The Comeback of Harvey Martin

Eighteen months ago, the former Cowboys hero was drinking and drugging his way to disaster. Now he's clean, sober, and planning to stay that way.

The football field is a dull, dry brown against the blue December sky. It's generous even to call it a football field; it looks more like an enormous patch of dead grass bookended by goalposts so lopsided, it seems a strong gust of wind could blow them over.

Along one sideline runs a small thicket of trees and piles of dirt and limestone, behind which are modest apartment buildings. On the other side sits an imposing high school, its brick-and-steel sprawl devouring almost the entire block. It looks big even to the giant man pointing in its direction from the football field, where he walks in search of happy memories.

"Right up here, at the edge of that parking lot..."
The former football hero looks toward the concrete surface separating the field from South Oak Cliff High School, just a few miles from where he grew up.

"I remember on this right side here, that's where the athletic area is, where the football players are..."

His face, covered in Giorgio Armani shades, breaks into a wide grin as he points toward the familiar ground.

"The second door is the locker room. I remember going in there and meeting the coach..."

He pauses, as though reliving the moment in his head.
"I remember my mother and sister parked up there. I had really never played football before, and coach sent me up there with a guy, and I got outfitted. They showed me how to put my pads on the right way. Then I came down here on this field."

Harvey Martin almost whispers the last two words--this field. They are barely audible, a sigh lost in the gusts of north wind that cool this warm, late December day.

"What I see is accomplishment, what I see on this field are dreams. To me, it's sacred ground. Of all the places I've been, of all the fields I've walked on, nothing has the memories of this field here. It's not Texas Stadium. It's not the Orange Bowl or the Superdome, where I was Super Bowl MVP. None of that would have been possible without this."

Martin comes back to South Oak Cliff often. In recent months, he's been here three times to revisit the place where his football career began--a career that climaxed with his winning the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award in 1979, then ended in controversy and disgrace a mere five years later.

The 47-year-old ex-Dallas Cowboy comes back to remember the kid who almost didn't make the cut, then made the team at East Texas State University and went on to find fame and wealth as a defensive end for the hometown Dallas Cowboys.

But mostly, he comes back simply because he can.
Seventeen months ago, Harvey Martin faced the real possibility that he might not see anything but the inside of a jail cell for a long time. More than a decade of drug and alcohol abuse had taken its toll, and he ended up being arrested one more time--the last time--for beating his live-in girlfriend. By the summer of 1996, the football hero had become just one more drunken, coked-out disgrace.

Twice that year, Martin was arrested for turning Debbie Clark into a punching bag. Dallas police went to his home in March and August, responding to disturbance complaints; both times, they found Clark battered at the hands of the man who became an NFL legend beating up quarterbacks.

The cops also found drugs on Martin, cocaine stuffed in his pockets. He claimed it wasn't his--he always did. For more than a decade, he denied he had a drug and drinking problem--no matter the trip to rehab in 1983, the pile of arrest reports, the business failures, his disappearance from friends and family.

Then again, Martin could deny his problem: Despite an arrest record that documents a man hitting bottom and then digging in, Martin continually got off. He passed bad checks and was let off by the judge; he got busted for pot and had the evidence thrown out; he was charged with drug possession and resisting arrest, then received a year's probation.

He had a fistful of get out of jail free cards, and Martin was free to ruin his life. Finally, by fall 1996, Martin was in the Lew Sterrett Criminal Justice Center one more time, claiming he was going to commit suicide.

Were it not for a judge extending a hand, Martin could well be in prison now. Or he might have killed his girlfriend. Or himself. He might have ended up like Larry Bethea, who gave up football for coke, beat his wife, stole from his mother, robbed two convenience stores, then shot himself in the head. Bethea committed suicide when he was 30. It could easily have been his old friend and teammate Harvey Martin.

But state District Judge Tom Price gave Martin one more chance to turn his life around. In August 1996, he sent Martin to the Dallas County Judicial Treatment Center in Wilmer. Price told Martin this was his last shot; screw this one up, and it's prison time.

As he stands on the field that was the beginning of his trek to stardom and failure, Martin knows how lucky he was. He knows he had become just another Cowboys casualty, another punch line to a sad joke told about the likes of Bob Hayes, Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson, Larry Bethea, Golden Richards, even Michael Irvin, and so many more forgotten embarrassments. He can't wipe the smile from his face as he looks around.

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