The 63rd annual Christopher Awards were presented in New York City this past May 24. Though the majority of awards fall into the categories of books, films, and TV programs, we also recognize a few individuals with special Christopher Awards. For instance, the James Keller Award—named after The Christophers’ founder—goes to someone who is making a difference in the lives of children. The recipient this year was former New York Jets defensive lineman Marty Lyons who, in 1982, created The Marty Lyons Foundation to grant wishes to children and teens with life-threatening illnesses.
The foundation arose out of a one-week period in Lyons’ life in 1982. His father, Leo, passed away suddenly; a little boy named Keith, to whom Lyons was a Big Brother, died from leukemia; and Lyons’ son, Rocky, was born. Lyons saw the “frailty, unfairness and wonder of life” all in the course of those seven days.
During his acceptance speech at the Christopher Awards, Lyons recalled that he grew up in a big Irish Catholic family of nine for whom “going to Mass on Sunday morning wasn’t an option; it was an event.” But these losses in his life shook his faith. He said, “I really kind of resented God. I asked Him, ‘Why would you do this to me?’ That’s probably the hardest question you can ask and never find an answer to.”
A couple of months later, Lyons looked in the mirror and realized he didn’t like the person he saw staring back at him, the person who held on to bitterness at God. “You realize that this is life,” he said. “It’s going to happen to each and every one of us.”Lyons now felt that God was challenging him, saying, “I gave you the gift of life. I gave you the ability to make a difference. Become more than a football player.” That’s exactly what he did by creating the foundation which has helped more than 6,000 kids over the last 30 years.
Lyons’ love and admiration for those children runs deep. He shared the story of a girl named Lauren who came down with a brain tumor at age 14. She endured chemotherapy and radiation, and got a little deformed on the side of her face. Her wish was to go to the White House and to have some poems she’d written published. Lyons and his foundation helped her achieve both those goals.
At the age of 16, Lauren passed away. Lyons attended the funeral service which took place in the same church in which Lauren had been baptized and confirmed. The priest holding the service had known Lauren all her life, and pointed out that she woke up every day and took a walk “hand-in-hand with the good Lord.” When Lauren got sick, she would walk a little bit further, look at God and say, “You know, God, I’m getting tired. I’d like to go home.” One day, she took that walk and said, “God, I would really like to go home.” God responded, “You know Lauren, we’re closer to My house than we are to yours. If you go to My house, you won’t have any more pain.” Lauren died that day.
Choking up at the memory, Lyons concluded, “I tell you that story because every day, we have a choice on how far we’re going to walk with God. How many lives can we change if we just say a kind word? You don’t have to be a professional athlete to make a difference. All you have to do is care. All you have to do is take time to give of yourself so that other people can grow. Each of us is going to get so far away from our house one day that we too will have to make that decision. Right now we all have the choice. How far do you want to take the walk?”