YDCFF has been hailing former Dallas Cowboys players for their illustrious careers and we have been advocating for their enshrinement into the team’s distinguished Ring of Honor. Today, we look at the football careerÂ and lifeÂ of one of the greatest defensive players in Cowboys’ history, defensive end Harvey “Too Mean'” Martin.
Harvey Martin’s life reads like an amalgam of the All-American Dream and a Greek tragedy. It is a story of fame and glory, of heartbreak, of flaming out and of ending well. When asked to do this story, I set out to defend why Martin should not only be inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor, but also why he also deserves a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. What I discovered in my research for this article was just how far Harvey Martin fell from the fulfillment of a boyhood dream to nearly throwing his life away, and of how, at the end of his life, before cancer struck him down, he was able to rise from the proverbial ashes like the phoenix.
Harvey Banks Martin was the greatest defensive end in the 53-year history of the Dallas Cowboys. He died in 2001 at the age of 51 of pancreatic cancer. This is his story.
Harvey Martin was born on November 16, 1950 in Dallas, Texas to Sylvester and Helen Martin. Harvey had a younger sister, Mary Martin, who witnessed Harvey’s chaotic ride through the crests and valleys of his life and who, as we shall see shortly, carries on his memory to this day.
Harvey Martin was raised in Dallas. When he was 10, the NFL awarded Dallas an NFL franchise. As a boy and a young man, Martin grew up following the Dallas Cowboys. He dreamed of playing for his hometown team, but early on he did not play organized football.
Harvey Martin worked at a department store in his youth and there he set his sights on working his way up the ladder and of one day being in management at the store. This was the career path he envisioned, and at the time football was nowhere in his plans.
One day, Harvey Martin overheard his father lament to his mother of how all the other fathers at the golf club – where the elder Martin spent much of his time – boasted of their sons who played football while he was ashamed of his son Harvey, who did not play despite being bigger than most of the other boys. The pain of those words stuck with Martin, who was a sensitive young man and easily wounded.
In his junior year, Martin transferred to South Oak Cliff High School, the first integrated high school in the City of Dallas. Still stung by his father’s words, Harvey Martin tried out for the high school football team. He was the last player to report for tryouts and was given the last helmet and pair of shoes both of which were too small for Martin. He wore them anyway.
During his junior year, Harvey Martin was a back-up offensive lineman who barely saw any playing time unless it was at the end of a blow-out game. From these inauspicious beginnings, one could hardly see the brilliant career that lay ahead of him.
During his senior year, Martin was moved to the defensive line. He started at defensive end that year and his team won 12 straight games, including the Dallas City Championship; the team was undefeated heading into the Texas State Championship semi-finals where they lost to a team from downstate Houston. Martin’s team finished the year 12-1. His high school coach, Norman Jett, lobbied for Martin before numerous college recruiters, but they all shied away from a player with only one year of experience.
Years later, in December 1997, Harvey Martin toured the football field of his former high school with long-time Dallas Observer News columnist Robert Wilonsky, and as he did, a flood of memories filled his mind. This was the field where Martin first donned football pads and a helmet, and it was this field, more than any other, that had the greatest impact on his life. It was on this field that his trajectory to NFL stardom began, where the dreams of a shy, skinny kid who never before had played football all took hold. Of his former high school field, Martin told Wilonsky,
“What I see is accomplishment, what I see on this field are dreams. To me, it’s sacred ground. Of all the places I’ve been, of all the fields I’ve walked on, nothing has the memories of this field here. It’s not Texas Stadium. It’s not the Orange Bowl or the Superdome, where I was Super Bowl MVP. None of that would have been possible without this.”
East Texas State:
Harvey Martin was a late bloomer, and although he starred at defensive end his senior year at South Oak Cliff High, only one collegiate program showed any interest in him: East Texas State University (now known as Texas A&M University-Commerce). The coaches at East Texas State, with persuasion by Martin’s high school coach, saw promise in Martin, who stood 6-5 but was slight of frame. East Texas State gave Martin a full-ride football scholarship for four years.
His first two seasons at East Texas State were uneventful. He roomed with future Pittsburgh Steelers star defensive end Dwight White, who was two years MartinÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s senior. White would later be drafted by the Steelers in the 1971 NFL Draft. After White moved on to the pros, Martin gained weight, got physically stronger and then cracked the starting lineup.
Harvey Martin played inside at defensive tackle for the East Texas State Lions. His stellar play on the field earned him recognition and put him on the radar of NFL scouts and coaches. Martin was named to the NAIA All-American Team, the All-Texas Team and the All-Lonestar Conference Team his senior year. In 1972, with the help of Martin, East Texas State won the NAIA national championship, beating Bethune-Cookman in the title game.
To this day, Harvey Martin is still regarded as the best defensive tackle in the history of Texas A&M University-Commerce.
A Boyhood Dream Come True:
The Dallas Cowboys drafted Harvey Martin with the first pick of the third round of the 1973 NFL Draft. The 6Ã¢â‚¬â„¢5Ã¢â‚¬Â 250 pound Martin was the 53rd pick in the draft and followed Michigan State tight end Billy Joe DuPree and University of Hawaii wide receiver Golden Richards, who were the Cowboys top two selections that year. Along with their top three draft picks, the Cowboys also added free agent wide receiver Drew Pearson out of Tulsa to the team that year. All four players played key roles on the 1977 Super Bowl championship squad.
Prior to arriving at his first NFL camp with the Cowboys, Harvey Martin worked out in Grand Prairie, Texas with former college teammate White and another member of the Steelers’ famed Steel Curtain defensive line, All-Pro defensive tackle Joe Greene, who had played at North Texas State. The two Steelers greats taught Martin pass rushing techniques and these proved to be invaluable lessons for Martin heading into camp. Martin later explained:
”Tricks like how to make the move inside after faking to the outside, how to turn the offensive lineman so his own momentum carries him past you. After about two months, I went to camp with a little edge on other rookies.”
Upon arriving at training camp, Harvey Martin met legendary Dallas Cowboys players like Bob Lilly, Jethro Pugh, and Lee Roy Jordan on defense, and when he looked across the line of scrimmage, he saw Pro Bowl offensive linemen like Rayfield Wright, Ralph Neely and John Niland. From a small college program, Martin found himself on a team two years removed from its first Super Bowl victory.
Harvey Martin possessed the requisite size, speed and quickness off the ball for the position. Despite his God-given gifts, Martin was lacking something in camp. It was toughness. Martin was a large man with a big heart. He was gentle and compassionate off the field. He was for football anyway, just too nice. Lilly advised Martin to play tougher and meaner. Lilly himself was a magnificent player but he did not have a mean bone in his body; he was the consummate gentleman. However, Lilly knew that Martin needed to have a mean streak on the field to succeed.
Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Ernie Stautner observed Harvey Martin in that first camp, and like Lilly, saw that Martin was too nice and he needed to bring toughness to his game. Stautner, who even while patrolling the Cowboys sideline into his mid-60s, still looked like he was hewn out of a slab of limestone, challenged the young defensive end and rode him hard as a rookie. Drew Pearson, who would become one of Martin’s closest friends beginning in their rookie year, recalled that Martin was in danger of being cut but changed his disposition after meeting with Stautner. Pearson said,
“Ernie told him, ‘You’re too nice.’ Harvey changed overnight. All of a sudden, Too Nice became Too Mean.”
As a rookie, despite playing only during obvious passing situations, Harvey Martin led the Cowboys in quarterback sacks with nine, tying Willie Townes rookie sack record, which Townes set in 1966. During his career, Martin would lead the Cowboys in sacks seven of his 11 seasons. He ended his career as the Cowboys all-time sack leader, with 114. He and defensive tackle Randy White formed one of the most feared tackle-end tandems of the 1970s-80s.
Harvey Martin had his greatest single season in 1977. He amassed 85 tackles and had 23 sacks over a 14-game season. Since the NFL did not officially begin to record sacks until the 1982 season, Martin’s 1977 sack total is not recognized by the league. The Cowboys went 12-2 that year, and led by Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett on offense, and Martin and White on defense, they were favored to reach the Super Bowl.
During their playoff run, the Dallas Cowboys defense yielded a total of 23 points over three games, limited opponents to 198 yards per game of total offense, registered nine sacks, and forced 19 turnovers. The 1977 season culminated in a Super Bowl XII match-up with the Denver Broncos. Dever boasted the top-rated defense in the NFL, nicknamed The Orange Crush. The Denver defense was loaded with stars like Lyle Alzado, Reuben Carter, Tom Jackson, Randy Gradishar and Louis Wright, but it was the Cowboys Doomsday II defense which shone that day in the Superdome. Martin capped a brilliant 1977 campaign with two tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble and one deflected pass in the Super Bowl. Martin was so fast off the ball during that game that it appeared he knew every snap count. The Cowboys defense forced eight turnovers, recorded four sacks, and limited Denver to 35 net yards passing and 156 total yards. After the game, Martin famously said,
“Orange Crush is just soda water, baby.”
Prior to the 1978 season, Harvey Martin had surgery on his lower jaw to correct a serious under bite. Martin wanted to pursue an acting career and he believed he needed to change the appearance of his jaw line to have a chance. With his teeth in braces and his jaw wired shut, Martin could only drink shakes through a straw for weeks. He lost over 40 pounds and entered training camp light and lacking strength. Still, he finished the 1978 season with 16 sacks, tying Randy White for the team lead.
Harvey Martin’s repertoire of pass rush moves included a forearm club with his right arm that enabled him to go past the left tackle’s outside shoulder and a quick swim move which allowed him to knife past the tackle’s inside shoulder. He and Randy White would often work loops and other line stunts. Martin was one of the most feared pass-rushing ends in the NFL, and although Ed “Too Tall”Jones was widely considered to be the Cowboys’ better run-defending end, Martin’s run defense skills were still considerable. He was far from a one-trick pony.
In week 12 of the 1979 season, the Washington Redskins were leading the Dallas Cowboys 31-20 in RFK Stadium in Washington. With 14 seconds remaining in the game, the Redskins kicked a field goal to increase the score to 34-10. Harvey Martin was outraged. They were wiping their win in our faces, he told Steve Pate of the Dallas News,
“That’s fine. Let them feel real good for about three weeks. I hope they win their next three games. That’ll bring it down to the last week of the season when they play us.”