Mr. Marty, why are you crying?’
“And I couldn’t get out an answer because she said, ‘I’m going to be okay. I’ve already seen the angels.’”
Lyons has been on a mission — 38 years and counting — to fulfill the wishes of children between the ages of 3 and 17 who have been diagnosed with a terminal or life-threatening illness. He started the Marty Lyons Foundation in 1982 and the nonprofit has granted over 8,000 wishes and raised over $35 million while growing to 10 chapters in 13 states.
The 63-year-old former football star also has a new book called, “If These Walls Could Talk: Stories From The New York Jets Sideline, Locker Room and Press Box.” Co-authored by Lou Sahadi, the book includes tales from Lyons’ playing days at Alabama and then as a member of the “New York Sack Exchange” with the Jets, along with observations from his 19 years as a radio broadcaster. It’s also packed with emotional stories about the young children he has met along the way.
“I wanted to make sure that the readers understood that there was more to me than being a football player,” said Lyons, a member of the Jets’ ring of honor. “Certainly, I appreciate it and I’m very humbled and honored to be a part of the Jets organization, and I loved every minute of it. But there is nothing more important than me telling crossover stories about kids that have lost their lives at an early age because of cancer.”
Lyons signed over all of the proceeds he gets from the book directly to his foundation, which was started after the most emotionally tough week of his life.
His oldest son Rocky was born on March 4, 1982, and Marty’s father was making plans to fly to New York to meet his grandson. Leo Lyons never made the trip, dying at 58 of a heart attack on March 8. While attending his father’s wake in Florida two days later, Lyons called home and received the news that Keith, his little brother in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, died of leukemia just two months shy of his sixth birthday.
“So, in a matter of six days, I was challenged,” Lyons recalled. “I kept asking myself, what am I doing wrong in life? Why would God do this to me? And the more I asked why me, the more I learned to understand I was actually saying, why not somebody else?”
But Lyons didn’t want anyone to feel the pain he was experiencing. So he approached Jets teammate Ken Schroy about what he could do to make more of a difference.
From there, the Marty Lyons Foundation was born, and the two continue to brighten young children’s days by granting wishes — a visit to Disney World, celebrity meet-and-greets, a computer, a swimming pool — and being there for their families during the darkest of times.
“He takes that passion from his playing days and switched it to a passion for the children,” said Schroy, a former safety who was Lyons’ Jets teammate from 1979-84. “It’s amazing to see him interact with so many children. We’ve been to so many hospitals with children fighting for their lives. Granting the wishes was the easy part. Helping them fight the disease moving forward was tough.
“And Marty, he just wears his heart on his sleeve. He always did. He’s just an amazing man.”
The coronavirus pandemic has hampered the Marty Lyons Foundation’s abilities to grant as many wishes as it usually does. It’s holding a virtual silent auction through its site from Nov. 27-Dec. 11 to help raise funds to fulfill more wishes.
Lyons is quick to deflect credit for his foundation’s work, insisting it’s the group of staffers, friends and volunteers that has helped him build it to what it is today. The book has allowed him to recognize them, while also impacting readers.
“I’ve had people reply back: ‘When I read the book, I found myself laughing and I found myself crying, and at the end of the book, I found myself inspired,’” Lyons said. “I know for me writing it, it was an emotional roller coaster.”
The chuckles in the locker room and on the playing fields. The tears shed over the children and their families. And, the lessons learned over 38 years.
“My dad loved life,” Lyons said, his voice cracking. “But, if I had to tell him, ‘Dad, you’re going to die so that I could start a foundation and I could help all these kids,’ he would’ve said, ‘Fine. Let me have one more cigarette, one more beer and I’m good.’ It doesn’t take away the pain. But when I started the foundation, it was the vehicle for me to move on because life doesn’t stop for any one of us.
“When all is said and done and you look back at your life and what you were able to do and what you were able to accomplish, the biggest question you can ask yourself is, did I make an impact?”
By DENNIS WASZAK Jr. AP Pro Football Writer