Whenever New York Jets defensive end Marty Lyons has to be away from his wife, Kelly, and their son, Rocky, he usually tells the spunky 5-year-old, "Take care of Mama." So it was that on Oct. 31 beside a dark, country road near Demopolis, Ala., little Martin Anthony Jr. took his dad's words to heart, along with a line from the children's story, The Little Engine That Could.

It was about 12:40 a.m. Saturday, early Halloween morning, and Kelly, 28, was driving her GM pickup truck home, 24 miles south, after visiting friends in Demopolis. At the time Marty was in New York, preparing for Sunday's game against the Indianapolis Colts. With Rocky stretched out asleep on the front seat, his feet on her lap, Kelly says she was driving slowly, maneuvering carefully around the sharp turns of the narrow, two-lane blacktop that crossed an area of unpopulated marshland. Keenly aware that nine years ago her high school sweetheart had crashed into a tree and died on this same road, Kelly concentrated on arriving safely at Rosemount, the family's 108-acre farm.

Suddenly, as the truck neared a bridge, it hit a pothole. "It jerked the wheel right out of my hand," she recalls. The pickup skidded sideways, and two of the wheels caught in a rut. "I felt like it was going to flip on the right side. So I turned the wheel as hard as I could to the left, and I mashed on the gas, trying to get out of that rut. When I did that, Rocky's foot got caught in the steering wheel and the wheel got stuck. Then there was nothing I could do. So I lay down on top of him face down and grabbed the side of the door and the back of the seat."

The pickup flipped over and rolled down a 20-foot embankment, collapsing the roof on Kelly and Rocky. Though her body had cushioned her son from the impact, her head had been jammed against the crumpled door, its jagged surface gashing her face. Opening his eyes, Rocky said, "Look, Mama. The car's upside down and the wheels are pointing toward the sky." Blinded by blood, Kelly answered, "No, Rocky, I can't see." Only later would she find out how serious her injuries actually were: Her face was deeply gashed from her lip to her forehead, and both her shoulders were broken, with shattered bones from her right shoulder piercing the flesh of her armpit.

Rocky crawled out from under his mother, wriggled through the window of the driver's side and tried to pull her out. Unsuccessful, he crawled back in and pushed her out. "I would have died there, bled to death, choked on my blood," Kelly says, adding it was fortunate Rocky couldn't see how bloody she was in the dark or else he "probably would have panicked." He told his mother, who is 5'4" and weighs 104 lbs., that he would climb the 45-degree slope and stop a car. Afraid he would be hit, she ordered him back. Then, with her 4', 60-lb. son pushing from behind, they crawled up together. "I kept trying to dig my fingers into the ground and pull myself up by the roots of the grass," Kelly recalls. "I didn't think I could do it; it hurt so bad." But Rocky kept reminding her about the overburdened locomotive that climbed a mountain in the story The Little Engine That Could, repeating the engine's refrain, "I think I can, I think I can." He added his own: "You can do it, you can do it."

At the top of the slope as a car passed by, headlights glaring, Rocky glimpsed his mother's bleeding face. Shaking from the cold, he began to cry for the first time. After several minutes a truck passed them, then turned around and came back. "My mom's hurt real bad," Rocky told the woman driver. "Take us to the hospital." Soon afterward at the Bryan Whitfield Memorial Hospital in Demopolis, Dr. Reese Holifield, 59, began to reconstruct Kelly's face in an eight-hour operation requiring nearly 200 sutures. "One of the worst injuries I've ever seen," says Holifield, who adds that, because much of the cut ran along natural creases in the face, Kelly will recover with few visible scars. "Before, her nose was long and thin," says her mother, Maxine Parris. "She was gorgeous. Now she's got a small, turned-up nose and she's cute."

Only after the operation was over did Marty Lyons learn of the accident. "They didn't want to upset me," says the 6'5", 269-lb., nine-year veteran. "Kelly wanted me to play the game first and then come home. But football is just a game when it comes to my family." With the kickoff just hours away, Lyons informed the Jets of his family crisis, and the team immediately flew him home. Now, after two weeks recuperating, Kelly, her arms still in slings, is home and awaiting the start of physical therapy in January. Rocky, in kindergarten, will remain with his grandmother in Alabama. His schoolmates, he says, have heard of his heroics and his chumming around with the Jets, but "they never believe anything I do." No matter. The kid's a hero to his mom and pop. "I've saved the newspaper articles," says Marty, "so he can read about it later in life, like when he's 18 and giving me a hard time. I can remind him what a good kid he was."

  • Contributors:
  • Jamie M. Saul.