Former New York Jets defensive tackle Marty Lyons’ start in philanthropic endeavors with the Marty Lyons Foundation did not come from an endorsement deal, TV commercial or ad campaign. The seed was planted by a man, a coach, known for his hard-nosed look at the gridiron. When Lyons was drafted by New York in 1979 at 14th overall, he paid a visit to his college coach and field-general, Paul “Bear” Bryant, to thank him for his years he spent growing at the University of Alabama.
“I was told by Coach Bryant in 1979 after being drafted, ‘You’ll be very fortunate. You’ll play a game you love,’” Lyons said of Bryant. ‘You’ll be able to provide financial security for your family, but remember, a winner in the game of life is the person that gives of themselves so others can grow.’”
The statement laid dormant in the psyche of Lyons, who would go on to become an integral piece of one of the greatest Jets defensive tandems in NFL history. Lyons, along with Mark Gastineau, Joe Klecko and Abdul Salaam, combined for 66 sacks in 1981, taking the Jets to the playoffs for the first time since its lone Super Bowl win in 1969.
It was four years later in 1982 after taking New York to the AFC Championship game, when the impetus for the start of foundation hit the organization’s namesake after a trio of events transformed his life.
Lyons’ son, Rocky, was born four days before the passing of his father, Leo. Lyons served as a Big Brother to a boy Keith, who died of leukemia at age 5, two days after the death of his dad.
“You try to struggle for an answer and ask the question, ‘Why? Why me?’” Lyons said. “That statement from coach Bryant popped up and I realized this is what he was talking about. This is the point in my life where I could keep running, or do something for my father and Keith and help kids who are going through the same ordeals.”
The foundation helps children ages 3 to 17 diagnosed with a terminal or chronicle, life-threatening illness achieve their greatest wish.
“I want to give them that same opportunity I felt when I ran out on that football field,” Lyons said. “Whether you were winning or losing, you felt important. And I wanted these kids to feel important in the game of life and for them to know their life has meaning.”
Lyons, of Smithtown, credited the foundation’s start to Ken Schroy, a former Jets teammate. Bill Gibney, another foundation prime mover, helped Lyons navigate the charity waters leading up to his untimely passing in June. The foundation’s lifetime achievement award is named after Gibney.
“We sat around the table…had no money in the bank,” said Lyons, who serves as a Jets radio analyst for ESPN. “Bill said ‘I’ll help you, but it’s not a one and done. You’re going to do this consistently.’ Thirty-three years later, we operate in 10 states, helped over 7,000 kids and raised $35 million.”
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani won it at the 30th annual Marty Lyons Foundation’s Celebrity Golf Classic in 2015.
“We want to improve the quality of life for these kids suffering from an illness,” Lyons said. “If it’s for an hour, a couple days, for a lifetime? Great. When we improve the quality of life for them, we improve the quality of our life.”