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Curtis Martin: Hall Of Famer as a player and man

By Glenn Bernardi
Jets Insider.com Contributing Writer
November 3rd, 2006
Jets RB Curtis Martin is a rare breed you hardly ever see in the NFL anymore. (Jets Insider.com Photo)
Jets RB Curtis Martin is a rare breed you hardly ever see in the NFL anymore. (Jets Insider.com Photo)
If this is the end for Curtis Martin the player, which certainly appears to be the case, the National Football League has lost its greatest ambassador. In an era of narcissism and declining values, out walks one of the last of a dying breed.

Strangely I found myself fighting back tears as Curtis held his press conference, as if my soul was in mourning, because I knew, instinctively, that a truly unique and special individual was leaving the stage and we may not see his kind again. I felt as if Curtis Martin was not only leaving, but taking something with him, something precious, an era that once was and will never be again, defined by class and virtue and all that entails.

I have often referred to Curtis Martin as a walking anachronism, someone from another time and place, a reminder to us all of how it used to be and may never be again. Someone who represents all that is good and pure about humanity and sports.

Simply put, he's better than the rest of us and we know it, don't we? How could we not?

How could we ever look at the mirror that is Curtis Martin, the conscience of the NFL, and not know there is a higher state of humanity we can all strive to attain, as I'm sure many of us do, but it just seems so darn elusive, much like Curtis Martin the running-back. Yet Curtis caught it, it didn't elude him, he secured it and he never let it go.

Curtis Martin: The Player

Was he greatest running-back who ever lived?

No he was not, but he got as much out of his God-Given ability as any player who ever lived, and more than most. Perhaps a few players may have matched his work ethic, past and present, but I don't believe there has ever been a player who worked any harder than Curtis Martin when nobody was watching.

Therein lays the secret of his greatness as a player in my view, captured in those four words .. when nobody was watching.

Oh we've all heard tales of his running hills and stadium steps during the off-season, much like the late/great Walter Payton before him, so we have some idea of the extent to which this man would drive his body when nobody was watching, how he would often test the absolute limits of human endurance, but I don't know if we have ever fully appreciated all that entails. I suppose we'll never know, because Curtis Martin {the man} is just too humble to ever share the full extent of his sacrifices.

Would you like to know what I imagine it to have been?

I think of a scene from Rocky, when its pitch black outside and the rest of his neighbors remain fast asleep, but Rocky has awakened to the sound of his radio alarm clock, drinks something most of us wouldn't feed to a dog, because it's natural and it just might make him stronger, or so he believes, and then he is off and running, into a cold, dark, dreary, and unforgiving winter with not another living soul in sight.

Why would he do this?

Because he knows that greatness comes at a price, he figured it out, and that's the price he's willing to pay. He knows that every player wants to be great, but few are willing to pay the price, and he's determined to be one of the few.

He won't cry about it, he won't look for sympathy, he won't announce his commitment to the world, it's just a bargain he made with himself and he's willing to pay that price. He might give us an occasional peek, but he'll never tell us the whole story because he's just not built that way. That is, unless it's designed to inspire others, at which point he might share his experience in greater detail, but only to inspire others .. because he is built that way.

In the movies that's how a club-fighter goes 15 Rounds with the Heavyweight Champion of the World, and in real life that's how a 3rd Round Pick who was never the biggest, fastest or strongest amongst his peers becomes the NFL's 4th All-Time leading rusher and a hall of fame lock.

Curtis Martin: The Man

I think it's impossible to separate Curtis Martin the football player from Curtis Martin the man. I don't believe you can ever fully appreciate this player until you understand the essence of this man, fore it is the man, and not the talent, that drove this player to such great heights.

Curtis Martin, in my view, is both the quintessential American and the quintessential man of faith, and his very existence serves as an inspiration to mankind.

As a young boy Curtis Martin found his beloved Grandmother dead in her own apartment, the victim of a violent homicide. As a teenager he was surrounded by gangs and his mother feared for his own safety or that he himself would fall prey to the streets and amount to nothing. As he started to run with the wrong crowd her fears grew worse, so she encouraged him to play High School Football and try to find some purpose for his life.

Perhaps she hoped this might give him some direction in life, a new direction if you will, as only a mother can in her ultimate wisdom, and of course, as we now know, she was exactly right.

So somehow this young man, surrounded by violence and on the cusp surrendering to the only life he had ever known, found a vehicle for escape ... and he ran with it, all the way to the University of Pittsburgh, and I can only imagine how proud his mother must have been to see her son in college, playing college football in the same town that nearly devoured him.

But his mother had other ideas, and now it was coming to fruition. Now her son was becoming someone important, someone to be admired, a star running-back on the college gridiron who was no doubt fast becoming something of a celebrity in his hometown of Pittsburgh, and this is where our story takes another turn for the better, fore this is where Curtis seems to discover the trappings of fame without faith in something greater than himself.

Fame, I would imagine, can be intoxicating. It must be exhilarating to have complete strangers admiring you because you can play a game and play it well, constantly telling you how great you are, when it really has little to do with who and what you are as a human-being. Most mere mortals, I am sure, would simply cultivate the image and enjoy the rewards, but Curtis Martin, as we now know, is not ordinary.

Just as he would later figure out that work ethic matters, that it can take him to the height his God-Given ability will allow, this is where Curtis discovers that the image fame constructs is an illusion, the trappings of fame are many, and he wishes to rise above it all.

Not content to be a competent fraud, and from what I know of Curtis Martin having observed him over the years, perhaps miserable in the knowledge that the praise he would receive was so undeserving, this is where he sets out to make himself worthy of admiration, if for no other reason, so he himself can rest comfortable in the knowledge that it is not a sham.

As is often the case when human-beings meet the crossroad of such honest introspection, this is where Curtis discovers his faith in God. Or perhaps it was always there, only he knows for sure, but this is where he leans on his faith like never before, determined to learn more about himself and his God, and ultimately, determined to be a better man.

What he discovered, only he can say, but I wish it could be bottled and sold because the finished product, in my view, is the closest thing I have seen to a saint in professional sports.

Oh I know Curtis is human, I seek not to deify him, he is as prone to mistakes as the next man and I'm sure he would be the first to say he's not perfect, but if there has ever been a better man in the NFL, one who is more worthy of our admiration, I sure haven't seen him, and if there was a time when the Curtis Martin's were the rule and not the exception, when he would not have been an anachronism, I know they are growing increasingly extinct today .. and we're all poorer for it. As a Jet fan, as a football fan, I am honored to have witnessed Curtis Martin's hall of fame career, as I wish him great success in his life outside of football.

Curtis Martin: In Conclusion

If this is indeed the end of his playing days, which appears to be the case, I can only say that Curtis Martin has done the NFL and his country a great service, fore he has fulfilled his calling as a football player, getting every last ounce out of his God-Given ability, but more importantly as a role model and an inspiration to us all, especially children. He has truly given them something to strive for as human-beings and has shown them anything is possible, that through hard work and perseverance you can reach for the stars and succeed, while through faith and humility you can be a better person.

While I am sad this day has come, because a great man has left the NFL stage, and perhaps at a time when sports can least afford to lose such a humble and admirable role model, when there are so few, if any, who seem eager to follow his example, I pray that Curtis can leave with his health in-tact, that his knee will heal in due time, and that he can lead a pain-free life to whatever extent that is possible.

As for the life he has led thus far, as both a football player and a man, I would imagine God must be pleased with his good and faithful servant. He overcame hardship. He overcame his surroundings. He overcame the trappings of fame and fortune. He honored the memory of his Grandmother, made his mother proud, and overcame it all as he took what the Good Lord gave him and parlayed that into a hall of fame career, and always with a sense of humility.

That's why Curtis Martin, the anachronism, is someone I love and admire, with or without a football in his hands.

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