Hall of Fame Week: Curtis Martin
In most cases, passion is a prerequisite for a career in professional football. The physical nature of the NFL attracts athletes who possess equal parts talent and love of the game.
Ronnie Lott once elected to surgically remove the tip of pinky finger rather than potentially miss a game. Jack Youngblood played in Super Bowl XIV against the Steelers with a broken leg.
The vast majority of NFL stars who are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame relish those stories and can relate to them. Curtis Martin is one of the exceptions to the rule.
Martin did not have a love affair with the game, but he did develop a dedication to his craft throughout a spectacular, 11-year career that landed him alongside Lott and Youngblood in the Hall of Fame.
Martin will be enshrined Saturday in Canton, Ohio, a two-hour drive from his native city but a far-off place he never once thought of entering when he was growing up in Homewood.
"This was never a dream," Martin said last week. "Football was never a dream. I played football to stay out of trouble and to stay alive."
Martin came upon the game later than most. He played his first season as a senior at Allderdice High School because his mother, Rochella, wanted him to escape the gang life that dominated city neighborhoods in the early 1990s. Martin's grandmother and several friends were murdered during a particularly violent time in the city's history.
Martin reluctantly agreed to play. Despite his less than enthusiastic approach, he was named City League player of the year and parlayed that into a scholarship to Pitt. Twenty-two years later, he looks back on that set of circumstances with awe.
Martin said his life would have been much different had he not signed on for that 1990 football season with Allderdice.
"Part of me questions whether I would even be living," he said. "I definitely don't think I would have the happy ending that I'm headed toward. I was never a fan of the game. I never played football because I loved it. I used football as a vehicle to do what I really loved -- touching people's lives."
The all-time ironman among NFL running backs is Walter Payton, who started 208 consecutive games in his Hall of Fame career with the Chicago Bears. When it comes to durability among running backs, Martin isn't far behind.
Martin's ability to suit up consistently over his career is perhaps the main reason he is recognized as one of the all-time greats. He once started 119 consecutive games, a streak that might be just as impressive as the 14,101 rushing yards he compiled.
Martin finished his career fourth on the all-time rushing list, two spots behind Payton. Like Payton, Martin was small in stature, but exhibited a running style that defied it. He made his living getting the tough yards between the tackles.
The constant pounding, while taking a heavy toll on his body, rarely prevented him from playing. In 11 NFL seasons with the New England Patriots and New York Jets, Martin missed eight games because of injury.
"To be a great player you have to be coachable and you have to be available," said former Jets coach Herm Edwards, who coached Martin from 2001-05. "To be that durable for so many years says a lot about him. He played when he was hurt. There were a lot of weeks when he couldn't practice until Friday. I'd look at him, and he'd say, 'Coach, I'm going to go.' You want to talk about a high pain tolerance? He had that."
The most ironic aspect of Martin's career is that he fell to the third round of the 1995 NFL draft because there were questions about his commitment and durability while at Pitt. He missed three games with a turf toe injury as a freshman, two more as a sophomore with ankle and Achilles injuries, and one as a junior with a shoulder ailment.
In his senior season in 1994, Martin got off to a great start with a 251-yard rushing performance in the opener against Texas, but an ankle injury forced him to miss the rest of that season. Rather than apply for a medical redshirt, he put his name in for the draft.
All 28 NFL teams passed on Martin twice until the Patriots took him in the third round.
"He had an unusual college career," said Johnny Majors, who coached Martin in 1993 and '94, his final two seasons at Pitt. "When he played, he was truly outstanding. I never had any problems with Curtis. He was very conscientious about practice and he had great ability, but it was just an unusual career."
Majors attempted to coax Martin into coming back for another season by applying for the redshirt. He was not the only one who thought Martin would benefit from another year in college. Majors said he spoke to many NFL scouts who felt the same way.
"We were all wrong," Majors said.
Martin sheepishly looks back on his time at Pitt. He said one of the biggest misconceptions about his time in college was that he was injury-prone. Rather, he said he went through his four years with the Panthers lacking focus and direction.
"When I was in college, I didn't care much about football," he said. "Part of me feels like I cheated my teammates and the school. I just didn't put in the effort until I got to the NFL."
Majors said he has no hard feelings toward Martin and his decision to turn pro. He said he has spoken to Martin only once since Martin left Pitt, when Martin came back for a pregame ceremony at Heinz Field. But Majors still regards Martin as a special player in a long and distinguished coaching career. He is one of only three players Majors coached who are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Tony Dorsett and Reggie White are the others.
"He was unique," Majors said. "I don't know if I've ever seen a running back with stronger legs or the explosiveness he had to surge a pile. I remember one game against West Virginia when he ran into a pile of about three or four players, and he just exploded out of that pile for another 4 or 5 yards. He had great strength and power and great running ability. He showed that ability in college, but he really showed it in his pro career."
Martin's presenter Saturday will be Bill Parcells, a man he credits for bringing out the best in him. In his rookie training camp with the Patriots, Martin had a fumbling problem, so the coach famous for being hard on his players ordered him to carry a football around with him wherever he went. His teammates were instructed to try to knock the ball loose whenever they saw him.
Martin became one of the most sure-handed backs in the game, and he was an instant star with the Patriots. His first NFL carry was for 30 yards against the Cleveland Browns. He rushed for 102 yards in that debut game, the first of eight 100-yard rushing games in his rookie season. He finished the year as the AFC's leading rusher with 1,487 yards and scored 14 touchdowns.
Martin's career continued upward the following season. The Patriots beat the Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars en route to winning the AFC championship. In Super Bowl XXXI, he was the starting tailback and scored a touchdown in a 35-21 loss against the Green Bay Packers.
"Bill Parcells not only had an impact on my career, but he had a huge impact on my life," Martin said. "He not only taught me how to be a running back, he taught me how to be a professional. He was the first male that I looked up to."
Parcells declined to be interviewed. He said he's saving all of his words on Martin for the induction ceremony.
Parcells left the Patriots to coach the New York Jets in 1997. Martin followed him to New York, signing with the Jets as a free agent in '98. He continued to pile up impressive statistics with the Jets until his retirement in '05, but never made it back to a Super Bowl.
The Jets came close in Martin's first season in New York, but they lost to Denver in the AFC championship game. They would come close again six years later when they pushed the Steelers to overtime in an AFC divisional playoff game at Heinz Field.
Edwards coached Martin that season when he led the league in rushing at age 30 with 1,697 yards. It was his lone NFL rushing title.
"If you look over his career, he didn't have 10 runs over 50 yards," Edwards said. "He's a guy who ran between the tackles. He's the guy who would get you 10, 15 yards at a time. He wasn't the SportsCenter guy. But you'd look at the stats after the game. He'd have 25 carries for 120 yards and two touchdowns. There was nothing that would make you say, 'Wow,' but he was just a great runner."
Martin remains understated in retirement.
On owning the fourth-most rushing yards in NFL history, he said: "I definitely don't think I'm the fourth-best running back of all time."
Martin, however, is grateful and appreciative that he is being recognized as a Hall of Famer. He said one of his biggest accomplishments is recording 10 consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, a nod to the professionalism and his approach to the game learned at the feet of Parcells.
The only other running back in NFL history to begin his career with 10 consecutive 1,000-yard seasons is fellow Hall of Famer Barry Sanders.
"I realize how hard that is to do," Martin said. "A lot of pain, perseverance and dedication went into that. It definitely wasn't because I was so talented."
As for Martin's fondest memory, that came at the expense of his hometown Steelers. The Patriots beat the Steelers, 28-3, in an AFC divisional-round game after the '96 season, and Martin played a starring role. He had 166 yards rushing and three touchdowns, including a 78-yarder.
"It was because I grew up in Pittsburgh and the Steelers were gods when I was growing up," he said. "We played them in New England, and I had the game of my life. That's the one game that stands out to me more than any other."
Name: Curtis James Martin Jr.
Born: May 1, 1973, in Pittsburgh.
Position: Running back.
Draft: 3rd round, 1995.
NFL Career: 1995-2005.
All-Pro: 1 year first team, 2004.
Pro Bowls: 5.
First Published July 31, 2012 12:00 am