Consider how often have you heard that a great player “is an even better person.” It happens, more often than you might think. And I suspect in decades past it was true more often than it is today, but that may be the old fogy in me. When I hear that phrase, though, I know that there is one former Alabama player for whom it absolutely is true.
As fine a player as Marty Lyons was at Alabama and in the National Football League, he is one of those I truly know to be a better person. I thought about him this weekend as he was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Ind.
Years ago I took on the task of writing a book, “What It Means To Be Crimson Tide.” My formula for this was that I would interview a former player either in person or by telephone (and I had some of our other writers do some of these interviews, too, notably Mitch Dobbs and Erik Stinnett).
After I had gathered a handful of interviews, I would then write the segment on those former player, doing my best to recreate the individual “voice” of each. As I began this part of the writing of the book – 62 players representing teams from the 1930s through the early part of this century – I decided to start with Marty Lyons.
I knew that Marty was a good story. He was captain of the 1978 national championship team, played a major role in the famous goalline stand in the Sugar Bowl against Penn State (“You’d better pass!”), and had gone on to a great pro career with the New York Jets.
But what resonated with me when I interviewed him was this:
“It is commonplace for college players on bowl trips to make a visit to sick children in a hospital in a bowl city. I had that experience, but didn’t let it end there. I continued to visit children in hospitals when I went to the Jets. And in 1982, a teammate, Kenny Schroy, and I made a commitment to do more. The result was The Marty Lyons Foundation, which continues to grant wishes to children with terminal or life-threatening illnesses.
“One of the things that Coach Bryant stressed was how important it was to make a difference. He was the reason I started the foundation. He told us about the opportunities we had. I knew when I was on those hospital wards watching those children pulling IV poles that they weren’t going to have the opportunities I had.”
The foundation has helped to provide comfort for thousands and thousands of children. There are success stories, but, sadly, many of the children do not have happy outcomes.
I included the information on how to donate to the Marty Lyons Foundation at 326 W 48th St, New York 10036, and Marty said that while monetary donations were mostly needed that the Foundation was happy to get “in kind” gifts, such as airplane tickets.
And he added, “If you can’t help financially, give us your thoughts and prayers. Maybe it will save a life.”
Lyons, a native of Pinellas Park, Fla., was one of the Crimson Tide’s great defensive linemen who played for legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant from 1976-78. He was a consensus All-American in 1978 and a two-time All-SEC selection in 1977 and 1978.
Lyons becomes the 23rd Alabama player or coach to be selected into the College Football Hall of Fame, joining UA greats such as Bryant, Cornelius Bennett, John Hannah, Frank Howard, Lee Roy Jordan, Woodrow Lowe, Johnny Musso, Ozzie Newsome and Gene Stallings. Lyons, who was part of “The Goal Line Stand” in the 1979 Sugar Bowl, helped the Crimson Tide turn back Penn State 14-7 to capture the 1978 national championship.
He made 59 tackles with five tackles for loss in 1977 to earn first-team All-SEC honors before turning in a dominating senior campaign. Lyons’ 1978 season included consensus All-America and All-SEC honors after recording 119 tackles and 15 tackles for loss.
He served as a defensive captain for the 1978 national championship team and was selected to the Tide’s Team of the Century and to the all-decade team of the 1970s.
Lyons had perhaps his best game in the 1978 win over Auburn where he had 16 tackles and three quarterback sacks to help the Crimson Tide to a 34-16 win. His teams went 31-5 and won two SEC titles to go along with the 1978 national championship.
Following his senior season, Lyons played in the 1979 Senior Bowl and the East-West Shrine Bowl. He was selected by the New York Jets with the 14th pick of the first round in the 1979 NFL Draft. Lyons played 11 NFL seasons, amassing 29 sacks as part of the Jets “New York Sack Exchange.” He helped lead the Jets to the playoffs in 1982, 1985 and 1986.
And he is a better person than he was a player.