Sometimes it’s funny how life takes you in the direction you’re supposed to go. Former Jaguars Linebacker Lonnie Marts is a good example of that. In the twenty plus year’s Lonnie and I have been friends we’ve had a running joke about his role as a football player.
“When that hole at the line of scrimmage opened up, I always knew you’d be standing in that hole,” I’d say to him.
“Yep, that was my job,” he’d answer with a laugh.
As we all know, not everybody would be willing to ‘stand in that hole’ but Lonnie was that guy as a professional football player and now is filling another gap as a dad, husband, mentor, coach and a member of the community.
Last year Marts and his friend James Coleman started the Level the Playing Field Leadership Academy. For Marts, it’s a chance to again fill a gap in the line. This time it’s a gap he sees in Black community when it comes to nurturing, teaching and growing boys into men.
“Why boys? I’m always asked,” Marts said by way of explanation. “Because our girls need some upstanding men.”
Level the Playing Field’s goal is to take boys in the Black community, ten to thirteen years old, particularly athletes, and stay with them and support them until they’re twenty-one. And it’s not just an ‘after-school’ program. Marts says it’ll be “24-7.”
“We know we’re going to have times we need to check on the boys that are out of the normally expected times,” Lonnie explained. “We’re working on their mental wellness. There’s something that happened in their lives that left them in their situation. You can’t teach or train a child when they’re hungry or tired. So, we have to work on their situation full-time.”
There are a couple of other organizations who are involved in a similar mission. Mal Washington’s foundation celebrated it’s twenty fifth year in existence in 2021. Martz has leaned heavily on Mal’s experience with his youth foundation as well as the “Son of a Saint” organization in his hometown of New Orleans.
“Mal is one of the first people I called. Sonny Lee started Son of a Saint and I talk with him all the time,” Lonnie said. “They’re recognized as one of the reasons crime is down in New Orleans. They’re only in existence for ten years but they’ve had a great impact in the city. They’re impacting these boys’ lives.”
Marts wants to start with just fifteen boys here in Jacksonville and grow from there. Lonnie was raised by his mother in a single parent household in New Orleans, played college football in his hometown at Tulane and played in Kansas City, Tampa, Tennessee and Jacksonville as a professional. He chose to stay here to have an impact.
“We missed the explosion of those other cities when we left,” he said of the travels he and his wife Gionne and their five children have had. “We’re not in the carousel of looking for a team (to play for) and we found everything here. My wife likes everything about being here. It’s a sports town and we decided to try and be a part of the boom here and grow with the city.”
As friends and co-workers, Lonnie and I have had long discussions about our backgrounds and our commitment to our careers. Lonnie said he was kind of shocked when his NFL career came to an end and three of his kids had grown up without him around.
“I wanted to be the ‘Dad in the house’ for my two youngest kids. I’m getting time back with my oldest three right now.”
Marts filled a gap in the line for Harvest Community School when they wanted to start a football program. He became the Head Coach and the Athletic Director, learning plenty about himself in the process. He recognized the platform he had as a former NFL player and the impact he was having on his students as players and as young men.
“I realized as a head coach and in coaching meetings what I was doing for young men was leading them to be better,” he explained. “Just because you were good at doing it doesn’t mean you’re good at teaching it. That’s what I’m working on right now: To learn to take some of the talents I saw I had and apply them to these young men.”
Marts’ head coaches in the NFL included Marty Shottenheimer, Sam Wyche and Tony Dungy. Bill Cowher was his defensive coordinator with the Chiefs. Lonnie credits all of their commitments to their communities as his influence to do the same here.
“They were adamant about being part of the community,” he explained. “With a platform, you have a responsibility.”
Shottenheimer, Cowher and Dungy also had an influence on Marts’ coaching style. He never was a yeller and a screamer.
“I wouldn’t have taken up coaching if I hadn’t been coached by Coach Dungy,” Lonnie said. “I see a lot of cursing and screaming in the high school game and I disagree with that. Coach Dungy kept his cool in the most difficult situations. He’s the only reason I got into coaching. Marty and Bill were also like that. I didn’t yell and scream during games, that doesn’t do anything to build young men.”
Building young men is something Lonnie now considers a calling.
“Too many men and especially Black men are not ‘in place.’” Marts explained. “If they were, daughters would have the chance to live better lives. Boys need to see what it’s like to be in a married home, part of a family. What I’m trying to give them is what my Mom gave me. I want to open their vision to see “I don’t have to walk that path.”
Marts also has a different idea about why and how young Black men are finding the wrong path.
“If you’ve never been taught that skill, you get frustrated,” he explained. “I think that’s where the young male of color is, ‘I can see that, but I don’t know how to do that.’ We’re trying to teach boys how to grow and open up a wide world to them. It’s not only football that can give them a chance to get out of their situation. There are other things they can learn and do.”
“Young African American guys need to learn how to set up others for success,” he continued. “Not just themselves. It’s not just about Instagram followers and the cars and the houses and the jewelry.”
“That’s why we’re starting with fifteen boys of color, but we hope to open it up to anybody in single parent homes. It’s overwhelming how many on our Northside are in poverty. They’re thinking no one cares and they don’t have any hope. They need somebody who they know who cares and wants to help. They need to know they have another choice. Giving them the knowledge of another path gives them just that.”
Marts is working with Big Brothers, Big Sisters looking for mentors. He’s trying to get the word out on the Northside about potential Academy members. Delores and Wayne Weaver have provided a matching gift as seed money to get the Academy off the ground. He’s talking to the City about using a community center on the Northside to get their ‘kids’ together.
“How can we stop this?” Marts concluded. “How can we keep these young boys from getting locked into something that’s not good for them. We’re trying to teach the boys to be a value and not a burden to the city and their community.”
This week he’s hosting a virtual event called “The Huddle” to raise awareness, and hopefully funds. Dungy and Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks will be among the participants Thursday night at 7PM. If you’d like more information, or would just like to help, start at their website, leveltheplayingfieldla.org or find them on Facebook or Instagram.