James Martin was riding to a local basketball game near his Pittsburgh home with his wife when he got a call from a colleague at the Wounded Warrior Project.
That wasn’t out of the ordinary. Martin had been involved with the organization since 2013, shortly before he was medically retired from the Marine Corps when back injuries paralyzed him from the chest down.
Martin served 15 years in the Corps, joining in 2000 and retiring in 2015, nearly all that time spent as an artilleryman. He deployed to Iraq in 2003 and 2005 and Afghanistan in 2012.
Along the way he rose to the rank of staff sergeant, doing stints with Golf Battery, 2nd Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment in the Target Acquisition Platoon and eventually served in the Wounded Warrior Detachment in Hawaii before leaving the service.
Early on it was Wounded Warrior Project that had helped him with programs, connecting with other veterans and mentoring. Once he literally got back on his feet and was able, he began working with new Wounded Warrior Project arrivals,, helping them navigate their new lives post-injury and post-military.
“I start realizing some people just weren’t ready for the transition happening to them,” he said. “I had the luxury, pleasure to help those coming after me.”
So, when Chris Obarski, a Wounded Warrior Project spokesman, video called on a Tuesday in January, he thought it was likely something to do with the organization.
Then Obarski hinted at something larger, saying, “Well, I don’t know if you can see, I am not the most important person that’s in this Zoom call. Do you have a chance to see who else is on the call here?”
That’s when another face in the video call popped up ― a legendary Pittsburgh Steelers running back, multiple-Pro Bowl player and star of the team that Martin has rooted for his entire life.
“Oh, my goodness,” Martin said. “Hello, Mr. Jerome Bettis.”
“James, how are you brother?” Bettis said.
“I just want to say thank you I hear you are a diehard Steelers fan. Thank you for cheering for the black and gold and for cheering for me at some point along the way. I really appreciate that,” Bettis said.
But Bettis wasn’t there just to thank an adoring fan. He was calling Martin to give back to a veteran who had done so much for other veterans, especially during the pandemic.
“And to honor you, we would like to invite you to Super Bowl LV as one of the NFL’s honorary captains and participate in the coin toss moment,” Bettis said. “What do you think about that?”
Martin seemed speechless for a few seconds before he was able to respond.
“I’m deeply honored, I don’t know how else better to say it. Thank you,” Martin said. “Oh man, thank you so much. I truly do appreciate it.”
On Super Bowl Sunday Martin, along with Los Angeles educator Trimaine Davis and COVID ICU nurse manager Suzie Dorner will serve as honorary captains during the opening coin toss.
The work of the three, who were selected according to an NFL announcement, for, “their tremendous impact during an unprecedented year” will also be part of an original poem broadcast before the game by poet Amanda Gorman, who gained national attention for her Inauguration Day poem.
Martin’s recognition was highlighted from the virtual work he’s done in the past year, but it has roots going back to his own injuries and his post-military commitment to help veterans.
Once medically retired in 2015, Martin returned home to Pittsburgh but wanted to stay connected to his Marine and other veteran buddies, some spread across multiple time zones.
So, Martin and a few friends started gaming together and built livestream channels specific to military veteran gamers on YouTube, Twitch and Facebook.
Those groups were a place to play, talk trash and feel connected. But also, they served to educate others on veteran life and how to sort through things like GI Bill benefits, vocational rehabilitation or other programs available to veterans.
That work connected him to a local group, the Veterans Breakfast Club, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that promotes veteran storytelling programs, medical information sessions, a podcast and other veteran-oriented activities.
As the COVID-19 pandemic rolled across the country nearly a year ago, VBC and other mostly in-person veterans organizations sought ways to go virtual.
“The last thing we wanted was warriors in the dark,” he said. “When isolation is forced upon you and you have no answer, no way out of it, that’s when things can go from bad to worse.”
So, work shifted from face to face to virtual. And VBC has grown from a local/regional nonprofit to connecting with veterans across the country.
And the virtual gaming reached nearly 2,000 new veterans in just the past three months through Wounded Warrior Project, he said.
Martin had been there all along. He helped continue connecting vets virtually as the pandemic continued and made appearances on the VBC podcast, “Scuttlebutt.”
He’s still in the dark as to how he was recommended for honorary captain but he’s grateful.
“Never did I think that I would have Jerome Bettis on my phone on a Tuesday for no reason,” he said. “Never once did I think I’d be at the Super Bowl or on the field as an honorary captain.”
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.