No Complaints: Marty Headd was a basketball star at Syracuse nearly 30 years ago, now he works here as a janitor
Over the years, Syracuse basketball players have gone on to become FBI agents, school teachers, dentists, ministers, professional athletes and more.
And one of them is a janitor.
His name is Martin Headd. People call him Marty.
He rises in darkness every morning at 3, sets out for work against the whipping, snow-filled north wind and walks to the university. He crosses Euclid Avenue without breaking a stride. By 5 a.m., he punches in. He spends the next eight hours doing the work that most of America doesn’t want to do.
‘From the minute I get there, I’m cleaning,’ Marty said. ‘I’m pulling trash, I’m mopping floors, I’m cleaning bathrooms. I really like to work with my hands. I don’t think I can have an office job where I talk on the phone, sit in front of a computer. …I need to work.’
As Marty does his job, he looks at the sea of student faces. They don’t see him, though. All they see is a janitor. The cast-off working clothes on his back, the caked-on dirt on his battered New Balance sneakers.
They don’t have a clue he’s been laboring at this job for more than 14 years now. And before that, he was an Orangeman, part of Jim Boeheim’s second-ever recruiting class. They don’t know that he was an All-Big East conference selection his junior and senior years, that he scored nearly 1,200 points while playing at SU, and that he was an NBA ninth-round pick by the New York Knicks. They don’t know that he arrived at SU as a freshman in 1977 and received his diploma in 2008.
They wouldn’t understand why, despite all the accolades and the promise out of college, he believes he’s lucky to be a janitor.
‘This job has a lot of hidden rewards, I look forward to it every day,’ Marty said. ‘It keeps my upper body strong. My body’s real good, I don’t have a bad back, my feet are good, my hands are good…’
‘Nobody’s ever worked harder,’ Boeheim said. ‘He never missed a day. If he was sick he played, if he was hurt he played.
‘That’s what Marty is.’
Marty was born in Syracuse on January 10, 1959, and he came of age at a time when SU coach Roy Danforth was leading the (vertically challenged) ‘Roy’s Runts’ through their gilded age.
By the time he graduated from Christian Brothers Academy, he had led his team to three consecutive city and sectional titles. He was a high school All-American, and he had basketball scholarships and letters of interests to well over 50 colleges.
‘They say he was slow, but he had a quick release and probably one of the quickest first step I have ever saw,’ said Earl Belcher, a 1981 NBA fourth-round draft pick for the San Antonio Spurs and Marty’s teammate at CBA. ‘He could get his shot off anytime he wanted to.’
But none of this was remotely foreseeable in the beginning, back in the days he spent on the playgrounds of Wadsworth Park, on the streets of Syracuse, where he dreamed of playing basketball at SU.
That was every local kid’s dream back then.
Weekends and summer days, Marty walked the dirt floor of Manley Field House, breathing the dusty air and sensing the magic others said he would never touch. Marty’s grammar school coaches had told his father he would never even play high school basketball.
It took a long time for people to see that Marty was worth a second look. As a kid he was smallish, balding (he started losing his hair at 16) and heavy.
‘A lot of people underestimated Marty,’ Belcher said. ‘He’s always been deceiving.’
Barely 6 feet tall, stoop-shouldered and slow, he was easily overlooked. So Marty did 5-mile roadwork and wind sprints two or three times a day, often around the Westcott Reservoir, to improve his endurance. He would dash into the playground of Onondaga Park well after midnight to squeeze in extra workouts on his footwork, knifing through imaginary opponents and shooting a ball, shaved smooth from use, at crooked, net-less rims and rotting wooden backboards.
‘I used to shoot outside in the rain,’ Marty said. ‘Inside the gym, I used to switch the lights off and shoot in the dark.’
That work ethic came from Marty’s father.
In his father, Marty had found the fuel for his dreams, someone with an incomparable appetite for work and an affecting quality of meekness and humility.
In Marty, his father had found a mirror image of himself, someone who outworked the more talented.
‘I remember him wearing weights on his ankles and dribbling from the Westside to Manley or (SU men’s basketball assistant coach) Bernie (Fines)’s house, bicycling all over the city with a weight vest on his back to make himself stronger, doing defensive slides with bricks in his hands,’ said Gary Barnaba, CBA’s athletic director from 1970 to 1985. ‘Just an unbelievable work ethic.’
He was also, according to Hal Cohen, a former SU teammate, the best pure shooter in Syracuse basketball history – hands down.
By the time he completed his senior year at Syracuse in 1981, Marty had led SU to three NCAA Tournaments (including a Sweet 16 run during the 1978-79 season) and an NIT finals.
He had also amassed 1,159 points (and there was no 3-point line yet), while shooting 53.8 percent from the field. He’d earned a spot on the coveted Big East All-Tournament team and Big East All-Conference third team his junior year.
‘I think I got more out of his abilities than anybody Boeheim ever had up there,’ Marty said, too matter-of-factly to be bragging.
When the chance presented itself in 1982 to play professionally in England for the Planters Peanuts of Leister, Marty accepted. The experience there proved to be pivotal. He was living alone in a foreign culture and had a great deal of time between games to think about his future.
It is quite a hike from the house where he spends his nights to the campus where he spends his days. Marty likes to walk to and back from work. He hasn’t driven a car in 14 years.
Driving 1.6 miles to go to work would be an extravagance anyway, something his father, Paul Headd, couldn’t abide. His dad, born in Ireland, was archetypal working-class. The classic blue-collar stiff – nothing like the people Marty cleans after in the halls everyday.
‘Today everybody wants things handed to them,’ Marty said, his bushy eyebrows raised in disgust. ‘That was a different generation of people back then. That generation is gone. Lost. I don’t think you’ll see that generation of men ever again. Those were my role models.’
For 27 years, Marty’s old man got up, stepping over the bodies of his children asleep on the floor each dawn, going off to work driving a milk truck for Marble Farms all day and then as a laborer at the Vernon Downs Race Track until after dark.
‘He worked two jobs his whole life,’ Marty says. ‘Never complained once.’
Sure, sometimes Marty wants to complain, but he doesn’t. That’s not him. Instead he swallows hard and deals with it. That’s the way his father taught him to deal with everything.
‘But the biggest thing that he taught me was work ethic,’ Marty said.
At a very young age, he learned the value of a dollar. He made 50 cents a round delivering newspapers in the mornings before school and $5 a week shoveling snow and mowing lawns before practice in the afternoons. And he gave every penny to his parents to help pay for the tuition of his private school education at CBA.
The memories bring the shadow of a smile to his face.
Marty learned more than toughness from a father who had no hesitation about laughing at himself. He also learned the importance of knowing where you come from.
That’s why Marty loves SU so much.
‘Helping out the students, that’s all (Marty) ever talks about,’ said Kathleen Farrell, SU Manager of Housekeeping and Marty’s boss at SU. ‘He was so humble. It was like pulling teeth to get him to talk about his accomplishments.’
In truth, the subject of Marty’s past rarely arose. While at work, Marty rarely talks about his hoops career. Word had gotten around the workplace that he had played for SU, but he would shrug off any mention of it. ‘Yeah, I played a little basketball,’ he would say.
Farrell hired Marty back in 1995. His resume was little more than a bare-bones list of names and dates, she said. It was honest and sincere.
But more than anything she was impressed by Marty’s dedication and his humility. She was expecting arrogance. Instead, she found a man disarmingly humble. Quick to volunteer to help out, quick to knock out the chores the supervisor – years younger than he was – ordered him to do.
‘Marty is very down to earth. He doesn’t have an ego trip going,’ Farrell said. ‘(From day one) He was all about work, classes and helping out the students.’
Last May, Marty finally received his degree in communication from the College of Visual and Performing Arts at SU, the degree he originally was in school for, after 27 years. Nothing could make his friends prouder.
‘I know coach Boeheim always told him ‘Marty, you got to get your degree. I can’t get it for you,” Belcher said.
‘It was important to all of us,’ Boeheim said. ‘It means especially a lot to me because I know his mom and dad very well.
‘I think it’s an unbelievable achievement. As great of an achievement as anybody ever had here.’
Marty lives in Syracuse. Still.
He came back here after two and a half years playing pro in England back in the 1980s.
He says he has turned down job offers in bigger, more exciting places over the years. His family, his roots are here, buried in this ground. Marty is here because no other place feels like home.
The house he grew up in, the big brown one on the corner of Geddes Street and Bellevue Avenue, is relatively modest, without a single trophy, plaque or basketball picture, but this is where he retires after each day’s work. It’s home.
Ultimately, Marty came back not so much because he’s from Syracuse but because he is Syracuse, as Boeheim will say.
‘Typical blue-collar kid from the Westside,’ said Gart Barnaba. ‘Would literally give you the shirt off of his back. And that’s Marty in a nutshell.’
Now Marty reaches outward almost compulsively, talking to students for city-sponsored after-school programs, going to the gym and working with young players with the intensity of a man living his second childhood.
Marty regularly watches SU games on TV – as he will be Friday when Syracuse opens its NCAA Tournament play – alone and happy.
He is homely and quite content to exist inside ordinary, modest life. His clothes are dowdy and mostly out of style. He doesn’t care. He lives by himself and has no one to dress for: no wife, no girlfriend, no child. He earns about $27,000 per year doing a job he says he loves.
‘I’m pretty easy to satisfy,’ he said. ‘Just give me a payday.’
He also says that he is lucky to be a janitor.
‘My work as a janitor I look at it as almost like basketball. It’s good for you,’ he said. ‘Luckily for me, it’s not a job that everybody likes to do.’
That’s because it’s hard work, and hard work is a learned behavior.
And that’s why he continues waxing and polishing the floors of Graham Dining Center, long after they are already gleaming.
Marty confesses that sometimes he pictures himself someday: a family man, a committed husband, a dedicated father … But today is just another day. So, he rises in darkness, sets out for work against the whipping, snow-filled north wind and walks to the university.
‘I plan on working about 20 more years as a janitor,’ he says. ‘Syracuse is a pretty good place to work.’
Published on March 18, 2009 at 12:00 pm