George Martin's 3,020-mile, nine-month walk across America is coming to an end, but the mission of raising awareness and money for those who rushed into danger on 9/11 continues for the former Giants defensive end.
Walking along Route 44 southwest of Oklahoma City a few months ago, George Martin saw something shiny in the dirt. He stopped mid-stride, knelt down and picked up a gold wedding band. Inscribed on the inside were the words "Always and Forever." Martin put the ring on his left pinky finger, next to his own wedding band, which has been there for the last 35 years.
Someone else's broken promise now represents Martin's dedication to a pledge he made to himself -- that someday he'd walk from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.
"I told my wife I have two marriages," the former New York Giants defensive end said, pointing to both rings. "One to her and one to the journey."
The polygamous relationship ends on Saturday when he'll walk his 3,020th mile into Embarcadero Marina Park in San Diego on the first day of summer. Martin named his excursion A Journey for 9/11 and has raised more than $2 million to benefit ailing rescue and recovery personnel who worked at Ground Zero after Sept. 11, 2001.
Finding a cause
Growing up in rural South Carolina, George Martin didn't have the opportunity to travel much, but when he did, the entire family knew which seat he'd get in the car.
"I'd always insist on sitting by the window to look at everything," he says. "If your whole world is defined by a little farm, you have this automatic wanderlust about what's out there."
By the time he was in his 40s, he had visited every state and decided walking coast-to-coast needed to be crossed off his bucket list. In 2007, at age 54, he took a leave of absence from his job as vice president of sports marketing at AXA Equitable in New York to make his cross-country trek. But to walk more than 3,000 miles just to satisfy a personal goal? That's not Martin's style.
His Manhattan office is not far from where the Twin Towers fell on that September morning, and Martin saw a way he could help the first responders.
"I was keenly aware of the events after 9/11 -- with firemen getting sick -- and little was being done to help," Martin says. "I decided to do something on my own."
Martin, his wife Dianne and their four children took the first steps of A Journey for 9/11 by crossing the George Washington Bridge from New York into New Jersey on Sept. 16, 2007.
"It's incredible," Dianne Martin said. "He kept saying, 'I'm gonna do it; I'm gonna do it. I don't know how, but I'm going to start doing it, and it will all fall into place.'"
And it did. Martin called a meeting of friends and family last July at the Meadowlands to ask for support. He thought the torrential rain that day would keep people away, but the room overflowed with those wanting to know how they could help. Eight weeks later, he hit the road.
The first step
Logistically, walking across America is more complicated than just putting one foot in front of the other. Martin travels with a small team, including a rotating staff of security guards and drivers, and his general manager, Lee Reeves, who coordinates routes and schedules.
Reeves ran the technology department at AXA, and his retirement serendipitously coincided with Martin's journey. He initially signed on to set up a Web site for his old friend, but his role expanded as the planning progressed. The lanky 49-year-old has traveled every mile with Martin, even though he was barely able to finish the 13-mile walk from the George Washington Bridge to Giants Stadium on the first day. Nearing the journey's end, the two are like brothers, fighting one minute, telling jokes the next.
Each day at around 6 a.m. in the lobby of a Best Western hotel -- one of A Journey for 9/11's many sponsors -- the team gathers to talk about the day's mileage goal, terrain, weather and traffic.
While the landscape, climate and poor road conditions can create obstacles, Martin's biggest worry is people driving by in two-ton machines at 75 mph. He emphasizes the importance of communication to keep everyone out of harm's way.
Martin walks with the flow of traffic and is equipped with a walkie-talkie so the driver of the support vehicle, called "the Journeymobile," can let him know about the position of approaching vehicles. With its hazard lights flashing, the white customized SUV inches along the shoulder of the road at 4 mph. The vehicle is filled with shoes, clothing, snacks and water for the 20 to 30 miles they'll cover each day, and the driver gives a cheerful honk at every mile marker.
Some people can't imagine walking to the mailbox without popping in earphones and drowning out the world with the push of a button. Walking 4 mph for 3,000 miles is 750 iPod-free hours just to, well, think. Martin thinks about the people he's determined to help. There are beautiful shrines and touching memorials for the fire and police personnel who died while running into danger on Sept. 11, but there were thousands of firefighters, policemen and women, and volunteers who worked tirelessly in the days and weeks after the terrorist attacks.
More than 200 stories fell into a heap that day, spewing a dust cloud that would hang over lower Manhattan for weeks. The 40,000 aid workers at Ground Zero, who hail from all 50 states, lived and breathed within that cloud every day.
A study by Mt. Sinai Medical Center found that nearly 70 percent of the responders have suffered lung disease and other health problems. Aid workers developed asthma at 12 times the normal rate for adults, suffer from low lung capacity at five times the normal rate, and according to the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, one in eight has developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
"Cancer, chronic asthma, PTSD, gastrointestinal disease; it's a simple and sad fact that exposure to the unknown toxins at ground zero and other traumas have had devastating effects on the health and well-being on those that sacrificed the time, safety, their families and their jobs for the benefit of our nation," Martin told a crowd at the Hall of Flame Fire Museum in Phoenix that had gathered to support the journey. "We owe them. We owe them our support. For that reason, I walk."
In May, firefighters and police officers from all over Arizona were in attendance at the 35,000-square-foot museum to honor Martin for his efforts to help people like retired NYPD officer Joe Brodsky, who worked at Ground Zero for three days after the attacks.
A lifelong Giants fan, Brodsky, 70, retired in Arizona nearly 30 years ago. In September 2001, he returned to New York to attend the U.S. Open tennis championships. Two days after Lleyton Hewitt won the men's title, Brodsky was at Ground Zero, wading through debris to help with the rescue effort. He and his colleagues sifted through rubble while inhaling dust, particles and chemicals. Their paper masks were useless and no respirators were on hand for Brodsky's three-day stay.
For the last seven years Brodsky has relied on inhalers and he's been on and off Prednisone, a powerful medication that helps his respiratory problems. He has had to spend $11,000 of his own money for treatment his insurance would not pick up, and last month he made his yearly visit to New York's Cedar-Sinai Medical Center to receive more care.
To people like Brodsky, Martin is a hero for leaving his family and job behind to help others.
"George Martin's done a lot of good things for a lot of people," Brodsky said during Martin's stop in Phoenix. "He's always been interested in doing the right thing."
While A Journey for 9/11 will likely fall short of its $10 million goal, three New York-area hospitals are matching donations with medical services. Martin has collected contributions from famous friends like his former Giants coach, Bill Parcells, who donated $10,000. Other donors with league ties include former Giants coach Jim Fassel ($25,000), Patriots VP of Player Personnel Scott Pioli ($2,500), USC coach Pete Carroll ($1,100), and former Giants Harry Carson, Mark Bavaro and Phil McConkey ($1,000 each).
The NFL donated $100,000, the NFL Disaster Relief Fund put in $50,000, and the Players' Union chipped in another $10,000.
But most of the $2 million raised so far has come from regular people like Michael Joynt, who jumped out of his car near the California border, walked less than a mile with Martin, handed over a check for $2,000 and drove away.
Eight months after the journey began, Martin strolled into Phoenix in late May for a series of fundraisers and community events. He was joined by some of his former teammates, including Lionel Manuel, current NFLPA director of player development Stacy Robinson, and Carson.
"George Martin is not about sitting back and letting things happen," said Carson, who has known Martin since 1976. "He's about being a trailblazer and making things happen."
On the road
A day after Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon declares May 22 "A Journey for 9/11 and George Martin Day," Martin hosts a 5K walk fundraiser at Tempe Beach Park. Dillan Micus, the executive vice president of AXA's Phoenix office, gives his employees the option of going to work or going to the park to walk with Martin. It isn't a difficult choice, even on an unseasonably cool and rainy May morning.
"We're just out here to show our support," Micus says. "What's amazing is that we do three miles with him today, and then we go home. But he's back on the road tomorrow." As the group returns from the leisurely loop around Tempe Town Lake, Reeves says in a hushed tone, "This is not his usual pace."
Indeed, when Martin hits the open road, his 6-foot-4 frame moves with a purpose, his long legs gliding over the pavement. Though Martin's journey has taken him through four seasons, his wardrobe hasn't changed. No matter the weather conditions, he wears a pair of spandex shorts covered by a pair of long spandex tights, a turtleneck and a cotton sweatshirt. Even walking through Arizona in 100-degree temperatures didn't prompt him to remove any layers.
On his feet, Martin wears three pairs of socks and then laces up his MBTs, a specially-designed walking shoe with a thick sole and a curved bottom that comes with an instructional DVD. Martin wanted to test them out on a training walk of a mile or two. He returned 27 miles later and was hooked. When MBT heard about A Journey for 9/11, it signed on as a sponsor, and Martin has torn through 24 pricey pairs in eight months.
Change is good
Although he keeps a determined pace, Martin always keeps his eye on the ground for loose change or discarded trinkets. In the first seven miles out of Buckeye, Ariz., not one coin turns up.
"We'll find one in the next three miles," he says. "I guarantee it."
Sure enough, a few minutes later Martin picks up a quarter that had been partially flattened. He raises his hands over his head in triumph, and the Journeymobile lets out a honk in celebration.
In Tennessee, he stood in a December downpour to collect two handfuls of scattered change. While riding in a car to a hotel in New Mexico, Martin spied pennies in the middle of an intersection. He drove 15 miles back to the junction the next morning and returned to the hotel with seven cups of change.
America's chucked currency has added more than $100 to the cause.
The one-man "Keep America Beautiful" campaign has also picked up credit cards, reading glasses, tools, and, appropriately, a Curious George doll that has accompanied him since Virginia.
Ain't that America
The generosity and kindness ordinary citizens have shown to a complete stranger has given Martin hours of stories about an America few will ever see. In Maryland a magician pulled over to perform for him on the shoulder of the road. A woman named Silvia followed him in Virginia for two weeks in her A-Team-style van, bringing along her grandchildren to distribute bottles of water.
In Virginia, a man flagged down the Journeymobile and insisted on treating everyone to a meal at his restaurant, and his wife invited the team to dinner at their home the following day. When she discovered one of the drivers had a toothache, she took him to a dentist, picked up his medication and refused to take any payment. She then gave a generous donation and has kept in touch.
In Tennessee, a policeman cautioned that two black men walking for weeks in the south could count on receiving negative reactions. A few days later a pickup truck with a shotgun hanging in the cab pulled up beside Martin and Reeves. A large, scruffy, white man jumped out, stood in front of them and yelled, "Hey, you're that George Martin!" The man shook Martin's hand and then insisted on a having a picture taken with him.
"After that the defenses went down, and by the time we got to Arkansas, we just stopped stereotyping," Reeves said. "We stopped worrying about that."
Farther south in the journey, a woman with limited means met them on the side of the road and wanted to make a donation. When Martin refused her $10, the woman was adamant, and explained that she was trying to teach her young children about the importance of charity and humility.
Countless "guest walkers" also have joined Martin along the way, including family members, friends, and local civic leaders. One fireman in Arizona walked in full uniform while carrying 70 pounds of gear.
"If you can walk 2,600 miles, sir, then I can walk five," he told Martin.
A Journey for 9/11 also has attracted attention from the media. Martin, a powerful and eloquent speaker, has completed hundreds of interviews during his time on the road and was named ABC News' Person of the Week at the start of his trek.
Weather or not
The westward road to San Diego has not been without speed bumps. Those have been provided mostly by Mother Nature, who did her best to halt the journey outside of Oklahoma City. The temperature dropped 30 degrees in one hour, and a nice tailwind turned into a fierce 50 mph headwind that made it difficult to take a step. The weather also forced Martin, an avid angler, to cancel a fishing trip with Oklahoma state troopers.
Even the terrain -- the Appalachian Mountains, the Great Plains, the desert of the southwest -- couldn't slow Martin down. The moment Reeves discovered his friend was truly an NFL alum was on the first mountain climb in Virginia. Reeves could hear the Journeymobile's engine working extremely hard to ascend at 4 mph behind him, and his legs finally gave out about halfway to the summit. Martin's stride never changed as the veteran of 14 NFL seasons powered up the path to the top.
Martin's health has rarely kept him from going full speed ahead. He's only been stopped by illness once; he got food poisoning from a poorly chosen entrée at an El Paso Mexican restaurant. Despite walking eight hours a day for nearly a year, his body doesn't ache or scream at him to stop.
"Nothing hurts him," Dianne Martin says. "He's got blisters but that's it."
Making walking his occupation also has helped him drop more than 40 pounds. He currently hovers around 240, give or take, depending on whether he's wearing the ring he earned as captain of the Giants' Super Bowl XXI title team.
The road never ends
The original route for A Journey for 9/11 had Martin completing his journey on San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge in January. Six months later than anticipated and 500 miles to the south, he'll celebrate with his entire family, former teammates and friends he's met along the way at the finish line.
For Martin, A Journey for 9/11 has surpassed his expectations of the people and the landscape of America.
"I would highly recommend it to anybody -- irrespective of station in life, irrespective of what their expectations are -- because it gives you such a perspective of what this country really is all about," says Martin, who in the last nine months has left the trail only a handful of times -- including to attend his son's wedding, to receive the Heisman Humanitarian Award, to accept an honorary doctorate at Farleigh Dickenson University and to watch the Giants' win Super Bowl XLII.
He'll remove the extra wedding ring from his pinky on Saturday, but he'll never be divorced from his philanthropic mission. The expedition already has fueled ideas for future projects and fundraising opportunites.
"He hasn't even finished this and already he's talking about writing a book and creating a museum for all this memorabilia that he's been collecting," Dianne Martin said. "He still wants to keep fundraising. You know it's not going to end when this walk ends."
The initiative will continue even after Martin runs out of road. The focus turns to Washington, D.C., where he will lobby Congress to pass legislation that supports 9/11 healthcare initiatives.
In all, Martin crossed through 13 states and maintains he'd still like to satisfy his wanderlust and see areas of the country he missed the first time around. After walking every day with her husband for the first three months, and then worrying about him every day for the last six, Dianne Martin doesn't expect him to see the rest of the nation on foot.
"I'll break his legs," she says.
She's looking forward to a vacation, seeing her spouse on a daily basis and returning to their normal routines, slightly altered in this post-A-Journey-for-9/11 world.