A Pro Football Lineman Sacks His Toughest Foe—a Confidence-Robbing Deformity

Outside of J.R. Ewing, few folks in Dallas can throw their weight around quite like Harvey Martin. Drafted by his hometown Dallas Cowboys out of East Texas State in 1973, the 6’5″, 250-pound defensive end has served four seasons as the team’s defensive captain, played in three Pro Bowls and was co-MVP of the 1978 Super Bowl. Off the held, however, Martin was wrestling with a personal problem that strength and athletic skill could not overcome—an ugly, malformed jaw that altered his speech and even threatened his ability to eat He was one of an estimated 10 million Americans suffering from a deformity of the jaw—congenital in his case, caused by traumatic childhood injury in others. As a result, Martin endured years of adolescent taunts to become a girl-shy loner afraid even to smile in public. Happily, reconstructive surgery on his upper and lower jaws three years ago has changed his appearance and behavior and enabled him to plan for a TV career after football. At 31, Martin owns a chain of Dallas barbecue restaurants, tools around town in a red Mercedes convertible or a 12-cylinder Jaguar, and insists, “I never felt better about myself in my entire life.” Recently Martin spoke to PEOPLE correspondent Kent Demaret about his ordeal.

At first it was kind of neat—in the seventh grade I was able to prop a toothpick between my teeth and hold it there. I didn’t know it at the time, but my bottom jaw was starting to outgrow the top. When my mother noticed it, she mentioned it to my grandmother, who said, “You know how kids are. They always go through these changes when they’re growing up.” But each year the jaw got worse. I started noticing that I really did not look like anybody in my family, and I got to thinking about that a lot. I noticed that my smile was different. In junior high the kids made up a teasing name for me—”Monkeybear.” Later I went to high school with my sister, Mary, who’s a year younger. She was the most beautiful girl in the school, a member of the pep squad. We used to go places together, and it got so people threw a fit over my sister’s looks and never said anything about me except, “Well, he’s real tall, you know.” Once when I was walking down the hall something happened that still sticks in my mind. Some kids were talking about how nice my sister looked and how ugly I was. Another time a girl said to me, “Your teeth don’t come together when you laugh.” After that I got very paranoid. I never let anybody else see me laugh from that day on; I developed an open-mouthed smile to hide the fact that my teeth didn’t line up right. If you add an inch and a half to your bottom jaw and then thrust it forward a lot, and if you throw in a lisp, you’ll have an idea of what I was like then. My top teeth were also splayed, so if I took a bite out of an apple, I’d have to twist and work the chunk to get it out. I wouldn’t order certain foods in public—thin things like pizza. With pizza, for instance, I couldn’t take a normal bite. I’d have to stick the slice between my front teeth, and then twist off a piece.

I had a problem with girls when I was in high school and college. It’s a visual thing that attracts people first, and if you’re visually unattractive, you’re not going to appeal to too many people. Football helped me tremendously. It was my way of being accepted, and it was all I had. The first time anybody knew who Harvey Martin was, even knew I was alive, was when I was a senior in high school and got my letter jacket.

After I joined the Cowboys I met Sharon Bell, a secretary who is a very special lady in my life. She knew I had the problem, but she never said a word until I mentioned it.

The turning point came when my aunt died. She left a lot of old pictures. One was of me and my sister as kids. I looked at it, and then I looked at myself in the mirror. That’s when I knew my problem was something that happened as I grew—because when I was a kid, I didn’t look like that at all. That picture haunted me. Finally I told Sharon, “I think I’m going to see a doctor because I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can’t even grin like everybody else.” By then I was so embarrassed about anybody seeing my face that I put my hand over my mouth all the time. Sharon couldn’t stand it anymore and made an appointment for me to go see an orthodontist.

He told me, “You’re going to need an operation.” Well, I was a guy who had never had an operation, who had never been injured seriously enough on the football field to require surgery. The thought of an operation was really frightening. It took me about two months to make up my mind. The thing that convinced me was what he said: “You don’t have to do it. But if you don’t, when you’re 50 your bad bite will only aggravate the normal mouth problems associated with aging. You might not be able to eat properly.” So I decided to reshape my mouth strictly so I could bite pizza or a potato chip and smile like other people. I had no idea then the difference it would make in my personal appearance.

I made plans to have the operation off-season. Because it involved bone work, it had to be healed before I went back on the field. In my position, you tackle with your head and shoulders. A lot of times you get forearms under your chin. If you’re tackling a runner like Walter Payton or Earl Campbell, they may bust you right in the head with one of those knees coming up.

I had the operation on the first of March 1978. The doctor went inside my mouth and cut out an inch and a half of bone along each side of my bottom jaw. Then he broke the bones at the front of my top jaw and reset them so my upper teeth would point down instead of out. Finally he put braces on my teeth and laced my mouth shut with wires fastened to the braces. I never took pain pills; there was no pain because I couldn’t move anything. And since they do it all from the inside of the mouth, there were no visible scars.

Afterward, while I was wired shut, I realized that most commercials on TV seem to advertise food. At the time I was eating soup and chocolate malts and a gallon of ice cream a day. I’d switch soups, but after seven weeks, soup is soup. The first thing I did after getting my wires off was to go to Wendy’s and buy a cheeseburger. I had seen those Wendy’s commercials for seven weeks. I couldn’t open my mouth wide yet so I broke the cheeseburger into pieces.

About a month after the wires came off I showed up for preseason practice. I was down to 214 pounds from my regular 250, and my clothes didn’t fit, which made me look even worse.

I really didn’t know how to take the reaction of my teammates. Robert New-house came up and said, “You really look totally different. It’s 100 percent better.” Yet in a strange way, that embarrassed me; they all meant to give me a boost, but it made me feel like, “Oh, man, it must have been terrible before—like Frankenstein’s monster.”

As a result of the surgery, though, I’ve become more outgoing. I’ve been able to alert a lot of parents whose kids have the same problem and tell them it can be corrected. Before, I had a hard time getting work on TV. Now I’ve got a lot of commercial offers, things I know I have the talent to do but physically couldn’t do before.

I can’t see anybody with the problem I had not feeling better about himself after the operation. A lot of people say, “Oh, man, I couldn’t do that.” But seven weeks of being wired shut is nothing compared to a lifetime. If you really want something, and you’re given the chance to get it, it can change your life. It changed mine. I look in the mirror a lot now.

Related Articles