Playing for a Bigger Purpose
For much of his career, normally reserved and soft-spoken Martin never really shared much about his background and personal struggles of his youth while living in midst of violence on the streets of Pittsburgh's East End, and in his own home.
When giving his unscripted Hall of Fame induction speech, he opened up.
He described "living in a pretty bad neighborhood, and a household that was even worse." He spoke about how he remembered being as young as five years-old watching his father torture his mother. His father, troubled by drugs and alcohol, left the family when he was young and his mother had to work two jobs to make ends meet.
Martin's childhood was continuously marred by violence.
"I was a full-fledged product of my environment. I've done things I'm not proud of," said Martin. "I had so many brushes with death. When I was 15, one guy took a gun and pulled the trigger and shot at me seven times but God's honest truth, the bullets didn't come out. Then, when he wasn't pointing the gun at me, the bullets did come out."
His grandmother was murdered after being stabbed in the chest. Others close to him passed away too, and finally having had enough, his mother had just one wish for her son.
"I want you to do something after school," Martin said his mother told him. "Just do something so you're not in this neighborhood 24 hours a day… Because if something happens to you they might as well kill me to because you're all that I'm living for."
Martin said he never really liked football, but finally decided to play his senior year at Alderdice. He caught the attention of Pitt's football coach Paul Hackett at the time. His early career at Pitt was marked by injuries, but he would rush for over 1,000 yards in 10 games during his junior year.
Most die-hard Pitt fans should remember his first game of his senior year in 1994, a 251-yard performance against Texas. He would be sidelined by a foot injury in the next game, and had to sit out the rest of his senior year. He was eligible for a redshirt for a fifth season at Pitt, but opted instead to enter the NFL draft despite his own continued reservations about playing football.
The Patriots drafted him in the 3rd round of the NFL Draft that year. He said after being drafted and getting a call from Patriots coach BIll Parcells, he turned to his family and said that he didn't even know if he had the desire to pursue football as a career.
Luckily, his pastor was there to offer him some advice.
"I'm so glad he was there to talk some sense into me," Martin recounted. "He says, 'Curtis, look at it this way, man. Maybe football's just something that God's given you to do all those wonderful things that you've said you want to do for other people.'
"And I'll tell you, it's like a light bulb came on in my head," said Martin. "That became my connection with football. … And ever since he said that, I knew the only way I was ever going to be successful was if I played for a purpose that was bigger than the game itself because I knew the love for the game just wasn't in my heart."
And the rest is history.
As a professional, Martin became the standard for the players of his generation that he played with and against. Martin, who retired in 2007 after 13 seasons in the National Football League with the New England Patriots and New York Jets, had a career that catapulted him to become one of the greatest players who've ever played pro football. His accomplishments and consistency as a runner earned him company with the greatest running backs of all time. Martin rushed for the fourth most yards from scrimmage in NFL history (14,101), had 10 consecutive seasons of more than 1,000 yards, and scored 90 touchdowns.
"He has tremendous compassion for his fellow man," his longtime coach, Bill Parcells said Saturday when presenting Martin for induction.
"He's caring, he's committed, he's very, very humble, he's a devoted friend. He, I think, is the poster child for what the NFL is supposed to be: you come into the league, you maximize your ability, you save your money, you make a smooth transition into society, and then you pass all those things on to other people. And that's what this guy has done."
"You know, Curtis," Parcells added. "I've always felt that you judge yourself by what the game tells you. And tonight, the game is telling you that you belong among the very elite to have ever played."
Most professional athletes define their successes by how many games they've won and the records they've achieved. Curtis Martin won many games and had many great football accomplishments. But, that wasn't what mattered most for him.
During his speech, Martin kept coming back to the central figure in his life. His mother. He closed by saying that his greatest accomplishment was helping her find a way out from the pain she endured for much of her life.
And through football, Curtis Martin fulfilled a much bigger purpose.