By John Hanc
Special to Newsday
September 30, 2022
Marty Lyons pauses in mid-sentence.
He looks up at a picture on the wall of his foundation’s conference room; it’s a photograph of a cute, blond- haired boy in overalls.
The boy’s photo is surrounded on the 21-foot-wide wall by a montage of about a hundred images of other, far more recognizable visages. Yankees slugger Aaron Judge is on the wall; so are other famous pro athletes, such as Steph Curry, J.J. Watt and Derek Jeter; as well as celebrities like Steven Spielberg, Rachael Ray and Chris Rock. All are surrounded by children — some using wheelchairs, others with assistive medical devices, and most smiling.
In one way or another, these famous folks and many others have helped support the Marty Lyons Foundation, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
But it’s the boy at the center of the mural — Keith Muglia — who holds Lyons’ gaze. The seconds tick away. His eyes water. And then he weeps.
Lyons had met Keith and his mother at a fundraiser in Garden City for leukemia research in late 1980 — a year after Lyons had been selected in the first round of the NFL Draft by the New York Jets. Keith, just 4 years old, had a rare form of the disease.
“I didn’t have kids at the time,” recalls Lyons, now 65. “And he was very, very timid. But we connected.”
Keith’s mom, Susan Caffrey, remembers the day well. “He walked over and, of course, Marty being so big and Keith being so small, he was shy,” said Caffrey, who now lives in Santa Barbara, California. “But Marty got right down to his level and talked to him. And at the end of the night, Keith gave him a big hug and said, ‘I love you.’ That was the beginning.”
Lyons became a surrogate big brother to Keith. He visited him in the hospital as he underwent experimental treatments for his disease, and visited the Muglias’ house in East Northport for Christmas. When he was able, Keith attended Jets games, with seats provided by Lyons.
But on March 10, 1982 — as Lyons sat in a funeral home in Florida where his own father was being waked — he got a phone call. Just shy of his sixth birthday, Keith had died from his illness.
Here, Lyons stops, as he remembers that awful day.
“I was 25 years old,” Lyons says, after composing himself. “I struggled to find an answer.”
And he did find an answer: The Marty Lyons Foundation, which — along with his Jets teammate and friend, safety Ken Schroy — he started that year. (Though Schroy is no longer active in managing the foundation, he is an honorary board member and volunteer.) The foundation grants wishes to children 3 to 17 years old with life-threatening and terminal illnesses in 13 states (including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut), through various fundraising activities, including an annual celebrity golf outing on Long Island. But despite the achievements — over $40 million raised; the wishes of more than 8,200 children fulfilled — the long-ago loss still haunts him.
“Marty is very emotional,” said another former Jets teammate, John Nitti, who supported Marty’s nascent foundation at the beginning and later served on the board. “He often breaks down about the kids during conversations and even speeches to large groups. That’s why I call him ‘The Kindhearted Warrior.’ ”
“Kindhearted” is probably not the first adjective that would have come to the minds of quarterbacks and running backs facing off against Lyons during his playing days — first at the University of Alabama, where he helped his team
win the NCAA National Championship in 1978, and later when he became part of the Jets’ so-called New York Sack Exchange of the early 1980s. Lyons was a member of a stellar defensive line that included Mark Gastineau, Abdul Salaam and Joe Klecko. Although they never won a Super Bowl, they helped make the Jets of that era a fearsome opponent.
Despite his imposing size — he’s 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds (10 pounds below his playing weight) — there is nothing fearsome today about Marty Lyons. But there is much to be admired.
“He’s truly one of the greatest humanitarians I’ve ever met,” said Mike Ryan, CEO of The LandTek Group Inc., a Bay Shore-based company that designs and constructs sports facilities. “He is so dedicated and such an approachable man.”
Since 2001, Lyons has worked as vice president of public relations for LandTek, having retired from playing football in 1990.
In 2020, Ryan carved out office space for Lyons’ foundation in the company’s headquarters building — just a few steps from Marty’s office. Having the new 900-square-foot office for Lyons and his organization’s three-person staff saved the foundation more than $40,000 a year in rent, utilities and other expenses — and made it a little more convenient for Lyons to run his foundation while managing his job at LandTek.
And, oh yes, he does have a job.
“ ‘Does he really work here?’ ” LandTek’s chief operating officer John Sulinski said with a chuckle. “I get that a lot. And the answer is, ‘He certainly does.’ He’s not a figurehead. He’s here every day, he’s boots on the grounds, interacting with every department here and with our customers.”
Lyons, who lives in Smithtown, says he enjoys the work and is proud of the more than 80 athletic facilities (including many high schools and colleges on Long Island) that LandTek has built. But, as Sulinski notes, his star-power is still evident, over 30 years after he retired from football.
“He walks in the door, everyone still knows him,” he said.
Especially Jets fans, for whom he is not only an all-time great (he was inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor in 2013), but a familiar voice: Since 2002, Lyons has been part of the Jets broadcast team for ESPN Radio New York,
Same thing goes for his work in his eponymous foundation. He’s not just lending his name to a not-for-profit. Like his tears, his commitment to this cause and to children is genuine, say those who know him.
“For Marty, this is really from the heart,” said John Nitti, a star at Westbury High School who went on to captain Yale University’s football team before being signed by the Jets. “This isn’t a PR stunt. It’s just in his nature to do something like this.”
Initially, football seemed to be something that was quite unnatural for young Lyons.
One of seven children, Lyons grew up in Pinellas Park, Florida. In high school in nearby St. Petersburg, he went out for the team as a ninth grader and was essentially used as a tackling dummy by the upperclassmen, including his older brother, Dan.
“I really didn’t like football at first,” he said. “I was ready to quit.” But Dan talked him out of it, and Marty went on to a stellar high school career, catching the attention of football coaches at major universities around the country. It was the legendary Alabama coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant, however, who most impressed the young man.
“All of the other coaches promised me I’d start if I attended their school,” he recalled. “He said, ‘we’d love to have you come to Alabama, and if you’re good enough to start the opportunity will be there.’ ”
That, he says, is one of the many lessons in life he learned from Bryant. “That’s all that people really want,” he says. “An opportunity.”
Lyons seized his, becoming a consensus All-American at Alabama and helping lead his teams to three Sugar Bowl wins in addition to the 1978 national championship (in 2011, Lyons was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame).
Something else coach Bryant told him clicked after he was dealing with the death of Keith Muglia — which had closely followed not only the death of Lyons’ father but the birth of his first son. (Lyons has four grown children and two grandchildren.)
“Coach Bryant told me that a winner in the game of life is the person who gives of himself,” Lyons said. “When I was in college, that advice went in one ear and out the other.” But, as he struggled to come to terms with the loss of the child he had befriended, it came to him. “We all have an opportunity to make an impact, to make the world a little better,” he said. “I realized that this was that moment for me.”
The moment to give of himself.
Which is what he has done through his foundation for 40 years, helping children fulfill a dream. (Visits to Disney World and meetings with favorite celebrities are the most common requests.)
It’s a tribute to Lyons, of course, but also to the influence of a boy who never saw his sixth birthday. The organization even named an annual award after Keith, given annually to an individual or organization that makes significant contributions to the foundation’s mission.
“I feel an immense sense of gratitude to Marty,” said Keith’s mother, Susan Caffrey. “He’s kept my son’s memory alive.”
And how will Marty Lyons be remembered? Will his legacy be his foundation, or his status as one of the great collegiate and NFL players of his era?
Lyons himself has no doubt about that. “When they do my eulogy,” he said, “the foundation is the lead. That’s way more important than anything else I’ve done.”
He pauses again, but this time smiles. “And at the end of the eulogy, they can say, ‘by the way, he also played football.’”