NFL player turned Seminole firefighter talks water safety after Bucs player’s daughter drowns

Chris Martin went from footballer to firefighter after his son drowned in 2016

SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. – For Chris Martin, being a firefighter is not just a job, it’s a calling. The former New England Patriot and University of Central Florida football player started working in Seminole County as a first responder after his family experienced a personal tragedy, the drowning death of his 2-year-old son.

Martin spoke with News 6 reporter Catherine Silver Monday following a weekend tragedy during which Tampa Bay Buccaneer linebacker Shaquil Barrett lost his daughter, Arrayah. Authorities said she drowned in the family’s swimming pool Sunday.

“We’re obviously devastated to hear things like that,” Martin said. “It breaks our heart, you know, it’s a pain we never want anyone to experience.”

Martin’s own son, Gunner, drowned in April 2016.

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“We had the unfortunate experience of coming out of the bedroom thinking he was asleep, and we learned quickly that he wasn’t,” Martin said. “We had a sliding glass door, and our first thought was to go check the pool.”

Four months later, Martin and his wife started the Gunner Martin Foundation with a mission of making a difference for other parents, and in 2022, Martin joined the Seminole County Fire Department.

“It was such an inspiration for me that I wanted to be that for other people as well in a way I could feel like I could help the community,” Martin said.

Data from the Florida Department of Children and Families shows 93 drowning deaths in 2022. Martin said it only takes a moment for someone’s life to change.

“Thirty seconds they say it can happen to a kid,” Martin said. “That’s going out to your car, picking up groceries. That’s putting something away in your house. That’s going and grabbing your laundry. It’s so fast and so quiet, and that’s what makes this really scary.”

A former New England Patriot and University of Central Florida football player is the newest member of the Seminole County Fire Department.

Through Martin’s work as a firefighter and his family’s foundation, he and his wife work to provide education and awareness when it comes to water safety. Martin said having layered protections in place are key, including pool fences, knowledge of CPR and swim lessons.

“I do think there are certain barriers we can put in place to minimize the risk, and you know, as a parent that’s what we want,” Martin said.

Heidi Burnett has more than two decades’ experience teaching swim instruction in Central Florida. She said her school, swimsprout, has already received calls from parents who want to take action after the tragedy in Tampa.

“Now they feel this sense of urgency and unfortunately when they start to call us now, it’s a little too late because we can’t get them in for 6 to 8 weeks,” Burnett said.

Burnett is passionate about giving parents peace of mind having their kids around the water. She said teaching lifesaving skills is important for all ages, even infants.

“When a child is crawling, they ‘re moving and they’re mobile, they should learn to at least roll on their back and float,” Burnett said.

For Martin, those educational tools are important, along with breaking the stereotypes associated with drownings.

“With it being a football player too, somebody you would assume probably has it all in place, every preventative measure in place, but you know accidents happen, can still happen,” he said.

Martin said it’s a reminder of his mission to make a difference after his son’s death.

“I’m proud to be on this side of it, and I never want to have to experience, you know, saving a baby, but if I ever had the opportunity I would do my best to try,” Martin said.

Martin’s foundation helps parents pay for local swim lessons, offering scholarships to cover up to 95% off.

Seminole County is also doing its part to give the community access to the resources that are needed. They plan to give out pool alarms for free at several library locations this month.

You can read more water safety tips from the Florida Department of Health in Seminole County by clicking here.

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About the Author:

Catherine, born and raised in Central Florida, joined News 6 in April 2022.