EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – "Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time."
Comedian Steven Wright has used that line in his standup routine for years. George Martin is going to prove it's true.
But Martin's journey is no joke. The former Giants defensive end is walking from one end of the United States to the other in an effort to raise $10 million to care for first responders who develop illnesses related to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and its aftermath. His expedition will begin at the George Washington Bridge, move south to Washington, turn west on Interstate 40, cut through the heart of the nation and end after more than 3,000 miles of footwork at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Martin will depart on Sept. 16. He hopes to reach his destination in early December.
"This endeavor blends two passions of mine," Martin said. "When you look back at my track record with the Giants and beyond, it's a passion of mine to always give back to the community. As Robert Kennedy said, 'Some people look at things as they are and say why, I dream of things that never were and say, why not?' The other passion has always been my love of nature, being a country boy, and my love of physical activity. I'm pleased to say I've been to all 50 states."
"During last year's Hall of Fame (when his former teammate and close friend Harry Carson was inducted), as I was walking around Cleveland in this simple state of euphoria, I thought, 'A great midlife crisis, if you could call it that, would be to walk across this county of ours, that people really don't see up close and personal.' I said, 'Why not affix a cause to it and it took me about two seconds to come up with those individuals that, to me, are genuine heroes as a result of 9/11. One thing led to another and I started to float the idea to some close friends and to this day not one person has seen fault with the idea. They think I'm a little crazy for embarking on it, but they love the idea."
Martin, 54, has been the Vice President of Sports Marketing for AXA Equitable for the past decade. He has been granted a paid leave of absence for his journey. "Many corporations allow their executives to take off and commit to a worthy cause," Martin said. "I am just grateful to AXA Equitable that they are allowing me to do this for the Ground Zero Rescue and Recovery Workers."
To achieve his $10 million goal, Martin has received commitments from many corporate sponsors, including the Giants, the N.F.L. and the N.F.L. Players Association, 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, General Motors, Proskaur Rose LLP, WWE and SJI Association.
A website - ajourneyfor911.info – has been established for people to get information on the walk, track Martin's progress and make a contribution. Every dollar raised will go to the cause and will result in $2 in medical services for the medical and recovery workers.
"Ten million dollars is our projected number," Martin said. "It's an arbitrary number. I think it's large enough to add significance, yet still it's not large enough to solve the whole problem. But I think it will open some eyes and enough people will get behind it to make this a meaningful task. I never want the event to supersede the cause."
Martin has a large and strong support team that includes Valley National Bank and some longtime friends at Fairleigh Dickinson who plotted his route. He will be accompanied by an RV donated by General Motors, so, "if we are in the hinterlands, we will have at least some semblance of civilization to count on." Hotels in metropolitan areas will be corporate sponsors. He is lining up a footwear company to provide sneakers and friends in the travel business to fly his family members to various sites. NFL Films is donating a camera so it can document the journey.
Martin will be accompanied fulltime by four or five people, including a New York City police officer and firefighter, a medical technician, a driver and an event planner. They will travel in motorized vehicles.
"I am not looking to subject them to the walk, unless they want to do some portion," Martin said. "Then there are a lot of people who at various ceremonial stages will be doing some ceremonial walking, but as far as the trip itself, that will be all me."
Walking cross-country might seem an impossibly daunting task to some people, but Martin has specialized in overcoming long odds to succeed. After playing for mostly mediocre teams at the University of Oregon, Martin joined the Giants as an 11th-round draft choice in 1975, the 262nd overall pick. A long shot to survive his first training camp, Martin stayed with the Giants for his entire 14-year career. He played in 201 regular season games to become one of just two players in team history to cross the 200-games barrier (Howard Cross is the other with 207). Martin was a vital performer on the 1986 Super Bowl champions (he sacked John Elway for a safety in Super Bowl XXI). He had a knack for making the big play, scoring six touchdowns, a record for NFL defensive linemen since broken by Miami's Jason Taylor. Martin also caught a touchdown pass when he lined up as a tight end in 1980.
As a player, Martin was known for his leadership as much his playing skills. He and Harry Carson, his close friend, were the players Bill Parcells depended on to solve player issues in the locker room. Martin remains a leader among what is still a close-knit group of '86 Giants. He, Carson and Ron Johnson founded MAN Inc. a non-profit organization dedicated to positively influencing the lives of disadvantaged youth in the tri-state area.
Now Martin is turning his attention to those who first responded to the catastrophe on 9/11. Martin watched the horrible events of that morning on a television in his home in Ringwood, N.J. He and his wife, Dianne, and their four children - Teresa, George II, Benjamin and Aaron – soon learned that two 23-year-old friends of theirs, Christian DeSimone and Tyler Ugolyn, had died in the terrorist attack.
"They say the good die young and these were two individuals who certainly had their lives cut short, who I knew personally," Martin said. "I'm sure there were many others. They were absolutely very special kids. Christian was from Ringwood and Tyler was from Connecticut and they worked at the World Trade Center."
During and after the tragedy emerged thousands of acts of heroism. Many of those early responders to the crisis now have dire health issues. It is for them that Martin will walk from New York to San Francisco.
"As a fellow American and as a person who has been called a 'hero' from time to time, I know what true heroism is and what those individuals displayed in that moment of crisis, was the highest form of heroism," Martin said. "I've followed closely the events that have transpired since then and I've concluded that this is no way for heroes to be treated. They should be embraced and in my own small circle, perhaps I can make a difference, raise awareness and raise funds to try to make a difference in their lives, because they deserve it."
"George feels very passionately about the situation and he's willing to put himself out there and be an example," Carson said. "He's walking the walk. I'm proud of him. I'm going to be that person when he gets a blister, I'll come and bandage it up. Maybe here and there I'll fly in and meet him on the road and walk a mile or two with him."
Carson and many other former Giants will accompany Martin on the first day of his journey. Martin will begin the long walk on Sept. 16, the date of the home opener against the Green Bay Packers. It will be Giants Alumni Day and after ceremonies at the George Washington Bridge and Hackensack University Medical Center, Martin will arrive at Giants Stadium in time to walk the length of the field with many of his ex-teammates at halftime. Former Giants players will be at each stadium gate to accept donations.
"It's a celebration on two fronts," Martin said. "Number one is to recognize the alumni and their contributions to Giants history over the years. Secondly, it's to thank those fans who have an affinity to what we want to accomplish and want to support it."
Phil Simms is on Martin's board of directors. Joe Morris has agreed to walk with Martin for 150 miles.
"A lot of my former teammates and associates are supporting this and they all think I'm nuts," Martin said. "Joe has been very tight-lipped about how these 150 miles are actually going to be implemented. He may do 150 at one-mile increments across the entire U.S."
While Martin's teammates wondered if he'd misplaced his sanity, his family took the news in stride.
"The shock factor after 34 years has worn off with my wife," Martin said. "The kids were very proud. They have grown up with dad on television, they have seen me do all kinds of things, including Super Bowls, so they were casual to dad doing something. But when they heard this it even got their attention. All four of my children have been instrumental in helping me with this program. My daughter has been a volunteer and my three sons have all contributed. My youngest son is my trainer, he is a certified trainer and he's been getting out there and kicking my butt. It's been a family affair. My wife has been working on it almost full-time."
Martin has put in long hours training for his long walk. He is an avid tennis player who frequently uses the full gym in his house, including a treadmill. "Harry Carson and I made a pact that when we retired from the NFL that we would never ever get out of shape," Martin said. "Twenty years since that statement, we have happily kept our promise."
Of course, Martin is taking it to new extremes as he prepares to go coast-to-coast. "The problem is when I tell people they look at the enormity of the task at hand and say, 'How are you going to do this?'" Martin said. "The only analogy I can come up with is the old saying, 'How do you eat an elephant?' And it's true, one bite at a time. I'm taking it one step at a time."
Three times a week, he wakes up at 4:30, takes a long, hot shower and leaves Ringwood by 5:15. He'll walk the 13 miles to Bear Mountain, then the 12½-mile length of the park before Dianne picks him in at 11:45. Martin sometimes drives to the park, then walks its length and back.
"The first time I did it I went about seven miles," Martin said. "There's a steep incline at about the six-mile mark. And that darned near did me in. Now, by the time I get to the top of the incline I've already recovered my cardiovascular. The 25 miles is not challenging."
Martin carries a backpack with three liters of water, his cell phone and his IPOD, though he rarely uses the latter. He doesn't want to be distracted, particularly if he's walking in traffic and is eager to stay in tune with what his body is doing.
In addition to working his body into shape, Martin has many logistical concerns. After all, not many people travel the interstate highway system on foot.
"There are a trillion different variables," Martin said. "We have to get permission from every county we get into going across, and that could be as many as a thousand different counties. We have to make certain that whenever there's a highway crossing or a river crossing it's pedestrian friendly. To me, the urban travel is the greatest concern; you have congestion, you have pedestrians. We're going to have some celebrations with local fire and police. The fundraising will take place throughout the entire journey. We also want to recognize that it wasn't only a New York event. There were volunteers that came from all over the country that helped support and helped contribute to the cleanup and we want to recognize as many of them as we can on our trip across the country."
Though Martin has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the country at ground level, he does not plan to stop and smell the roses – or hay, or corn or whatever is nearby. His is no sightseeing trip.
"This is a full-time endeavor, except for Sunday, which will be an off day," Martin said. "Saturday will be a leisurely day, but one we will walk as well, because you've got to watch for the repetitive motion. You have to schedule in rest time and recuperation, because there's going to be a series of blisters and sore muscles and aches and pains, the normal things that come with old age as well. We are going to look at a five-day full-time walking schedule, a half-day on Saturday and a day off on Sunday.
"On an optimum day, a flat day, perfect weather, our objective is to go 50 miles a day. Now that may only happen a fraction of the trip, but I think you have to have goals and objectives and that's a lofty one, but it's one that I feel comfortable with. I've been training at about a four-and-a-half, five-mile an hour clip and as long as I can keep my endurance and my stamina and avoid the multiple pitfalls I am going to face going across, on a great day I think 50 miles is doable. But on average we'll probably do 35 miles a day."
Another factor is weather. Concern about the cold was behind Martin's decision to take a southern route. And he will have a car nearby at all times in case an emergency should arise.
"I went to the University of Oregon - rain is not inclement weather, rain is a natural part of things," Martin said. "Safety will always come first and foremost, so if there is any lightening or flooding or anything of that nature, we are always going to put a premium on safety and health. When you're going across the country you have traffic, you have drowsy drivers, you have distracted drivers, you've got intoxicated people in some cases, so you've got to be very cognizant of the surroundings and not put yourself in positions where you can get hurt."
While his first goal is safely raising money for the cause, Martin's journey is clearly a labor of love.
"I can't tell you how much I love traveling the country," he said. "When you do it as an NFL player, you don't get a chance to immerse yourself in the culture and the regions of the country. I've always loved going to the continuous states here and also had the opportunity to go to Hawaii on several occasions. When I went to Alaska, that was the thrill of a lifetime, it was the best trip that I've ever had in my life. My wife and I went to Maine a couple years ago and that concluded my 50-state jaunt. I am very pleased to see the diversity that this wonderful country has."
For three months this autumn, he'll get a remarkable, up-close view of that country on the trip of a lifetime. And he'll think of those 9/11 responders every step of the way.