Tom Archdeacon: A pro like no other plans his return to Dayton

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Jul. 3—Because the Stars have burned so brightly on their way to Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton today, the return of one of Dayton's most shining stars has been delayed here for a year.

Martin Bayless has been a pro athlete and coach like no other in the Miami Valley.

After starring at Belmont High School and Bowling Green — where he went from football walk-on to Hall of Fame legend — he embarked on a pro football career that began 38 years ago as a fourth-round pick by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1984 draft.

Much of that time has been spent in the NFL, first playing cornerback/safety for five teams over 13 years and then coaching or working in the front office of nine different teams in the league.

He's also coached in several other pro leagues and this season has guided the defensive secondary and special teams of the Philadelphia Stars, who meet the Birmingham Stallions tonight at 7:30 in Canton for the USFL Championship.

As has so often been the case in Bayless's career, his impact has been felt with the Stars.

In the league's semifinal match-up last Saturday, the Stars upset the New Jersey Generals, 19-14, thanks to two game-changing plays made by a pair of his charges in the final minutes of the fourth quarter.

With 2:00 left, the Stars' Maurice Alexander returned a New Jersey punt 87 yards for a touchdown to give Philadelphia the lead.

Then, as New Jersey was marching right back down the field, Stars cornerback Amani Dennis made the game-sealing interception at the Philadelphia 17-yard line with 41 seconds left.

And yet nowhere has Bayless' impact been felt more than right here at home where — beginning in 1987 — he and fellow pro Keith Byars, then a Philadelphia Eagles running back who'd prepped at Roth High, launched the Byars/Bayless Football Camp at Welcome Stadium that was free for Miami Valley youth each summer.

Seven years later, when Byars moved on to other ventures, Bayless continued to run the camp for another two decades. In 2010, Will Allen, the Wayne High grad who was a Pittsburgh Steelers safety, partnered with him.

Over the years the Dayton camp drew some of the biggest names in the NFL: players like Jim Kelly, Reggie White, Junior Seau, Boomer Esiason, Ronnie Lott, Derrick Thomas, Jerome Brown, Bruce Smith, Randall Cunningham and Andre Reed, among others.

Some of the local kids who took part in the camps went on to their own NFL careers, including Marco Coleman, Dan Wilkinson, Matt Light, Allen, Peerless Price, David Bruton, Jerrel Worthy and Greg Orton.

Bayless also put on camps in Buffalo, Kansas City, San Diego and Phoenix — all cities he was connected to in his career. From those ventures emerged more NFL players, including Reggie Bush, Alex Smith, Terrell Suggs, Ricky Williams, DeSean Jackson and Arian Foster.

But as he once told me: "Are we trying to end up with NFL players? Definitely not. We're just trying to produce good kids who do their homework, respect their parents, respect their teachers, work hard... and are excited by sports."

Over the years, those indelible lessons were shared by thousands and thousands of kids in his camps — boys and later girls — who later became part of the daily fabric of life as parents, teachers and providers themselves.

Bayless said he's been reminded of the camp's wide reach in numerous, out-of-the blue encounters over the years:

"When I was working for the NFLPA (players' union), I checked in at the Westin Hotel in Phoenix one time and the general manager said, 'Wow, I went to your camp here in Arizona."

Another time he said he walked into a Bank of America branch in Phoenix to pay on his car note and the person who took his check said: "I went to your camp in San Diego. Are you going to do another camp for kids here?"

He said that made him think: "We have kids in Corporate America now and they could come back and share stories of more than just football. Real life stuff.

"And young kids need to hear those stories. They come in and they all think, 'I'm going to play football at Ohio State or Michigan or I'm going to get drafted.' And that's not often the case. Probably only 1 to 1 1/2 percent of them do that.

"But they all go on to real life stuff: getting jobs, going to work every day. And that's why I want to keep the doors open and keep doing things that help the community."

That's why he's planning to restart his Dayton camp. His last one — after 27 years straight — was in 2014 when he stopped to avoid any conflicts with his NFLPA job.

With his return to coaching, those concerns dissolved and he's even run camps for other players the past few years.

Last year, when Bayless worked with the Jacksonville Jaguars through the Bill Walsh Diversity Fellowship Program, he said three of the team's players — including Aaron Patrick, who had played at Dayton's Meadowdale High and Eastern Kentucky — all came up to him in training camp and basically said: "I was in one of your camps! You remember me?'"

That escalated Bayless's desire to restart here in Dayton where it all began.

Back in its heyday — through the Martin Bayless Charitable Foundation he launched after internships with the Dayton Foundation and a partnership with Montgomery County's Parent and Child Enrichment Program (PACE) — his camp awarded scholarships and handed out donated football equipment to area high school programs.

Bayless had planned a debut this summer with what he described as "a big family reunion of all the kids who came through the program and everybody who took part and made the camps what they were over the years. Bringing everybody together would really tell the history of what we accomplished and what we could do in the future."

He said several months ago he'd also talked to BGSU head coach Scot Loeffler about joining the Falcons staff this fall:

"He asked me why I'd ever consider coming back after being in the pros and I said, 'You don't realize it, but my whole life started here. Bowling Green was great to me.'

"I joined the team as a walk on. I had nothing but a couple of tee shirts and some shorts. But I was a scrappy dude who just wanted to play football. And I left with a career, a wife and now I have a great family."

But last January he was hired to coach the Stars — one of eight teams in the new reiteration of the USFL, which had played three seasons in the mid-1980s — and that involvement, especially with the team's advancement into the title game, put his summer and fall plans on hold he said:

"Usually we'd have our Dayton camp in late June, but that wasn't possible this year so I plan on doing it next year. It's important for me to come back.

"I'm not finished in Dayton. There's still a lot of work to do there.

"There are a lot of kids in Dayton who need help."

Football replaces basketball

One of Charles and Stella Bayless' seven children, Martin grew up on Ernroe Drive off Gettsyburg in West Dayton.

His dad worked 44 years at General Motors and nearly 20 years at the University of Dayton. His mom took the graveyard shift as a taxi dispatcher.

Coming out of Belmont High in 1980, Martin considered himself a basketball player first and landed a partial hoops scholarship to Bowling Green. But when he began taking classes there in the summer, basketball sessions hadn't yet begun and he quickly became disenchanted.

"I wasn't having a great time and I questioned myself if I wanted to even stay there," he said. "I remember getting on that payphone, putting the quarters in and calling my dad.

"And he said a few key words that resonated with me:

"'Keep your (butt) there!'"

Told where to stay, the young Bayless also found a new place to go. His Belmont teammate, Tony Graham, was playing football for the Falcons, so he showed up as a walk-on.

By the season's second game, he was a starter. He won All Mid-American Conference honors three years in a row and his 27 career interceptions remain No. 2 all-time among NCAA Division I players.

In his NFL career he played 192 games for St. Louis, Buffalo, San Diego, Washington and Kansas City — where he twice made it to the AFC Championship game.

His off-the-field career began in 2000 as the Buffalo Bills Director of Player Development and over the years — through assistant jobs or as part of minority internship programs in the NFL — he was with Carolina, Oakland, Houston, Minnesota, Denver, Arizona and Indianapolis.

Twice teams he coached made it to the Super Bowl: Carolina in 2004 and Denver eight years later.

Before his dad died in 1994, Bayless took him to some Super Bowl and Pro Bowl games, His late mother sometimes went, too.

"My whole career I played for them and wanted them to be proud of me," he said. "As a young man, I followed their instructions and tried to do the right things and stay out of trouble."

That had special significance with him since his older brother, Michael, had been in and out of prison until, at just 31, he was shot and killed along Infirmary Road in 1982.

On the flip side, younger brother Gerald was a standout tight end at Bowling Green and played in the NFL for Cleveland and Buffalo. He now lives in Dayton, as does Martin's sister, Judy.

Many of the people in Bayless' family — including his parents — worked with the Dayton football camps and the lessons honed there carried over to his camps across the country.

Three times — twice as the San Diego Chargers representative and once with Kansas City — his efforts got him nominated for the NFL's prestigious Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.

Besides the NFL, he said: "I've been involved in every developmental league in football."

He coached two season in NFL Europe — first Barcelona, then Amsterdam — and a few years later joined the United Football League, where for 3 1/2 seasons (until the league folded), he was on the staff of legendary NFL coach Dennis Green, who back in 1973 had been the Dayton Flyers' running backs coach.

Later, after his stint with the NFLPA, Bayless was an assistant in the AAF (Alliance of American Football) and then the XFL. The past two season's he's also coached at NCAA Division III Brevard College in North Carolina.

At every stop he said he's drawn on the values he learned growing up here:

"And now, even though my own kids grew up in a different era, those core values are still important to our family," he said.

As a result, he noted, all six of his children played college sports and graduated.

"I couldn't be a luckier person," Bayless said. "God has given me a great life."

Leaving an impact

When he was an assistant defensive backs coach with the Houston Texans in 2007, he said he was in his office one day when the team's publicity man brought a comedian back to see him.

"He was in town for a big comedy show," Bayless said. "He'd grown up in Dayton and as soon as he walked in, he goes 'Martin Bayless! Man, I went to your camp in Dayton!'

"'I was as a skinny white kid and y'all put me in with the linebackers. I was with Reggie White and Seth Joyner and they were over there just killin' me!'"

The comic laughed at the old memory and told him he'd learned some good lessons that day.

When he hears stories like that, the 59-year-old Bayless — who lives in San Diego and Phoenix — said he realizes he's "a vessel" who passes on the things he learned from his parents and a lifetime in football:

"I'm trying to make the next neighborhood, the next city, the next generation better than it was before. And I want to make sure I put my fingerprint on Dayton.

"I know it's a place our camp still can help. We're hoping to open some academies there and have some educational opportunities, too. We have to get back there."

And that brings a change to those few key words.

Instead of "Keep your (butt) there!"

It's now "C'mon home!"