NFL Legacies: Harvey Martin

The life and career of NFL legend Harvey Martin 

The early death of Super Bowl MVP Harvey Martin was one of the most tragic things to happen in the history of the NFL. Martin dying of cancer at age 51, after a series of very hard years shocked many in the sport. 

His death and behavior after he left the sport, led many people to start wondering whether the head injuries NFL players were receiving were causing permanent damage to their bodies and brains. 

Today, we are going to be exploring the life and legacy of Harvey Martin, an NFL legend. 

The College Years 

Martin attended South Oak Cliff High School which was the first integrated high school in Dallas. He had trouble gaining the respect of the white children there, so he decided he would try to do it through football – despite never having played the sport before. 

He led his high school team to a 9-1 season in his first year. The rest of his high school career was just as successful. 

Only one school offered him a football scholarship – East Texas State University. Having taken up football very late in his childhood, Martin was very thin and it took him two years to bulk up. Those two years of football were unremarkable. 

When he had bulked up, things changed. He led the school football team to a national title and was named in the NAIA All-American, All-Texas, and All-LCS teams. In 2008, the university started to hold an annual memorial match in his name. 

The NFL Years 

Martin played for the Dallas Cowboys for his whole career – he was one of the few NFL players to play for his home team. 

He was drafted in 1971 and became a full-time starter by his third season. Despite playing in many different positions in college, Martin played as a defensive end for the Cowboys. He still holds 2 franchise records – most sacks for a rookie (9 – 1973) and in a season (23 – 1977). 

1977 was the best year of Martin’s career and is considered by many to be the best season ever played by a defensive player. 

That season the Cowboys played 14 games, in those games he racked up 85 tackles and a league-leading 23 sacks. He was named Super Bowl MVP (along with Randy White), Defensive Player of the Year, and on the All-Pro team. 

With the 2021-22 Super Bowl on the horizon, many are wondering who will be named Super Bowl MVP this year. Could it be another duo? Check out these NFL betting odds to learn more. 

White and Martin became known as the Doomsday Defense and were invited to the Pro Bowl 4 times together. Both players were instrumental in the 1970s Cowboys Dynasty. 

White noted that he was devastated to hear that Martin had died so young, and has attended many Super Bowl MVP celebrations in his memory. The pair were the only joint winners of the Super Bowl MVP title to be announced. However, they were so in sync, it was very easy to see that they both deserved the award. 

Outside the NFL 

Like many players, Martin struggled with life after the NFL. 

He spent a year as a commentator for a small sports channel. He then appeared in a few WWE matches (including one Wrestlemania) and worked as a commentator for that company for a little while. 

However, without football to focus on, Martin’s life started to spin out of control – he filed for bankruptcy, he was accused of domestic violence, and he started to abuse drugs. He did spend some time in rehab at the request of a former coach but it didn’t seem to help him. 

He was eventually arrested for Cocaine possession and domestic violence. After he was released, his children would not talk to him. 

Many doctors believe that these actions might have been caused or influenced by head injuries he sustained during his playing career. 

In the last few years of his life, everything changed for Martin. 

He got clean, he began talking to his family again and he became a campaigner against drugs. He got a job and excelled in it. He rebuilt many lost friendships in these years. 

He was eventually diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer and he died in 2001. 

His Death 

After many hard years, Martin died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 51. His death sent shock waves through the NFL community. 

Over 1000 people attended Martin’s funeral, including his mother, sister, and children – as well as many NFL players. Despite his struggles, many believed that Martin should be remembered as one of the greatest Cowboys to play in the NFL. 

Martin was the first Super Bowl MVP ever to die – he died less than 30 years after winning his award. As of 2022, the only other Super Bowl MVP to pass away was Bart Starr (who won the first 2 Super Bowl MVP awards), who died at 85 in 2019. 

At Super Bowl 50, Randy White, who jointly won the title with Martin in 1977, attended the celebration of past Super Bowl MVP wins on Martin’s behalf. He had also done this at Super Bowl 25. 


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