Marty Lyons is one of the all-time greats of Alabama football, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and a consensus All-American on Paul “Bear” Bryant’s 1978 national championship team.
Lyons also had an illustrious career with the NFL’s New York Jets, playing 11 seasons as a defensive tackle and winding up with a place in the team’s Ring of Honor. He remains involved with the Jets organization as color analyst for the team’s radio broadcasts.
Now 63, Lyons has written a book with long-time collaborator Lou Sahadi, “If These Walls Could Talk: Stories from the New York Jets Sideline, Locker Room and Press Box,” recently published by Triumph Books. In the book, Lyons tells stories of his high school, college and pro career, while also detailing his work with the Marty Lyons Foundation, which grants wishes to children, ages 3-17, diagnosed with a terminal or life-threatening illness.
Lyons recently spoke with AL.com about his book, his foundation, his career at Alabama and in the NFL, and a number of other subjects. The following Q&A has been edited slightly for length and clarity:
Q: First, tell me about the book, why did you decide to write it, and what do you hope readers get out of it?
A: “I’m hoping people learn some interesting stories about the Jets and also, more importantly, about children that are suffering with childhood cancer and what it is like being in an intensive care unit or to be with parents where their child is sick or passes away — take them into the real world. The game of football was very, very good to me. I had an opportunity to play at the University of Alabama for coach Bryant and an opportunity to spend 12 years as a player with the Jets and 42 years with the organization. And when I got approached to write the book, I said, the only way I would write it is if they allowed me to do it as a crossover book — tell a story about football and then tell a story about a child so that people would understand that there’s more important things to life than the game of football, and certainly being a professional athlete. I was very fortunate and privileged to have that opportunity, but I didn’t want football to define who I was.”
Q: Tell me more about your foundation. This is a big time of year with the holidays coming up, but I’m sure it’s been a difficult time with the pandemic.
“During the pandemic, everything has been shut down. We’re probably about $700,000 down from where we were last year at this time. And right now we’re just regrouping so that when, the vaccine comes in and (quarantine) gets lifted, we’ll be up and running. The unfortunate part of it is that a lot of the children that we had in the pipeline to do travel or fulfill their wishes, they may not be around. It’s been a very difficult year. Right now with all the proceeds from the sale of the book, I’m signing quite a few of those and that’s generating some money and I think it’s generating interest. I’ve heard from some people that read it and they said it’s very emotional. It’s very inspiring. They found themselves laughing and they found themselves crying and they found themselves inspired. And that’s all I wanted to accomplish with the book. The book is what the reader takes away from it and how it changes their life and how they look at life, maybe a little bit differently than when they started the book.”
Q: You were a star high school player in Florida and could have gone anywhere in the country. Why did you go to Alabama?
A: I think the biggest reason why I chose Alabama, it was just far enough away from home, but not too far. They had a winning tradition. They had coach Bryant and when coach Bryant and I sat down, he said, ‘I want to offer you a scholarship but I can’t make any promises. All I can tell you is if you’re good enough to play, the opportunity will be here. And that was straightforward.’ A lot of other schools said, ‘hey, if you come here, you can start. If he come here, you’ll play.’ Not with coach Bryant. Coach Bryant was perfectly honest and it was a challenge.
“I always felt that if you want it to be the best, play the best. And that was another thing that the University of Alabama always offered. You were going to play USC. You were going to play Nebraska. You were going to play Penn State. All the credentials that I had from high school — all-state in three sports — I could look next to me, and that guy was all-state in three sports and the the guy next to him was all-state in four sports. So it wasn’t easy there, but I look back on it and what coach Bryant prepared every one of his players to do was to be successful in life. He took all those values that you would need — those core values about family, religion, education — and instilled them in every one of his players, so that if the game ended after four years, you could go on to be successful. If you were fortunate to go into the NFL, the game was going to end one day, but he wanted to make sure you were ready for life.”
Q: Is there a particular story about coach Bryant where he really inspired you now that you look back on it all these years later?
A: I went (to Alabama) with the understanding to also play baseball. I think I dressed out for six (football) games as a freshman, all the games as a sophomore, but when the letters came out and it was time for you to get initiated to the A-club, my name wasn’t on the list. So I was upset. So I went in to talk to coach Bryant. And I kind of (mentally) went over all the questions that he could ask me or I could ask him. And I had the answers.
“So I knocked on his door. He was sitting at his big desk and he was smoking a Chesterfield, had those half glasses. I said ‘Coach, can I ask you a couple of questions?’ He says, ‘yeah.’ He had this big couch that was in front of his desk. And when I sat in the couch, I sunk like 12 inches. And I thought ‘oh God, man, there’s been a lot of asses in this couch before mine.’ And so I pulled myself up and sat on what seemed like a two-by-four underneath the cushion that was on the front of the couch, so I could not quite eye-level, but not be so low. And I went ‘coach, I just wanted to ask you why I didn’t letter, is there any reason? And he said, ‘well, you know, Marty, I don’t think that letter means anything to you.’ And out of everything that I had rehearsed, that was not one of the answers I thought he could come up with.
“I figured that he might say ‘you didn’t have enough playing time’ or ‘you didn’t grade out well.’ But I got up the nerve and said, ‘well, coach, you told me when I signed here two years ago that I didn’t have to go out for spring practice. I could go out to the baseball team my sophomore year. I’d like your permission.’ He said, ‘Marty, you have my permission.’ So I got up, I shook his hand and I felt pretty good about it. And I got almost to the door and coach Bryant said ‘Marty, can I give you a little bit of advice?’ He said, ‘before you try to be good in two sports, try to be good in one. And make sure it’s the one you hold a scholarship with.’ And that was the end of my baseball career.
“But it was a valuable lesson, and I think it brought coach Bryant and me closer together. Every time he came to New York for the Football Foundation banquet, I would always sit at his table. And I used to get telegrams from him before the start of every NFL season. He was very special. He was very instrumental in developing me into who I am today.”
Q: The Alabama-Auburn game is coming up. You guys had a pretty good run against Auburn during your career, but does anything in particular stick out about the games you played against them?
A: Well, the main thing is we went 4-0. And they had some pretty good teams. But I remember my sophomore year , we beat them 38-7, but when we got done coach Bryant called us all in and said that we embarrassed the red jerseys today, the tradition of Alabama football. And we were going to play the game all over again [at practice] on Sunday. He took us back to Tuscaloosa and we had an 11 o’clock curfew that night. I’m sitting there scratching my head. My roommate at the time was Bob Baumhower, and I asked him ‘didn’t we win today?’ But it was another lesson in life; we played to a higher standard. That game was always special, and of course we always played it in Birmingham in those days. Everybody is going to play a little bit harder, everybody is going to do a little bit more to come away with a victory. And if you’re fortunate enough to win, you can live on that for another year.”
Q: Your senior year, you win the national championship, beating Penn State in the Sugar Bowl. I’m sure you’ve told the story many times about the Goal Line Stand and what you said to (Penn State quarterback) Chuck Fusina before the fourth-down play. Did you consider yourself a trash-talker or was it something that just came out of your mouth?
A: “I’m not a trash talker. We were just standing there next to the official. I had met Chuck Fusina a few weeks before because were both members of the Bob Hope All-America team. I think (Fusina) was actually talking to the official, but I was over there and he goes, ‘how far is it [to the goal line]?’ I went ‘about that far’ and I gestured with my two hands. And he says, ‘so what do you think?’ I just said, ‘I think you’d better throw the ball.’ And I ran back to the huddle and (Alabama safety) Murray Legg was just yelling ‘gut check, gut check, this is gut-check! This is what we worked for!’
“And you had 11 guys do exactly what they’re supposed to do on that play. David Hannah shot the gap, took [running back Mike Guman’s] legs out. Mike Clements came around and grabbed him by the thigh so he couldn’t jump very high. Barry Krauss came over the top, squared him up. Murray Legg came in, Rich Wingo came in, it was like the perfect storm. It was like everything that we had worked for four years, everything that Ken Donahue, the defense coordinator, prepared us to do. And they did exactly what we thought that they were going to do. They were going to try to run the ball — coach Bryant and (Penn State coach) Joe Paterno had that same mentality. If you can’t run the ball and pick up a yard, you don’t deserve to win.
“But no, I wasn’t trash-talking Chuck Fusina. Even when somebody asked me after the game, ‘what were you saying?’ I said, ‘I told him he’d better throw the ball.’ And I said it as a joke. But when you look back at that play, if they had thrown the ball, they would have scored, because we sold out to stop the run.”
Here’s video of the Goal Line Stand:
Q: I’ve talked to a lot of people who played for coach Bryant and they said when they got to the pros, that practices were easier than they were at Alabama. Did you find that to be true?
A: “Without a doubt. The biggest difference is we didn’t win like we did at Alabama. My first game up here in New York, we lost to Cleveland in overtime. And then the next week we went up to new England and lost 56-3. Never did we lose like that at Alabama. We only lost six games in the four years I was there. But yeah, the practices were a lot easier. And now if you look at the practices the NFL players have now, it’s unbelievable. They can only be in pads, I think, 14 days once the season starts and the season is 16 weeks long. So you’re in full gear less than once a week. They’re trying to protect the players and the health of the players. But I think the reason why coach Bryant had such hard practices is he always had that theory ‘if you’re going to quit on me or if you’re going to quit on your teammates, do it in practice. Don’t do it in a game.’”
Q: Another famous play you were involved in was in 1988 against Buffalo, when the official said you were ‘giving him the business’ after the play against Jim Kelly. A lot of people don’t remember it was you who was ‘giving him the business.’
A: “I just happened to be on top of him that day. I have a great deal of respect for Jim. It was just part of the game. Early in the game, I hit him as he was going out of bounds. He got up and threw the ball at me. I went back at him and proceeded to get my ass kicked because I was on their sideline. And then right before halftime, he did a naked bootleg (run), got ready to throw the ball. I hit him as he threw it. I’m laying on top of him. He looks up, he says some things to me. I say some things to him. He goes to push me off and I kind of hit him in a few times, probably about eight or nine times. You know, the referee actually called, ‘giving him the business’ on No. 99, which was Mark Gastineau’s number. But if you go back and look at the clip, you can see Jim and I pat each other on the helmet after the penalty.
“I remember going into practice the following week and all the reporters were around my locker. And they said, ‘hey, did you hear you and Jim Kelly just got fined $800 for fighting?’ I said, ‘really?’ And they said ‘you know, Kelly’s going to appeal his, what are you going to do?’ I said, ‘well, I’ll be honest with you. I got my $800 worth.’ There was no sense to me appealing it. What am I going to do, tell them I didn’t throw the punch? But you can look back on those days and they’re great memories — some memories are good and some, you kind of wish you weren’t involved in that play.”
Here’s video of Lyons’ dustup with Kelly:
Q: In those days, there was you and (fellow Alabama alum) Richard Todd with the Jets and the Miami Dolphins had a bunch of Alabama guys — Baumhower, Tony Nathan, Dwight Stephenson, Don McNeal. What was it like to have those battles with the Dolphins with all the Alabama guys playing at the same time?
“We were fortunate cause we, we got to see each other at least twice a year. It was always good, see those guys before the game and then after the game, just to catch up on what they were doing. You knew what their records were. It was fun playing against the Dolphins because you had Dwight Stephenson at center and I was a defensive tackle. He came in right after I came in. At the time, the best center in the league was Mike Webster in Pittsburgh. But it wasn’t long after that that everybody was saying, ‘Hey, the best center in the NFL now is Dwight Stephenson,’ and without a doubt, he was.”
Q: What do you think about the current run Alabama is on? What parallels do you see between coach Bryant’s teams and what Nick Saban is doing?
“Just like when I played there, those players know, ‘we’re going to be in it every single year, we’re going to position ourselves to be playing for the national championship.’ And that’s why the players go there, because they’re going to have an opportunity to play there and be successful there. And if you want to get to the next level, you’ve got to have the same attitude that I had — go where the best go and prove that you can play with the best. When Alabama is on national TV every single week, the visibility of your family getting an opportunity to see you play is so important.
“But it’s the rich tradition of Alabama football. Everybody knows what it is, and you don’t want to be on a team that falls short of it. And what coach Saban is doing now is the same thing that coach Bryant did. If you have a freshmen that needs to get some playing time so that he can somebody to build around his sophomore, junior, senior year, they’re going to play him because the only way to learn that game and learn how to play in the NFL is to go out there and find out what works and what doesn’t work. You can’t learn by holding a clipboard. You can’t learn by watching film. You have to get into real live action. And that’s what they’re doing down there now.”
For more information about the Marty Lyons Foundation or to purchase a copy of “If These Walls Could Talk,” click HERE.