Four weeks later, in the last game of the regular season, and needing a win to make the playoffs, the same Redskins were holding a 34-28 lead over the Dallas Cowboys late in the game. Roger Staubach led the Cowboys to the nine yard line with 42 seconds remaining in the game. With Pearson and DuPree to the left of the formation and Tony Hill lined up wide right, Staubach lofted a perfect pass over Washington cornerback Lemar Parrish. Hill pulled in the pass in the right side of the end zone. The ensuing point after gave the Cowboys a 35-34 lead, and the defense held in the waning seconds. After the game, Harvey Martin hurried to the visiting locker room where Washington Head Coach Jack Pardee was speaking to his stunned team. The Redskins had sent Martin a wreath earlier in the week, figuring the Cowboys were as good as dead. Martin burst in and flung the wreath into the Redskins locker room. Martin felt vindicated; his Cowboys were heading to the NFC playoffs while the Redskins were simply heading home.
Former Dallas Cowboys Head Coach Tom Landry once called Harvey Martin the team’s best pass-rushing defensive end ever. To this day, despite having Willie Townes, George Andre, Ed Jones, Jim Jeffcoat, Tony Tolbert, Charles Haley and Greg Ellis play the same position Martin remains the greatest pass-rushing end in club history. Former Cowboys General Manager Tex Schramm once said of Martin,
“He’ll be remembered as one of the great Cowboys of the golden years. He was a great player, one of the first in the group of the first great pass rushers.”
Harvey Martin played in an era rich with talent at the defensive end position. Martin’s contemporaries included Jack Youngblood, Lee Roy Selmon, Fred Dean, Dan Hampton, Ed Jones, L.C. Greenwood, Richard Dent, Dwight White, Al Baker, Dexter Manley and Lyle Alzado. During his career, Martin earned four trips to the Pro Bowl, was a consensus first-team All Pro in 1977 and earned second-team All Pro honors three other seasons, was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1977 and was co-MVP of Super Bowl XII.
In 2011, Richard Dent was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Dent was a linchpin on the great Chicago Bears defenses of the mid-1980s. I am not questioning his worthiness for induction in the Hall of Fame. However, if Dent was voted into the Hall of Fame, why is Harvey Martin being snubbed by the voters? Both played right defensive end on dominating Super Bowl winning teams. Both were feared pass rushers who more than held their own playing the run. During his two best seasons – 1984 and 1985 – Richard Dent combined for 34.5 sacks in 32 games (1.08 sacks/game). Harvey Martin’s two best seasons were 1977 and 1978 when he had 39 sacks in 30 games (1.3 sacks/game). When one considers pass attempts and sacks, over their respective best two-year period, Dent accounted for one sack every 32 quarterback drop-backs, while Martin accounted for one sack every 23 quarterback drop-backs. Over their careers, Dent had 137.5 sacks in 203 games (0.68 sacks/game) while Martin had 114 sacks in 158 games (0.72 sacks/game). Finally, consider that Dent played in the most attacking upfield defensive scheme of his era while Martin played in a read-and-react, gap control style of defense that keyed the run first before linemen were allowed to turn upfield. When all of this is taken into consideration, I contend that if Richard Dent is a member of the Hall of Fame, so should Harvey Martin be.
A Path to Destruction:
Harvey Martin was a large man with a deep, melodic voice and a countenance that drew people to himself. He was also a vulnerable man who was simply too trusting for his own good. When he reached stardom, old friends came out of the woodwork. He surrounded himself with people who did not have his best interest at heart. Rather than friends, many were more like parasites who wanted to ride Martin’s coattails, bask in the glory of a successful NFL career and all the attendant doors that opened and favors that were granted, and enjoy the party for as long as it would last.
Harvey Martin hosted a radio show on KRLD in Dallas in 1978. It was called, “The Beautiful Harvey Martin Show.” He was beautiful – not that he had Billy D. Williams’s rugged good looks or the style and elegance of Sidney Poitier – but he was beautiful in his beaming countenance; he was beautiful from the inside-out. Martin had a smile that not only could light up a room but it had enough wattage to light up a city block in downtown Dallas. People gravitated to him. Martin was also unable to say no. He was too outgoing, too giving, too selfless and too naïve.
With his fame on the football field and his burgeoning acting career (Martin would go on to do stage productions and even earn small parts in movies), he became a lightning rod for the party crowd. He soon found himself in a lifestyle immersed in alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. His play during the 1982 and 1983 seasons suffered. Tom Landry put Martin in a drug rehab center for 10 days in 1983. Martin told reporters he was just checking the place out at the request of Coach Landry, in case players needed to undergo rehab. This marked a 12-year long trend of lies and self-denial.
Harvey Martin, despite still having the physical gifts to play, retired from football prior to the 1984 season. He made numerous business ventures, each of which failed. He continued in his reckless lifestyle. He grew deeper and deeper in addiction to coke, and like other Cowboys players at that time, his party lifestyle was widely known, and he became the subject of an FBI investigation. With the drugs came a change in his mood. He was arrested several times for domestic violence, accused of beating two former girlfriends like a punching bag. Each time, charges were dropped. His life became like a game of Monopoly – every time he was told to go directly to jail, he seemed to roll doubles or pull out a “get out of jail free” card. He got slaps on the wrist from the justice system and he never truly faced his inner demons.
Eventually, he lost everything through drugs and failed business deals, some of which were the result of dishonest people robbing him blind. With rehab failing to turn him around and after filing for bankruptcy and having alienated many of his closest friends, Harvey Martin eventually came to the lowest point of his life. Those closest to him were shocked at what he had become and some feared the worst, that he would end up in prison or take someone’s life or his own one day. It only seemed like a matter of time before the whole house of cards would fall for the final time.
Epilogue – A Story of Redemption
Harvey Martin had reached rock bottom, and when he did, instead of admitting his wrongs and turning his life around, he got out a pick-axe and shovel and dug himself even deeper. His life may well have ended in shame – another high profile athlete, with a persona bigger than life, who succumbed to the demons which beset him for years. We all have seen, time and again, the athlete, actor or rock musician who rode the bullet train to fame and fortune only to tragically end up dead in the prime of life. Martin’s story was well on the way to ending in similar fashion.
But one night, in an honest moment of desperation, Harvey Martin got on his knees while at the Lew Sterrett Correctional Center in Dallas, prior to his transport to the Wilmer Drug Treatment Center, and he cried out to God as he never before had. He pleaded with God for one more chance and he vowed, if given that chance, to turn his life around. In a measure of grace that should touch the heart of every reader, God heard and answered that prayer.
Harvey Martin was given another chance. For two years, he remained sober and drug-free. The rage which tormented his soul – and which threatened the safety of those around him – was replaced with the soft countenance that once drew people to the gentle giant. His beaming smile returned. Former teammate John Niland gave Martin a job as a chemical salesman in his company, and Martin did not let Niland down. He worked hard and earned an honest living.
What is more, Harvey Martin used his near-fatal free fall from the top of the world to try to help others. He preached the gospel of anti-drugs and substance abuse to students and recovering addicts alike. He bore his shame in public so that others might avoid the painful life journey he embarked upon. In so doing, only God knows how many young people Martin helped to turn away from or avoid completely the lure of cocaine and other party drugs, and of how many lives he may have saved.
“I had such a wonderful life before drugs and alcohol abuse,” Harvey Martin said in a 1998 article that appeared in the Dallas Observer News, “I’ve got that life back now and plan to keep it. Maybe I had to go through what I did to get to this point, to appreciate this life more.”
Two years after becoming sober and dedicating his life to helping others, Harvey Martin received word that he had pancreatic cancer. The diagnosis of cancer would prove to be a bigger challenge than anything he faced on the football field, and an even bigger challenge than overcoming his addictions.
“Harvey drifted off for a while,’’ said former teammate Randy White, “But he kind of got everything back on track and going in the right direction. Then he got sick. If I didn’t see him for a whole year, around Super Bowl time, we always did a promotion together. I always do something, they want us to go somewhere and do something together. Every year at Super Bowl, I think about Harvey. Think about the great times we had together.’
On Christmas Eve 2001, with family at his bedside, and long-time teammate and faithful friend Drew Pearson there as well, Harvey Martin’s battle with cancer ended at Baylor Medical Center in Grapevine, Texas. He was 51 years old. He left behind a son, Devincent Robertson Martin, and a daughter, Chase Martin.
Mary Martin, together with her brother, conceived of a dream; a dream to help minority children thrive academically. That dream launched the Harvey Martin Dream Foundation. With the Foundation, Mary has seen the legacy of her brother, Harvey, live on.
According to its website, the Harvey Martin Dream Foundation’s mission “is to identify and improve the educational experience of marginal minority high school students through mentorship, instructional programs and community involvement.”
Through the Harvey Martin Dream Foundation, underprivileged children are given the opportunity to reach for the sky and see dreams fulfilled, just as an insecure, tall, gangly kid from Dallas did when he stepped onto the practice field at South Oak Cliff High in 1967.
In 2008, Texas A&M University-Commerce introduced its annual Harvey Martin Classic Football game, held in Dallas’s Cotton Bowl.
Today, family and friends of the former Dallas Cowboys’ great await his long overdue induction into the team’s Ring of Honor, and with a quiet and cautious hope, a call from Canton, Ohio, where a bust of The Beautiful Harvey Martin deserves to reside alongside those of Randy White and Bob Lilly.
“The Comeback of Harvey Martin” by Robert Wilonsky, Dallas Observer News, January 8, 1998.
“Harvey Martin Dies at 51; Defensive Star for Cowboys” by Richard Goldstein, The New York Times, December 27, 2001.
“New Orleans Super Bowl MVP flashback: Randy White, Harvey Martin, Dallas Cowboys, 1978” by Tre Iles, The Times-Picayune, January 26, 2013.