Sam Martin stepped up to the podium in Abu Dhabi, ribbon in hand. In front of him, the athletes were there, waiting. They had come from all over the world to compete in gymnastics. The Detroit Lions punter, halfway across the world watching athletes who were mostly unfamiliar with the sport he plays, was about to give them their awards.
It sounds like a small thing. It was anything but. It turned into something that’s going to stick with Martin forever.
Martin walked up to the first girl, a competitor from El Salvador, and gave her the eighth-place ribbon for her work on the floor exercise.
She didn’t win. It didn’t matter. With the Special Olympics, it is as much about the journey as the result.
“You could just tell how happy and proud she was,” Martin said. “That, for sure, is something that — and I was lucky enough to put a few ribbons around her neck, and she was just the cutest little girl, and she was just so happy and so proud and didn’t care if she finished first or 100th.
“She just had the best time, you could tell that she was so happy with what she achieved. There’s so much correlation to just life in general that the inspiration that they provide is just incredible.”
Martin was one of a group of athletes — mostly former Olympians, including figure skater Michelle Kwan and gymnast Nastia Liukin — in Abu Dhabi as ambassadors for the 2019 Special Olympics World Games. They were there to offer assistance and be a face for the spirit of inclusion in athletics and in life.
For Martin, who had been training for the 2019 NFL season in Jupiter, Florida, this was a welcome break from his football training, allowing him to work with an organization he first supported in high school.
He connected with the Games because of Liukin, whom he is newly dating. She reached out and asked him if he wanted to go. He said he would, but he wanted to be more involved than a spectator. Martin said Liukin worked it out with Special Olympics.
Soon after, Martin was walking with the United States delegation at the Opening Ceremonies inside Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi. As a football player, he never imagined walking in the Opening Ceremonies of an Olympic Games.
It was special for Liukin, too. She didn’t get a chance to walk during the Beijing games, so this was a first for her as well. In a message communicated through Martin, she said it made her “pretty emotional.”
“It was incredible to get to do that. It’s hard to describe,” Martin said. “Obviously, running out of a tunnel for a football game and stuff, you get that kind of feel, but it was just being in the middle of all these athletes and their energy, it was a really moving experience.
“You kind of are, like, in a trance almost. It was amazing.”
Martin learned that Pittsburgh cornerback Joe Haden would hold a football clinic to introduce football to athletes who had never played the sport. They worked with athletes from Puerto Rico and the United Arab Emirates, putting them through stations and warm-up drills. They were basic drills for the NFL players, but it was a way to increase exposure for the game and bring joy to the athletes.
That, more than anything, stuck out to Martin. The trip provided him a reminder of what sports can do and reconnected him to working with people who face different intellectual challenges. While he has worked with some organizations in the Detroit area in the past, his trip created enough of a pull for him to reach out to work with Special Olympics when he returned to the United States.
The Special Olympics was in the news this past week, as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos proposed a plan to cut the budget for the Special Olympics on Tuesday, but was overruled by President Donald Trump on Thursday.
Martin said cutting funding would be “tragic because I saw firsthand what this funding is providing.” He saw the opportunities given, the happiness provided, the inclusion with unified sports that helps bridge the understanding that athletes are athletes and the program links them all together.
Being there reminded Martin, in a way, of why he started playing sports in the first place.
“Where this comes from is just such a good place,” Martin said. “And the athletes are just extremely appreciative, and it’s just, they are inspiring and motivating. I left the Games feeling really — it just opens your eyes to what’s important in life.
“And really makes you appreciate the things that often get overlooked.”