By Paul Knepper
Curtis Martin is one of 15 finalists on the ballot for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and should be among those selected this Saturday for induction. As his long time coach Bill Parcells said on Monday, “Running back is a production position, and his production is indisputable.”
Martin’s 14,101 career rushing yards rank fourth all-time behind Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders. He scored 100 touchdowns and joined Sanders as the only players to rush for 1,000 yards in each of their first ten seasons. However, it would be insufficient to reduce Curtis Martin to statistics.
Martin mastered every aspect of the running back position. He wasn’t the fastest or strongest ball carrier, though he had great vision and patience, always knowing when and where to hit the hole. He ran hard, was shifty in traffic and elusive enough to avoid the big hits.
The former University of Pittsburgh star’s great hands aren’t reflected in his receiving numbers because he typically stayed in to block on passing downs. Number 28 picked up the blitz as well as any running back I’ve ever seen. It didn’t matter if it was Ty Law coming around the corner or Greg Lloyd bursting through the middle, Curtis stood him up.
Any coach will tell you that the number one priority for a running back is to protect the football and Martin did that better than anybody. He has the unofficial record for least fumbles per carry in NFL history and once went 408 touches without coughing it up, followed by another streak of 865 possessions without fumbling. He even retired with a perfect passer rating, connecting for touchdowns to Wayne Chrebet on both passing attempts of his career.
Years ago Parcells told a story about the running back’s rookie season in New England (1995). In the Patriots first pre-season game “The Tuna” wanted to see what his third round draft pick was made of so he called seven consecutive running plays for the kid. After the seventh Parcells called the rookie to the sidelines. Martin had blood and snot smeared across his face and was gasping for air, but when Parcells asked him if he was tired he shook his head no. The coach knew then he was a gamer.
Martin was named Offensive Rookie of the Year that season and after two more years with the Pats reunited with Parcells when he signed with the Jets as a free agent. This past Monday his former coach shared another great story. During a Jets victory over the Dolphins at the Meadowlands:
“[Martin] hits his head on the back of the turf really hard,” Parcells said. “He’s just laying there 4-5 feet from my feet. And this stream of blood just starts running out of his nose, both nostrils. It runs down onto his lips as he is laying there. He just gets up, he just stares at me as he is walking back to the huddle, blood running down his face. Mentally very strong.”
Martin earned the respect of teammates and opponents by providing that type of effort during every practice and game of his eleven year career. He missed just four games during his first ten seasons, playing in 119 straight at one point, a remarkable feat at a position which receives so much punishment. He suited up with torn muscles, badly sprained ankles and for several games during his final season a serious knee injury which ended his career.
It was his ability to sustain his effort and production over a long period of time which made him great. Running backs are lucky to have six or seven prime seasons before the constant pounding slows them down. Martin won the rushing title in his tenth season, the oldest player ever to do so, at the age of 31.
In a football era of narcissistic personalities and off-the-field turmoil, Martin simply handed the ball to the referee after scoring touchdowns and made a point of picking up all the dirty towels in the locker room once a week in order to remain humble. Can you imagine another star athlete doing that?
Number 28 never crooned for the cameras either. He was the fourth leading rusher of all-time, playing in the biggest market in the country, and received relatively little national acclaim. His New York counterpart Tiki Barber was a much bigger star even though he fumbled more times in a game than Martin did all season.
The Jets running back was worthy of admiration away from the field as well. He said on several occasions that he views football as a platform which enables him to help others. That wasn’t just talk. He put aside 12% of every football paycheck for charity and founded the Curtis Martin Job Foundation.
Now he works with single mothers, an organization that sends doctors to third-world countries to perform operations, and helps fight homelessness in New York City. There’s a well known story about the time he sat in Times Square in freezing weather for three hours until he convinced a homeless man to accept a temporary residence.
Last summer, Martin was inducted into the Jets Ring of Honor. More telling than the accolade was the site of the typically cantankerous Parcells tearing up as he introduced his former running back. Martin took the mic and at the end of his speech said, “New York, you’ve been good to me and I hope I’ve been as good to you as you’ve been to me. I hope I’ve been a good role model for your children.” You certainly have Curtis.