It’s pretty much assumed that whenever an athlete or a coach is selected to be enshrined into a particular hall of fame, he or she gets to make an acceptance speech.
That’s not true for the College Football Hall of Fame. On the night when a new class is celebrated only one person is chosen to speak on behalf of everyone, because when there are 15-plus being honored it would otherwise go on for hours.
So when former Alabama defensive tackle Marty Lyons was asked to participate in the announcement of the Class of 2012, and ring the NASDAQ opening bell in Times Square, he didn’t hold back and choked up when talking about Crimson Tide fans shortly after the April 27 tornado struck Tuscaloosa.
“Right now they’re going through a difficult time in their life with the devastating tornado,” he said during the press conference in New York. “But come December 6 I’m going to put them all on my back and we’re going to get inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.”
He was just as emotional September 3, 2011, when the Crimson Tide hosted Kent State at Bryant-Denny Stadium in its first game since the storm. Because it was the only weekend Lyons could attend a home game that season it’s when the school in conjunction with the National Football Foundation (NFF) and College Football Hall of Fame held the traditional on-campus salute.
“It’s truly an honor that you cherish for the rest of your life,” Lyons said. “You work so hard in college with your teammates and the coaching staff to accomplish what we did for four years at the University of Alabama, it’s truly an honor. I accept on behalf of the university, on behalf of my teammates, on behalf of the coaching staff down there. If it wasn’t for them and the fans, this probably wouldn’t have happened.
“In 1975 I was an outsider, I was a stranger to Alabama. Now I call Alabama my home. I live in New York, but Alabama is where I started. The fans embraced me.”
Lyons grew up in Pinellas Park, Florida, and attended St. Petersburg Catholic High School before heading to Tuscaloosa. He was named All-SEC as a junior in 1977 and led the Crimson Tide in tackles in 1978, when he earned first-team All-American honors and was and co-captain of the national championship team.
He was also part of the goal-line stand in the Sugar Bowl against Penn State, and when Nittany Lions quarterback Chuck Fusina walked up to the line of scrimmage to see how far the ball was from the goal line Lyons supposedly warned him: “You’d better pass.”
However, Lyons arguably had his best game in the 1978 Iron Bowl when he had 16 tackles and three sacks to help lead a 34-16 victory against Auburn. For his career he was credited with 202 tackles, six forced fumbles and four recoveries, while Alabama went 31-5 with two SEC championships to go along with the 1978 national title.
He was subsequently selected in the first round (14th overall) of the 1979 NFL Draft and spent his full 12-year career with the New York Jets, appearing in 147 games over 11 seasons. Along with Mark Gastineau and Joe Klecko he helped form the “New York Sack Exchange,” which led the league in sacks in 1981. He was credited with 45 career sacks and for giving Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly “the business,” which was how referee Ben Dreith famously described the personal-foul penalty.
In 1982, he established the Marty Lyons Foundation to improve the quality of life and grant wishes for terminally ill children in nine different states. Two years later, he was named the NFL’s Man of the Year, an honor that has since been renamed the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
The Senior Vice President of Operations at the LandTek Group, Inc. in Amityville, New York, was initially told of his selection over the phone by NFF President & CEO Steve Hatchell, and said the two of them spent 20 minutes thanking one another.
“You’re overwhelmed with emotions, first,” Lyons said was his initial reaction. “You thank the Good Lord for surrounding you with good people your entire life. You start to look back at think about everyone who was instrumental your football career and in your life, starting with your parents, your siblings and your high school coach, and all your teammates that you had in high school. Maybe they weren’t good enough to play in college, but they enabled you to become a better athlete and a better person.
“Of course, going to the University of Alabama and playing for Coach (Paul W.) Bryant, you never realize just what kind of influence he would have on your entire life. He wasn’t just a great coach he was a great teacher, and a person that I truly loved. Coach Bryant meant the world to me.”
It wasn’t lost on Lyons that he was about to share college football’s highest honor with his former coach. It also didn’t seem that long ago when Bryant said while recruiting him, “I can’t promise anything if you come to the University of Alabama, all I can promise you is an opportunity. If you’re good enough to play the opportunity will be here.”
It certainly was.
“You’re proud to stand alongside Coach Bryant, but everyone who has gone in underneath that family of Crimson Tide, it’s truly a great fraternity to be a part of,” Lyons said.