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Ex-Jet Marty Lyons fulfills vow he made to Bear Bryant in '79, graduates from Bama

Former Jet Marty Lyons will fulfill a promise Saturday that he made 37 years ago to Bear Bryant at Alabama. AP Photo/Kathy Willens

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Thirty-seven years ago, Marty Lyons walked into Bear Bryant's office at Alabama and told his coach he was dropping out of school. The All-America defensive lineman had just returned from two all-star games, and now he wanted to focus on the NFL. He was hopelessly behind in his classes.

"I explained the situation, and Coach Bryant just looked at me and said, 'Marty, just promise me one thing: You'll come back and get your degree,'" Lyons recalled Friday. "I said, 'Yes, sir, I will.'"

Lyons is a man of his word.

One month shy of his 60th birthday, Lyons will be decked out in a cap and gown Saturday in Coleman Coliseum on the Alabama campus. More than four decades after he first stepped foot on campus, he will receive his degree -- a shining moment in an extraordinary life.

Lyons, who played 11 seasons for the New York Jets, is a husband, a father and a grandfather. He's a successful businessman, and he operates a charitable foundation that grants wishes to terminally ill children. It's a full life, but there was a void.

He wanted to make good on his promise to his forever coach.

"I think if he were still alive, he'd say, 'It took you this long?'" Lyons said with a laugh.

The legendary Crimson Tide coach died in 1983 of a heart attack. Lyons played on Bryant's fourth national championship team, in 1978, the team that defeated Penn State in the Sugar Bowl with an epic goal-line stand. He was in the middle of the famous fourth-down play, which appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

In 1979, Lyons was drafted by the Jets in the first round, joining a defensive line that became known as the New York Sack Exchange. He got busy with football and family, and he never got around to completing his degree requirements.

Until 2½ years ago.

Lyons reached out to the university, which dispatched Dr. Ken Wright -- a professor in the graduate program in sports business management -- to New York to meet with the former Crimson Tide star. They talked for three hours, setting up an academic plan that allowed Lyons to earn the 24 credits he needed to graduate.

One of his classmates at Alabama who went on to a long career with the Miami Dolphins, Tony Nathan, followed a similar path. He made a promise to Bryant and fulfilled it years later.

"I think he had that type of influence on all of his players," Lyons said.

Lyons is thrilled he can share the moment with his family -- his wife, Christine; four kids and two grandchildren. A son Luke is a junior at Alabama. His daughter, Megan, graduated last year from the school and teaches in Dallas. Another son Rocky is a doctor. Jesse is a medical student in Grenada.

They'll all be at Coleman Coliseum, cheering for the old guy, perhaps wiping away a few tears.

"This is a great moment, not only for myself but my family," Lyons said upon landing in Birmingham, Alabama. "If I had graduated on time, I don't think I would've enjoyed it as much. I don't think it would've been as emotional as it is now because you're sharing it with the kids."

Lyons is the color analyst for the Jets' radio affiliate, so he won't be able to stick around long after the ceremony. He will hop a plane to San Francisco so he can broadcast Sunday's game against the 49ers.

This hasn't been a joyous year for the Jets' family. Not only are they struggling on the field, but two former players were killed in separate incidents. Dennis Byrd, 50, died in a car accident. Joe McKnight, 28, was fatally shot last week in a case of road rage.

The franchise is hurting, but it should celebrate Lyons, always one of the good guys. Now, on a Saturday during football season, he comes through one last time for his old coach. What would Bryant say if he were still alive?

"I think he'd just say, 'Thank you,'" Lyons said. "I think he'd say thank you before we had the opportunity to say thank you to him."