SPQ Exclusive Interview: Curtis Martin, Taking the High Road to the Hall by Malik Vincent

By Malik Vincent for SPQ

Measuring the glitz, glamour, or glory of a successful NFL career against its rigors or pain could be one of the hardest things that a highly-touted pro prospect may have to do coming out of college.

Fortune, fame, and friends — sometimes of a tainted variety– are all things to consider.

One could grow curious and wonder if fortitude could play a role?

Just ask five-time, all-pro running back Curtis Martin how he feels about it. As a matter of fact, it’s some people’s opinion that he built a career around it.

“You’ve got to have great character in order to be a hall of fame caliber running back,” Sal Sunseri said, who recruited Martin to play for the University of Pittsburgh. “Nobody worked harder, to me, than Curtis on getting his mental together so that he could be prepared enough to get all the yards that he got in the NFL.”

That idea was on-display when Martin stepped to the podium at his enshrinement ceremony into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio on a sun-laden August afternoon.

Martin boasted his trademark gold blazer that bears the Pro football Hall of Fame seal to the side of its left lapel; over top of a matching gold vest, a white shirt and a black tie– a dapper ensemble.

The mild-mannered 39-year-old, who has aspirations of one day owning an NFL franchise, greeted his greatest football and life mentor, Bill Parcells– the man who drafted him– with a joy-filled embrace.

At that point, both men were smiling from ear-to-ear.

Once they met at center stage, Parcells and Martin made solid eye contact and paused. Together, they removed a blue cloth that covered the bronze bust of Martin’s silhouette– a custom that is dedicated to every enshrinee that enters the hall.

It was then time to deliver his speech. But he needed no prompter. He didn’t have any notes. There was nothing in sight that aided with his emotion-filled words.

And all he bore were the depths of his soul.

“I didn’t even think that I would play the game of football past a certain point,” Martin said with humility. “I’ve never really considered myself a real fan of the game or anything like that. I’m so grateful to have made it to this point, as a result of that. I surely never thought that I would have made it.”

As it stands, Martin gained the fourth-most rushing yards in the history of the National Football League (14,101) over an 11-year career that he spent with the New England Patriots and the New York Jets.

Only Emmitt Smith (18,355), the late great Walter Payton (16,726), and Barry Sanders (15,269) stand ahead of Martin in the record books.

That journey began for him as a youngster growing up in the streets of Pittsburgh during the wake of what most consider ‘the gang era’ of the mid-to-late 80s through the mid-1990s.

Certainly, Martin has confessed to experiencing some of its abominable moments.

Like the tragic murder of his grandmother, Eleanor Johnson, that took place when Martin was nine. An invasion of their family home that led to what might have driven him to all of his accomplishments on the field.

“I remember the day when we were in court and they brought forth the guys who killed my grandmother,” he said. “I remember what they said. She was following them around the house begging them not to kill her. They told her that they had to kill her and to just ‘leave them alone’.”

He said that it was a struggle for him to stay out of the streets and that football was his outlet.

“I gave (Curtis) a deadline,” his mother Rochella Martin said. “He needed to be involved in some sort of extra-curricular activity. I didn’t really care what that was, but usually when I talked to him like that, he knew that I was serious and that he needed to do what I asked.”

“Had I not played in the twelfth grade, I’d have probably ended up in jail or dead,” Martin said.

Amazingly, in one year of high school football, he amassed over 1,700 yards and 20 touchdowns at Taylor Allderdice High School.

“I had my pick of where I wanted to go for college,” he mentioned. “I could have gone anywhere in the country. But, I found it to be my best bet to stay close to home and attend the University of Pittsburgh.”

Unsure that he even wanted to pursue college football, Martin began his career with the Panthers in the 1991-92 season.

“One thing that made him truly special was his toughness,” Sunseri, who is currently a defensive line coach at Florida State University, said. “He never let anything get him to a point where he would just lay down and let things affect him. That is what separated him from being just ‘talented’ and being the hall of famer that he is today.”

Injuries overshadowed some of Martin’s greatest accomplishments at Pitt, including an ankle sprain that shut him down for his entire senior season in 1994 after opening it with a 251-yard performance against Texas. He was a first-team All-Big East selection after his junior season in which he rushed for 1,075 yards.

Many believe that if Martin would have remained healthy, being drafted in the first round of the NFL draft might have been a great possibility.

Instead, he was chosen with the 75th overall selection in the third round by the New England Patriots.

His most memorable experience with the team that drafted him was when they claimed the AFC Championship and participated in Super Bowl XXXI against the Green Bay Packers at the Superdome in New Orleans.

“I hadn’t been a part of something so great in my life up to that point,” Martin said. I had never seen 53 men more on one page in my life. It was a tremendous experience knowing that I was surrounded by the best football players in the world on that type of stage.”

They dropped the contest, 35-21, behind one of the best special teams performances in Super Bowl history by former Packers kick returner Desmond Howard, who was later named the MVP of Super Bowl XXXI.

Martin is one of three people that participated in that game who are currently enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The other two is the late former Packers defensive end Reggie White– who had a record three sacks in the game– and coach Parcells.

“Throughout my life and in the game of football, I had never had a mentor like coach Parcells,” Martin said. “He has been so instrumental to, not only me on the field, but Curtis Martin as a man.”

A man of great religious faith, Martin donates a good amount of his time and a lot of money to his church and the New York City community.

His faith is something that said he found while he was at Pitt, citing that he knew no other way to communicate with God, other than with the language that he had learned in the streets.

“I knew that he’d always watched over me and one day I realized why I was still alive and doing the things that I was doing at the time,” he said. “God had been watching over me and my family…My life. And though I didn’t know exactly what to say, I did it the best way I knew how.”

Malcolm D. Lee– who wrote and directed the 1999 film The Best Man– and Martin have been close friends over the years.

Coincidentally, the character played by Morris Chestnut in the movie, Lance, played a God-fearing running back that lined up for Pitt Panthers and wore the number 28. Just like Martin.

“Malcolm has asked me for my opinion about what he should do for the Best Man sequel that’s coming out soon,” Martin said with a chuckle. “But, I seriously don’t know why there are so many similarities between Lance and myself in the movie. I really don’t.”

A dedicated family man, Martin claims his top responsibility is to be the father of his young daughter, Ava, and husband to his wife, Carolina.

In between his charitable efforts, business ventures, NFL alumni duties, and mentoring endeavors Martin loves nothing more than to spend time with his family.

“Every time I look at my daughter’s eyes a feeling of excitement rushes through my body,” Martin said. “I want to show her what it is to be a great person in this life. I want to be the best example to her as I possibly can.”

The family spends most of the year in a house that Martin purchased in the late 90s in sunny South Florida. But, when the weather is bearable, they return to where he obtained most of his success as a professional in Long Island, NY.

As for all of the great things that her son has achieved, Ms. Martin couldn’t be more proud.

“It used to bring me to tears when I would realize some the things Curt went through as a child,” she said. “But he always tells me not to worry. That he needed to have such great responsibility while he was young. To see everything that he’s accomplished is the greatest thing that could have happened to me. We are truly blessed.”

Malik Vincent has written about sport topics in the Pittsburgh area since 2008 for various publications, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Sports Report.  He can be reached at malikvincent@gmail.com or on Twitter @malikvincent.

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