The NFL draft is a science that has more luck than team’s admit. For every Ryan Leaf, JaMarcus Russel and Tim Couch that did not work out in the first round, there is a Tom Brady, Shannon Sharpe and Dak Prescott all who made it through at least the third round without hearing their name called. With running backs, Larry Brown (Washington 1969 8th round pick) and Terrell Davis ( Denver 1995 6th round pick) come to mind right away. And then there is Curtis Martin picked in the 3rd round, 74th overall in 1995. All he did was rush for over 1,000 yards in ten straight seasons.
Curtis Martin was born on May 1, 1973 in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania to Curtis Sr. and Rochella. The area he was brought up in was incredibly dangerous mostly because of drugs combined with horrible violence. Everyday was a challenge to survive. His father got involved with drugs and left the family when Curtis was five years old forcing his mother to get as many as three jobs at one time to support the family. The Martins were constantly moving to different neighborhoods trying to escape the violence that surrounded them. In fact, his own grandmother was stabbed to death in their apartment in a robbery. When Curtis was 15, a gun was held to his head and the trigger pulled numerous times but did not go off. Because of these terrible surroundings, Martin had a personal goal to live at least until he was 21-years old. His mother had different goals for her son. It was not easy, but she was insistent on being able to give Curtis opportunities and when he was ready for high school, he went to Taylor Allderdice High School known for their high academic standard.
The head football coach, Mark Wittgartner noticed his athletic ability in gym class and convinced him to play football. He only played one season but gained 1,705 yards on the ground and scored 20 touchdowns. In one game that the University of Pittsburgh head coach Paul Hackett was attending, Martin scored five touchdowns. Hackett, who later became the offensive coordinator for the Jets, convinced Curtis to chose the Pitt Panthers over the Miami Hurricanes, the only other school he was considering.
Though Hackett considered Martin on par with former Pitt running back Tony Dorsett, injuries plagued his college career. In the opening game his senior year against Texas, he rushed for 251 yards but he sprained his ankle the following week and this ended his college season. Johnny Majors had taken over as head coach for his second stint there in 1993. Even though the school gave Martin a chance to come back and play another season if he had redshirted after his injured ankle, Majors recommended he enter the NFL draft.
The 1995 NFL draft was approaching but Martin had reservations about playing pro football. He consulted his spiritual mentor, one Reverend Leroy Joseph who convinced him to play, saying football can be a vehicle for Martin to not only change his life and his family’s life but other people's lives. He entered the draft with players like Ty Law, Antonio Freeman, Warren Sapp and Joey Galloway. It was inferred that if he had come back to play that one more year of college football he may very well have been a first round pick. It was New England Patriot’s head coach Bill Parcells who picked Martin in the third round.
Curtis Martin had an incredible rookie year rushing for 1,487 yards with 14 touchdowns. He won the Offensive Rookie of the Year and was named to his first Pro Bowl. He played for the Patriots for two more seasons making the Pro Bowl once more and scoring 14 TDs for the second time in his second season.
After his third season, he became a restricted free agent. Bill Parcells, who had become something of a father figure to Martin, moved to the rival Jets becoming head coach and general manager. Martin was disappointed with the offer the Patriots gave him as a restricted free agent. In fact he said that after teammate Drew Bledsoe signed a six-year, $42 million contract, he was a bit insulted that the offer to him was less than the $12 million signing bonus that Bledsoe got. The Jets created a contract that contained a poison pill. It stated Martin would become a restricted free agent after one year. If the Patriots matched the offer they would have to pay Martin a $3.3 million roster bonus. The Jets knew that the roster bonus would have compromised the Patriots salary cap. Curtis Martin became a New York Jet for the rest of his career.
In his first seven seasons with the Jets, he only missed one game which carries a lot of weight with me. When I evaluate NFL players and all professional athletes for that matter, staying on the field is at the very top of my list of requirements.
There are a few Curtis Martin games that stood out to me. One was when he was with the Patriots. In the 1997 AFC Divisional Round game the Patriots went up against his hometown Steelers. The Patriots won the game 28-3, but it was Martin’s 166-yards, three touchdown rushing performance that stood out along with catching two passes. One touchdown run was for 78-yards and another for 23-yards.
Another game was in December 2003. The New York-New Jersey area got hit with a major snow storm. Once again, Curtis Martin was playing the Pittsburgh Steelers. Because of the amount of snow that fell, it was somewhat assumed that the game would not be a high scoring one. What no one expected was the show that Martin put on that day. He rushed for 178-yards on the ground (including a 56-yard run) and added 54-yards catching the ball. His combined offensive output of over 200 total yards was remarkable and was instrumental in the Jets 6-0 win.
My favorite Curtis Martin game was not his best, but what the game represented is really what made this one high on my list. On January 9, 1999, the Jets were playing the Jacksonville Jaguars in a playoff game. The Jets had a lot of stars that day including Keyshawn Johnson and Vinny Testaverde. But the steady play of Martin stood out to me throughout the game. He had 124 yards on the ground with 36 carries and caught 6 passes for 58-yards. He scored 2 touchdowns, both in the third quarter. It was one of the best all around games I ever saw a running back play and it helped lead the Jets to a 34-24 playoff victory.
Curtis Martin was a five-time Pro Bowl selection and was an All-Pro once. At age 31 he led the NFL in rushing with 1,697 yards and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012. All this is not too shabby for someone who’s goal in life as youngster was to live to be 21.
Marty Schupak has been a New York Jets football fan since 1964. Ray Clifford another lifelong fan contributed to this article. Their blog and Podcast are both at: www.JetsRewind.com
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