By Peter Schwartz
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In 1982, Marty Lyons went through a spectrum of emotions.
After helping the Jets reach the playoffs for the first time since 1969, Lyons’ offseason began with the highest of highs as his oldest son, Rocky, was born on March 4. However, four days later Lyons’ father suddenly passed away from a heart attack at the age of 58. Then, two days after that, on March 10, a young boy that Lyons had been a big brother to passed away.
Keith was just five and a half years old.
“At that point in my life, being 25 years old, you kind of struggle for an answer,” said the former Jets defensive end and current broadcaster. “You kind of blame yourself, you kind of question your own faith and for me, I said, ‘What am I doing wrong in life that God would allow this to happen?’ ”
Lyons spent plenty of time pondering what had just happened to him. He had experienced the highest of highs with the birth of a child but also had suffered the loss of two people that were very important to him. After feeling a lot of resentment, Lyons reached a crossroads in his life.
“All of a sudden you wake up one morning and you realize that this is life,” Lyons said. “There’s nothing I can do to bring dad or Keith back, but there was something that I could do to help those who were less fortunate.”
At that point, Lyons decided that football was not his only calling in life. He was going to do something to help make a difference in the lives of others. His inspiration came from visiting pediatric wards on Long Island, where the Jets were based at that time. He walked around and saw kids that were going through chemotherapy and radiation and wanted them to experience the same opportunities that he had.
“The opportunity to feel important,” said Lyons, the most recent addition to the Jets Ring of Honor. “I said, I want to take their greatest wish in life and make it become a reality.”
And on December 22, 1982, the Marty Lyons Foundation was born when it was incorporated in the state of New York as a non-profit charitable, tax exempt 501 (c)(3) organization.
The mission of the organization is to fulfill the special wishes of children between the ages of three and 17 that have been diagnosed with a terminal or life threatening illness by providing and arranging special-wish requests.
In the six months or so after the establishment of the foundation, Lyons took advantage of any speaking engagements or autograph signings to spread the word about his foundation. He let people know that he was donating any payments he received for the appearances back to the foundation.
It didn’t take long for Lyons to start receiving support.
“When I would walk out, people would give me a handshake and say, ‘Here’s a little something to help you,’ ” said Lyons.
In 1985, three years after the start of the foundation, Lyons opened a second chapter in Florida and then a third in New Jersey in 1987. Today, the Marty Lyons Foundation has chapters in 13 states.
Lyons believes that those who are fortunate to play in the NFL are role models and have a responsibility to take some time to give back to the community, and to try to make a difference in somebody’s life.
“People look up to us,” said Lyons. “If you have a strong enough voice and the conviction in the things that you do, then you might be able to help people.”
And that’s exactly what Lyons has done.
Since the inception of the organization, the foundation has helped over 7,000 kids. Over the course of that time, the No. 1 goal is the hope that they beat their illness. Unfortunately, there are also times that Lyons will run into parents that give him the bad news that their child had passed away.
“But they thank you for giving them an opportunity to create memories,” he said. “And that if it wasn’t for the foundation and it wasn’t for the organization, they would have nothing to hold on to.”
Lyons serves as the chairman of his foundation. Also on his executive committee is former Jets safety Ken Schroy, who serves as vice chairman. Before Lyons started the foundation, he sat down with his teammate and his wife Susan to make sure he had their help and support.
The Jets have always been a big supporter of Marty’s foundation.
Back in ’82, Lyons informed Jets owner Leon Hess of his plans to start the foundation. What he received in return was unwavering support from the only NFL franchise that he’s ever been a part of.
“(Mr. Hess) said he would give me the total support, and so would the organization,” said Lyons. “I was fortunate that so were my teammates.”
The Jets played a huge role in a recent wish granted to Ryan, an 11-year-old boy from South Carolina who is battling leukemia and lymphoma.
His wish was to attend a Jets game. So Marty and his foundation arranged for Ryan and his family to visit Manhattan and to go to a game at MetLife Stadium. Ryan was given a custom jersey and was on the field before the game to watch the players warm up.
But there was more, thanks to Jets head coach Rex Ryan.
That day, Marty went over to Rex during warm ups and asked if Ryan could come on the field. Without hesitation, Rex said, “Go get him!”
“To have a wish child come in and be able to go down on the field and be able to go out and meet Rex and meet some of the players, it’s something they always dreamed of,” said Lyons. ”When you have that type of cooperation and you have that type of relationship, it means the world to the kid because he’s not just sitting on the sideline. He’s getting to interact with the head coach and he gets to interact with the players.”
Speaking of the Jets, Lyons has been with the organization since being drafted in the first round by Gang Green in 1979. The former Alabama star played 11 seasons for the Jets and was a big part of the “New York Sack Exchange” along with Joe Klecko, Mark Gastineau and Abdul Salaam. Lyons played in 147 games in his career and notched 43 sacks.
Marty is heading into his 13th season in the Jets broadcast booth. He’s pumped up about the team’s chances in 2014.
“I’m excited,” said Lyons. “I think that they made a lot of good moves during the free agency period and I think they had a solid draft and I think that Geno (Smith) is going to step up. He’s got a nice running back in Chris Johnson and you bring in Eric Decker. I think the big question mark is still going to be, can the secondary hold up?”
Lyons is balancing a full plate these days. Aside from the Jets, he’s the vice president of marketing and public relations for the LandTek Group, a national company that specializes in sports facility design and construction.
And, of course, there is his tireless effort with the foundation that continues to make an impact on the lives of children by granting wishes. Lyons receives plenty of support from people and the assistance comes in three different ways.
“The more money I raise, the more kids I can help,” said Lyons. “If you don’t have money, maybe you have time. I need people to help coordinate wishes and coordinate special events. Time has a value because you can’t make more of it. If you don’t have money and you don’t have time, I always ask people for thoughts and prayers. If one prayer is answered, we’ve saved a life.”
Since joining the Jets in 1979, Marty Lyons has made a huge impact both on and off the field. Whether it’s been sacking opposing quarterbacks or helping children tackle a huge obstacle in their life, Lyons has been an integral part of the community. He came to New York to play football and was a terrific Jet, bringing plenty of smiles to fans of Gang Green. But for 32 years, he’s also been putting smiles on the faces of children who are looking for a wish to come true.
“It’s always rewarding to know that we all have the ability to do make a difference in somebody’s life,” he said. “It’s just whether we take time to do it.”
In 1982, Marty Lyons made the decision that he was going to make a difference. He did so the same way he played football: with passion, and by following the simple premise that actions speak louder than words.
If you would like to help Marty’s quest to make special wishes come true for children, please visit the foundation’s website at www.martylyonsfoundation.org.
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