'Journey for 9/11' supports rescuers


'Journey for 9/11' supports rescuers

By Michael Stetz
June 20, 2008

SAN DIEGO – His body is no stranger to punishment and grind. George Martin, after all, spent 14 years playing professional football. But at age 55, he put it to the test again. George Martin - Because people he considers to be true heroes are hurting.

The former New York Giants defensive end began walking across America eight months ago to raise money for rescue workers who rushed to ground zero on Sept. 11, 2001, and are now suffering myriad illnesses – including lung disease and post traumatic stress disorder.

One medical study showed that 70 percent of the 40,000 or so responders have suffered lung disease and other problems because of the dust and debris. One in five has lost lung capacity.

Some don't have adequate health or disability insurance, Martin said. Some were volunteers who took it upon themselves to go through the rubble and pitch in, however they could.

“These are the real heroes,” Martin said of the workers. “I'm not going into a burning house unless someone is inside with my last name. They do it all the time.”

Tomorrow, after 3,020 miles that began in New York on Sept. 16, Martin finally ends his walk, “a Journey for 9/11,” here in San Diego at the Embarcadero. He has raised more than $2 million, and three New York-area medical institutions have agreed to match that in health care services.

He's nearby now and resting in a Little Italy hotel before the big moment, which will be attended by California police and fire personnel and fellow athletes. Ground zero responders will be present, too.

The ending is bittersweet, Martin said. He saw America up close, raised millions of dollars and even got the added bonus of losing 40 pounds.

He averaged about 22 miles a day and went through 24 pairs of shoes and 80 pairs of socks.

He suffered a couple of blisters but they were never bad enough to keep him from walking. He only took off Sundays and when the weather was too bad.

Throughout his journey, he's been greeted warmly, he said, even though he admits he wondered what kind of reaction he would get in some parts of the nation, given that he's African-American and, at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, rather hard to miss.

“It makes me proud,” he said of the reaction from everyday folks throughout the country.
Martin was used to attention when he was with the Giants, playing before 70,000 fans each week. He won a Super Bowl with the team in 1986, electrifying the region.

And he walked away from the game a winner, his health intact and his future secure. He lived a content life in northern New Jersey with his wife and their four children.

When the terrorist attack hit, Martin was personally affected. He lost neighbors. One close friend lost a son who worked in the second tower struck at the World Trade Center, right at the point of impact.

“He suffered unimaginable agony,” Martin said of his friend. “It tore my soul apart.”

In the New York region, people still struggle because they live and work so close to the scene, he said. They pass by it. They see the empty spaces in the skyline.

“It's very tangible to us back there,” he said.

And as reports began surfacing of the plight of the rescue workers, Martin felt called to duty. So he got a leave from his job as vice president of sports marketing at AXA Equitable in New York and started walking.

“I never wanted the journey to overcome the mission,” he said. “I want the cause to succeed; that's my goal.”

Michael Stetz: (619) 293-1720; michael.stetz@uniontrib.com

Online: For more about George Martin's “Journey for 9/11,” go to ajourneyfor911.info