Jets Ring Of Honor Member Marty Lyons Has Granted Almost 8,000 Wishes For Ill Children
Off the field, it was supposed to be a memorable time too. On March 4 of 1982, Lyons son Rocky was born, a moment that the NFL star says was a tremendous joy.
But then, tragedy hit Lyons over the next week.
His joy all came crashing down when, four days later, Lyons’ father suddenly died of a heart attack at 58-years old. Two days after that, things further hit rock bottom for the Jets star defensive lineman.
A five-year old boy named Keith, who Lyons served as a ‘Big Brother’ to and mentored, died of leukemia.
What should have been a happy time for Lyons instead left the NFL lineman on his knees, shaken and hurt. A man known for his toughness on the field, was now left searching.
He struggled to find an answer, he says, before eventually realizing that these highs and lows were a part of life. Then, he said, it dawned on him that “this was the platform God gave me, to play in the NFL, and use that platform to help terminally ill children.”
The pain suddenly not only made sense.
It now gave him a purpose.
The Marty Lyons Foundation began later that year, with the endorsement of the Jets organization and owner Leon Hess. The organization’s purpose, then as it is now, is to grant wishes to children between 3-years old up to 17-years old who have a terminal or life-threatening illness.
Sometimes that means a trip to Disney World. For others, it is a laptop so they can do schoolwork from the hospital. Lyons still remembers the first wish that came to the foundation in 1982.
“His name was Steven. His wish was to go down to the Super Bowl down in Tampa. That’s when the Oakland Raiders played the Washington Redskins,” Lyons said.
“Unfortunately, Steven passed away, I want to say maybe four-to-six weeks before that Super Bowl was taking place. He was 17-years old. When I went to Mr. Hess and told him what I wanted to do, he said I had the backing of him and the Jets organization.”
The Jets organized a press conference to announce that they would be granting the wish and raise awareness for the new foundation. Unfortunately, Steven would die before the foundation would be able to grant the wish. His life, despite briefly knowing each other, was an impact on Lyons.
“I remember Steven saying how proud he was to be the first one with a wish,” Lyons said, who also remembers calling the young man’s father after learning of his passing.
“I will never forget talking to his father, and his father said ‘Just remember one thing: do it because you want to do it. Don’t do it because you want to read about it.’ Wow.”
The charity is still going strong after nearly 38 years in service, with operations in 13 states that have helped grant the wishes of 7,900 children. There are needs, he says, with hundreds of wishes waiting to be granted and limited financial resources.
The foundation is actively fundraising and seeking donations as the numbers of those seeking wishes far outstrips the financial resources provided in terms of donations.
He proudly says that the foundation utilizes 90 percent of all donations towards program services and that the organization is currently looking for new ways to streamline so as to free up more resources and funds towards granting wishes.
When asked by people who are seeking a way to get involved with the foundation, Lyons says that he asks for three things.
“Money, if you can give money. Time, if you can do that,” Lyons said.
“And your prayers. We ask for your prayers.”
For a man who accomplished so much on the field, including being named to the Jets Ring of Honor, his biggest legacy might be this work. The foundation has become a lifeline to so many who are hurting and in need. It is part of a commitment that Lyons says is part of his very being. The energy behind this for all these years, he insists, isn’t anything wonderful that he does. It is the young people who are fighting life-altering diseases.
“The ones who have passed away are the true teachers,” Lyons says, pausing for a moment.
“These kids, if we take time to listen to them, they are great teachers. But unfortunately a lot of people, they don’t think it is necessary to build a relationship and understand the pain they are going through and the pain the families are going through.
“We just want to be there for you for as long as you want us to, and we’re not going to ask for anything in return.”