July 12, 2007

SPORTS OF THE TIMES; A Long Walk for Those Who Responded to 9/11



If you're a Giants football fan, you remember George Martin. As a defensive end and tricaptain of the 1986 Giants along with Harry Carson and Phil Simms in their Super Bowl XXI victory, Martin tackled Broncos quarterback John Elway in the end zone for a safety. Over his 14 seasons, his six touchdowns (three on interception returns) set a National Football League record for a defensive lineman. Coach Bill Parcells considered him a pillar of locker room leadership.

And on Martin's way to and from the practice field outside Giants Stadium, he couldn't help but see and marvel at the twin towers of the World Trade Center across the Hudson River.

On the evening of Sept. 10, 2001, Martin, returning from a business trip, was on a jetliner about to land at Newark Airport when the woman sitting next to him mentioned that she was visiting the New York area for the first time.

''See the twin towers over there,'' Martin told her, pointing toward the New York skyline. ''Be sure you go down to Lower Manhattan to see them up close.''

The next morning, when Martin turned on the television in his Ringwood, N.J., home, he saw smoke belching from one tower. Moments later he saw a jetliner crash into the other tower. One by one, he saw each tower collapse. Soon he, his wife, Dianne, and their four children -- Teresa, George II, Benjamin and Aaron -- learned that two 23-year-old neighbors, Christian DeSimone and Tyler Ugolyn, had died in the terrorist attack.

''They were two of God's special angelic kids,'' Martin said Monday at a Giants football camp for youngsters in Wayne, N.J.

Martin, 54, has not forgotten them or those who responded to the attack: the firefighters, the police, everybody who rushed there. Through his Journey for 9/11, he hopes to raise $10 million to care for first responders who develop illnesses related to the attack and its aftermath. He plans to walk more than 3,000 miles across the nation, from the New York side of the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey, down to Washington, south to Interstate 40, then west, eventually leading to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

''All those respondents unselfishly put themselves in harm's way, and they've been forgotten,'' he said. ''People like to call football players heroes, but we're not heroes, we just play football. The last thing I want to do is open old wounds, but these unquestioned true heroes have been forgotten. It's like what John F. Kennedy said when somebody asked why somebody should do something and he said, 'Why not?' Why shouldn't we do something for the respondents?''

Martin, the sports marketing director for AXA Equitable for the past decade, has been granted a paid leave of absence for his journey.

''I'll walk every mile; no walking a few miles and jumping in a car,'' he said. ''I start Sept. 15, the day before the Giants' home opener. I've been training for a 50-miles-a-day clip -- up early and walk 12 1/2 miles before breakfast, do 12 1/2 more before lunch, another 12 1/2 and a short rest in the afternoon, then a final 12 1/2 before dinner and bed. It should take three and a half to four months. I know I can do it.''

Martin won't be alone, of course. With a budget of $150,000 for the trip, he'll be accompanied by a police escort and a support staff. His corporate sponsors include Hackensack University Medical Center, North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health Systems, Fairleigh Dickinson University, United Parcel Service, Bear Stearns, Nike, TanaSeybert, Make-A-Wish Foundation, Keyspan Energy, Hunter Douglas, the Giants, the N.F.L. and the N.F.L. Players Association.

''I was lucky,'' he said. ''As a football player, I never had any broken bones, never had surgery. I don't have an artificial knee or hip. I'm the antithesis of all these former N.F.L. players who have had problems, but they shouldn't be blaming Gene Upshaw and the players association. We all went into the N.F.L. knowing the average career was only about five years. We all went in with our eyes open.''

Martin's eyes have always been more open than those of most pro football players. At Armijo High School in Fairfield, Calif., he was the student body president. At the University of Oregon, he was an art-education major before the Giants drafted him in the 11th round.

''When I was at Oregon, I always admired Steve Prefontaine,'' Martin said, referring to the world-class distance runner who died in 1975. ''You'd see Steve running everywhere all over the campus, not just in track meets. It was as if he had a personal affair with nature. I won't be running, but when I'm walking across the country, I'll be thinking of him.''

And when George Martin is making his way across the nation, he'll also be thinking of all those 9/11 responders whom he's walking for.

                                 Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company