Fame's aftershock hits former Steeler Paul Martha
Paul Martha with the Steelers
Paul Martha was a star for Pitt and the Steelers and a sports executive before his old injuries caught up with him.
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ST. LOUIS -- If J.P. Martha ever fails in the coal business, he could have a lucrative career as a headline writer.
"I have the title for the story on my dad: 'The Rise, The Fall And The Rise Again Of Paul Martha,' " he said.
It's the perfect title.
Paul Martha's rise was meteoric. From a consensus All-American at Pitt in 1963 to a Steelers' No. 1 draft choice in '64 to a high-powered attorney with a law degree from Duquesne to a top lieutenant in the DeBartolo sports empire overseeing the four-time Super Bowl-winning San Francisco 49ers of the '80s and the two-time Stanley Cup-winning Penguins of the '90s.
Mr. Martha's fall was calamitous. It included three stays at alcohol rehabilitation facilities, one divorce and a second in the works, and time in jail for violating a domestic abuse restraining order involving his second wife.
Mr. Martha's second rise has been remarkable in its own way, starting in December when he was diagnosed with brain damage from concussions he sustained as an NFL player. Thanks to proper medication and treatment, he is able to live by himself in an upscale retirement facility, only a mile or two from where his son works in sales for Patriot Coal. He can come and go as he pleases as long as he has a companion. His family says he is a much better grandfather to his six grandchildren than he was a father to his three sons.
"I'm doing great," Mr. Martha said last week. "I haven't felt this well in a long time."
Mr. Martha, 67, isn't the first former Pittsburgh athlete to make news because of his concussions from football. Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster had brain damage before he died at 50 in 2002 from complications after a heart attack. One-time Steelers running back Merril Hoge, now an NFL analyst for ESPN, had to retire from the league after the 1994 season due to a series of head injuries.
But concussions in football became a hot-button topic again nationally after Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Tim Tebow, of Florida, was knocked unconscious during a game against Kentucky Sept. 26. An NFL-commissioned telephone survey of 1,000 retired players released in September showed that players under 50 were 19 times more likely to be diagnosed with memory-related brain diseases than the general public. The CBS television show "60 Minutes" explored the topic last week. Featured prominently was Baltimore Colts Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey, who is struggling with dementia in an assisted-living facility in Baltimore.
"I watched that with tears in my eyes because I substituted Paul Martha for John Mackey," said Bill Tosheff, a close friend of Mr. Martha's from San Diego.
Mr. Martha guessed he had at least 10 concussions during his six seasons with the Steelers and one with the Denver Broncos (1970). Steelers owner Dan Rooney wrote about one of those head injuries in his 2007 book, "My 75 Years With The Pittsburgh Steelers And the NFL": "Defensive back Paul Martha made a hit [during a training-camp scrimmage in 1968] that split his helmet down the middle like a cracked nut, leaving him with a concussion and a serious cut over his right eye."
Mr. Martha's first wife, Bobbie, remembers a bad head injury he had in a game against, coincidentally, the Steelers in Denver, the result of a helmet-to-helmet collision with quarterback Terry Hanratty.
"He was out of it for a long time after that," she said. "I could definitely see a change in Paul. We would go out and he would be looking over my shoulder, off into space."
In today's NFL, doctors are more cautious with head injuries. But in Mr. Martha's era, players frequently were sent back into the games.
"They would give you smelling salts, ask how many fingers they were holding up and ask you if were OK," he said. "What were you supposed to say? If you said you weren't OK, you were a sissy."
Medical studies since have shown that repeated concussions lead to brain disease. The deterioration is slow but ongoing. Often, decades pass before the symptoms are evident.
So it was with Mr. Martha, one of Pittsburgh's most prominent and successful sports figures.
"I have an old tape of him doing an interview with KDKA," J.P. Martha said. "They really grilled him about the negotiations for a lease at the Civic Arena. I look at that tape and look at him now and think, 'Is that really my dad?' "
Mr. Martha, who went to law school at night during his playing days with the Steelers, worked for the Reed Smith law firm in Pittsburgh and Youngstown Steel before hooking up with Edward J. DeBartolo Sr., the Youngstown shopping mall magnate, in the mid-1970s. He quickly climbed the corporate ladder with DeBartolo's sports teams, becoming executive vice president, general counsel and CEO of the Penguins in 1977 and executive vice president and general counsel of the 49ers in 1978. He also ran the Civic Arena -- now Mellon Arena.
Reminded last week during a late-morning breakfast at a nearby restaurant that he was quite the mover and shaker in those days, Mr. Martha stopped poking at his bacon and eggs and grinned. "I was ... I really was."
He received national acclaim for his role as mediator in settling the 1982 NFL players' strike.
"Paul got along with [NFLPA executive director] Ed Garvey and he got along with me," Mr. Rooney said last month. "There were times both sides were ready to throw in the towel, but Paul kept us going."
The Marthas had a whirlwind lifestyle, frequently flying to San Francisco for 49ers games, then flying back to Pittsburgh for Penguins games. There were Super Bowls and Stanley Cup playoff games, this charity function and that A-list party.
"What a time we had," Mr. Martha said. "In retrospect, though, I wish that I would have spent more time with my family."
The Marthas have three sons: J.P., 43; Chris, 37, who works in the restaurant business in Atlanta; and Richie, 36, who is an attorney in San Diego.
Bobbie Martha-Smith, who has remarried, said she noticed a significant change in Mr. Martha's behavior after Mr. DeBartolo sold the Penguins to Howard Baldwin in 1991 and Mr. Martha was slowly phased out of his management duties.
"It was hard for him to go back to practicing law with Eckert Seamans after being involved in sports for so long," she said.
He began drinking more, to the point it became an issue with his family.
"It drove my mother crazy because she couldn't understand why she couldn't get him to change," J.P Martha said. Added Ms. Martha-Smith, "Knowing what we know now about his concussions, maybe he was drinking to mask his frustration. I think he must have known something wasn't right."
The Marthas were divorced in 1999 after 35 years of marriage.
Mr. Martha remarried in 2002 to Roxanne Torquato, a Belle Vernon woman. He followed her and her work to San Diego.
He did some legal work in San Diego and also tried to start an International Basketball League team there with Mr. Tosheff, a former pro player best known for getting NBA union benefits for pre-1965 players. That basketball venture failed, but the relationship between the two continues to thrive. It was Mr. Tosheff who was there to help when Mr. Martha was at his lowest point last year.
According to J.P. Martha, 2008 was a bad year in many ways for his father. According to him, his father fell down some steps in his home in April, hit his head on a tile floor and was hospitalized for a month.
In July, Mr. Martha's brother, Rich, died of cancer in Pittsburgh. In September, at the urging of his sons, who saw that he still was drinking, he spent 30 days at Father Martin's Ashley alcohol rehab facility outside Baltimore. In October -- back in San Diego and drinking again -- and into November, he was incarcerated in the county jail for violating a restraining order obtained by his wife.
Ms. Torquato-Martha declined to comment when contacted last week at her San Diego office. Though she and Mr. Martha speak by telephone every day, they have begun divorce proceedings and have a trial date in July, J.P. Martha said.
After being released from jail, Mr. Martha was living in a San Diego motel when Mr. Tosheff said he drove his friend to the Rancho L'Abri alcohol treatment center in Dulcera, Calif., and insisted he check in.
"I couldn't believe how bad he was," Mr. Tosheff said. "I just told him, 'Let's get a pro involved because you're not making good decisions.' For some reason, he listens to me."
It was at Rancho L'Abri that Mr. Martha's brain damage was diagnosed.
"[Medical director John Milner] told us we could take him to every rehab facility in the country and he wouldn't retain any of it," J.P. Martha said. "He said his problems went far beyond drinking. In a strange way, that was a relief for all of us because we couldn't understand what was happening with him."
Mr. Martha's sons moved him to St. Louis in mid-December so he could be closer to J.P. His first stop was Parc Provence, a dementia and Alzheimer's disease care facility.
"It's a lockdown there. You can't leave," J.P. Martha said. "It was tough for him. He was in bad shape. He didn't know his grandchildren. He kept wanting to leave."
With medication and rehab, Mr. Martha made quick improvement. In August, he moved to The Hallmark, an assisted-living facility that offers a more independent lifestyle. Later that month, he traveled to Savannah, Ga., to see son Chris get married. J.P. Martha said his father had one glass of wine to toast the bride and groom but did not ask for another.
"I like it here, I just get bored at times," Mr. Martha said of The Hallmark. "I'm the youngest person in here. That's the only bad part."
It helps that his son and family are nearby. J.P. Martha and his wife, Tiffany, have three children: Jack, 9; Logan, 7, and McKenney, 4.
"He's a really good grandfather," J.P. Martha said. "The kids adore him."
Mr. Martha qualifies for financial aid under the NFL's "88 Plan," which helps former players with dementia. It is named after Mr. Mackey's uniform number and was written into the basic agreement between the NFL owners and players in 2006 at the urging of Mr. Mackey's wife, Sylvia. Nearly 100 former players receive up to $88,000 a year in assistance.
"People can say what they want about the NFL, but I'll take it any day," J.P. Martha said. "Plan 88 has been a godsend for us."
On a ledge in the hallway outside Mr. Martha's room at The Hallmark is a photograph of him, the late Steve "Froggy" Morris and the Stanley Cup. It was taken in 1991 or '92 at Mr. Morris' Market Street saloon. Mr. Martha, who still wears his '92 Cup ring from the Penguins, is beaming.
"You won't recognize my dad when you see him now. He's not that same guy," J.P. Martha had warned.
That was true in one sense. Mr. Martha has aged and is more frail than he was when the photo was taken. But Mr. Martha still is very much the same in one important way.
"He's a competitor. Always has been, always will be," Mr. Tosheff said.
In the 1960s, Mr. Martha's battles were on NFL playing fields. In the '70s, '80s and '90s, they were in NFL and NHL boardrooms. Now, they are in a much different arena against a much tougher opponent.
Each day, he fights to stay well.
Each day, he fights for a normal life.
It's a fight he will face for as long as he lives.
First Published October 18, 2009 12:00 am