To friends, soft-spoken Martin man of character

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At a podium in the Eiseman-Prussin room of old Pitt Stadium, Curtis Martin fidgeted and didn't look up much when he announced at a news conference that he was turning pro rather than returning for a final season with the Panthers in 1995.

He wasn't wavering about his decision. It's just that Martin has always treated the spotlight like it was a linebacker closing in, and words like they came with a limited lifetime supply.

"He was very quiet and very serious," former Pitt coach Johnny Majors recalled. "He didn't laugh a lot, but he was pleasant."

It will probably be the same when Martin makes his Pro Football Hall of Fame acceptance speech -- after a career at running back in which he became the fourth-leading rusher in the NFL before formally retiring last week because of a knee injury, his selection and trip to Canton, Ohio, would seem to be almost certain.

"He has tremendous character," said longtime friend and former Allderdice High School coach Mark Wittgartner, who convinced Martin to play his only season of high school football as a senior in 1990.

"If you meet him as a man, when he leaves you, your life from that point on will be better, for however he's influenced your life. He is that unforgettable. His words are so well chosen and so kind and full of humanity, you'll remember meeting him for the rest of your life."

Wittgartner has seen many instances of Martin's generous nature, but he won't elaborate because he doesn't think Martin would want that.

"Let's just say as much as he's accomplished on the field, that pales in comparison to the character and warmth and love and overall humanity that he has about him," Wittgartner said.

Martin, 34, who next hopes to become an NFL franchise owner, was not available for an interview.

Those on the periphery during Martin's days as a boy and young man living in Pittsburgh easily could have described him as difficult to read and maybe even a bit odd because he was almost too genuine to believe.

Believe it, said Tom Tumulty.

He knew Martin from their youth football days, and they were in the same Pitt recruiting class when Paul Hackett was the Panthers' coach.

"I think he was pretty shy and very, very honest," said Tumulty, a linebacker who spent four seasons with Cincinnati in the NFL and now is chief financial officer of Stone and Company, a construction outfit with several locations in southwestern Pennsylvania.

"He had a great relationship with God. He loved music and was a big hip-hop guy. He dressed perfect. He spoke well when he spoke, but he would rather get spoken to than speak. He worked hard, did his thing and wasn't rude."

At Pitt, Martin organized Bible study groups among teammates.

"Curt was talking about that sort of thing -- religion and living right, and living it every day -- before it was popular," Tumulty said. "You see those huddles [of athletes praying], and I was in the huddles, but Curt lived it every day in college.

"You can imagine what some people did on Friday and Saturday nights in the offseason, but Curt stayed focused."

Focused on things he considered more important than football, although football became his livelihood.

Martin was pushed into football by a mother who wanted him off the streets of Wilkinsburg, Homewood and Duquesne, and by Wittgartner. Then it was the game that pulled him in, after he rushed for 1,705 yards and was the City League Player of the Year in that lone season at Allderdice.

As a junior at Pitt in 1993, with Majors then his coach, Martin rushed for 1,075 yards and was named to the All-Big East first team. But after a 251-yard performance in the Panthers' season-opening, 30-28 loss to Texas in '94, Martin's season ended in the second game against Ohio because of a high ankle sprain.

"I don't think I realized until I saw him play how good he was," Majors said.

"He would hit up in there when tacklers were around him and two or three people were hanging on him and at times just explode out of there. I've never seen a back that would do that any better, college or pros. He had some of the strongest piston power, I call it. He had extremely strong legs and thighs and the greatest knack to explode out of a pile where you thought he just disappeared."

By nearly all accounts -- his judgment being a major exception -- Martin should have taken a medical redshirt and played one more season at Pitt.

"I talked to some pro scouts and respected friends who knew the pro business," Majors said. "To a man, they wanted to see more of him and assess him more. I tried to encourage him to stay."

Those who advised Majors got to see a lot more of Martin, but it was in the NFL and never again in college.

He rushed for 14,101 yards and 101 touchdowns as a pro, first with New England after being a Patriots' third-round draft pick in 1995, and then with the New York Jets before he missed most of 2005 and all of last season because of a knee injury and surgery that left him with no cartilage.

Martin might have been drafted higher if he had had one more big season at Pitt, but he could hardly have had a much better NFL career.

"It looks like he made the right decision and we were wrong," Majors said.

Not that Martin would be one to gloat about that.

"That should be his headline -- 'This is how you do it.' He should be the model for every kid in America," Wittgartner said.


Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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