Updated: September 15, 2007, 2:46 PM ET
NEW YORK — In George Martin’s experience — and that includes 14 years as a New York Giants defensive end — real heroes aren’t found inside Sunday afternoon huddles.
“I’ve been termed a hero for playing a kids’ game at a pro level, and that does not rise to the level of heroic,” Martin said Saturday. “I think of 9/11, when I saw people respond and put their health, their careers, their lives in jeopardy.”
Six years later, there is evidence that many rescue and recovery workers could be in danger from lethal or crippling illnesses linked to their time at ground zero. Martin, 54, hopes to raise $10 million for these victims with a cross-country walk, heading from the George Washington Bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge.
“Look at the people who were down at the World Trade Center — they were our neighbors, our relatives, our friends,” Martin said. “These are people we knew, people who are part of the fabric of our community. I’m cognizant of our responsibilities to them.”
Like many in the New York area, Martin had a personal connection to the terrorist attack that killed 2,750 people on that bright September morning. Two of his northern New Jersey neighbors, a pair of 23-year-old men, were among those who died when the twin towers collapsed.
Martin, a South Carolina native, put down roots in the metropolitan New York area after he was drafted in the 11th round by the Giants in 1975. As a player, he could see the World Trade Center rising 110 stories high from the Giants’ suburban practice field.
On Sept. 10, 2001, Martin saw the Manhattan skyscrapers from above as he flew into Newark Liberty International Airport from a business strip.
Martin, the married father of four, became alarmed in recent years by the reports of devastating illnesses suffered by 9/11 rescuers.
“I was appalled as I kept reading in the papers that people were denied benefits or not given proper medical care,” Martin said. He began thinking about a plan to raise money for the afflicted rescue workers, and came up with the transcontinental march.
An assortment of corporate sponsors signed on, including the NFL, the NFL Players Association and the Giants. Two health care facilities — the Hackensack University Medical Center and North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health Care Systems — have promised to match Martin’s fundraising efforts dollar-for-dollar with medical services.
Anyone can make their own donation through Martin’s Web site, www.ajourneyfor911.net.
Martin began training for the walk this past summer, and hopes to cover between 30 and 50 miles per day. Along the way, Martin said, he will be joined by former Giants teammates, along with former and current NFL players.
On Sunday, Martin will make an appearance at halftime of the Giants-Green Bay Packers game, shortly after he starts his journey with a single step from the New York side of the George Washington Bridge. Martin, who’s taking a leave from his job with AXA Equities, is hoping to finish the trip in four months.
Prior to his long walk, Martin’s best move on two feet was his 78-yard jaunt with a John Elway interception back in 1986 — a one-handed grab and run termed the “greatest football play I’ve ever seen” by then-coach Bill Parcells.
Martin was a captain on the Giants’ 1986 Super Bowl champions. He set an NFL record (since broken) by scoring six defensive touchdowns, but Martin was looking toward the future as he prepared for his trip.
“When you experience this kind of suffering, pain and agony, it doesn’t go away,” Martin said. “This is about the number of people still at risk of losing a loved one.”
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press