Paul Hackett never imagined he would be making a trip to Canton, Ohio, for the Hall of Fame induction of Curtis Martin. Not for the running back he saw at the University of Pittsburgh, a player who lacked focus, durability, and desire.
“In those early days, if you’d have told me I was going to be going to Canton to see him, I would have shaken my head,” said Hackett, who coached Martin both at Pitt and with the Jets.
That wasn’t the way the future looked for Martin. Hackett, who left for the Chiefs during Martin’s time at Pitt, recalled questioning his ability to be on the field every game. He never doubted the talent, but he doubted the health.
That all changed when Martin made it to New England. That all changed when Martin found Bill Parcells.
And though Martin never really loved football, not in the way one would expect, it changed his life. It drew him away from the troubled Pittsburgh neighborhoods in which he grew up. It gave him a future. And on Saturday, it will put him in the Hall of Fame.
“There’s a part of me that questions whether or not I’d be living or into something that I shouldn’t be involved with,” Martin said. “I definitely don’t think that my life would have the happy ending that I’m getting towards.
“That’s why I say, even though I wasn’t a fan of the game and I didn’t want to play, football saved my life.”
But Canton? That wasn’t the goal.
“That was never a dream,” Martin said. “Football was never a dream for me. I ended up playing football just to stay out of trouble and stay alive . . . So the Hall of Fame was not even something that I dreamed about dreaming about. It wasn’t even in my thought process.”
And yet, it’s where he will be.
“I think when you look back — which is what’s happened — people look back and they realize what an extraordinary player [he was],” said former Patriots and current Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. “He had consistency, year after year after year with all the yards and the amount of carries he was putting up. He was off the charts.”
It was Martin’s mother, Rochella, who initially pushed him to play. She pushed him onto the field, knowing football was his chance to make it out. She was the one who knew what the scholarship to Pitt would mean for her son.
But that wouldn’t necessarily have been enough, had Martin not left Pitt when he did, heading to New England as a third-round pick in 1995 to build the relationship that changed everything.
“He had a huge impact on my life,” Martin said. “My career would not have been half of what it was if it wasn’t for Bill Parcells. I think he not only taught me how to be a running back, but I think he taught me how to be a professional. And not only how to be a professional, but how to be a man.
“He was the first man that I looked up to. He was a huge part of my life.”
So much so that after three seasons (and one Super Bowl) with New England, Martin followed Parcells to New York, beginning an eight-year stay with the Jets that solidified him as one of the best running backs to play in the NFL.
But it was those three years in New England, years in which he established himself as a durable threat as a runner and a receiver, years in which he was the dominant force on a successful team, that led to the controversial move to New York. Coming on the heels of Parcells’s defection, it was yet another blow to a region that has long had an uneasy relationship with New York.
And it was a blow to a team that relied on him perhaps more than anyone realized.
Still, as Patriots owner Robert Kraft recalled, there was little the Patriots could do to keep him. Not the way the Jets structured the contract offer to Martin, then a restricted free agent.
“He’s just a wonderful guy, a great performer on the field, great locker room guy,” said Kraft, who added that he considers Martin part Patriot. “We truly didn’t want to lose him. We lost him to a quirk to our friends over in New York. They did a poison pill thing that we were unable to match, and I’m really sorry he didn’t remain with us.”
It was not about New England. It wasn’t about Kraft. It wasn’t about a bad relationship. It was about Parcells, who Martin said was “the only reason I came to New York.”
“A lot of people are under the impression that I didn’t leave New England on good terms,” Martin said. “But to me, the terms were good. I didn’t feel any animosity or anything wrong. It was just a decision that happened.”
There is still fondness, a bit of wistfulness on the part of Kraft. Both Martin and Kraft recalled separately Martin’s love of Myra Kraft’s chicken soup. Whenever the owner’s wife would make a batch, a serving would end up in the running back’s locker.
Still, the move to New York meant everything to Martin. Like playing football in the first place, moving altered more than he could have anticipated.
“I think it changed my life more than it changed my career,” Martin said. “I think my commitment would have been the same. I think I would have had some success. I don’t know if I would have won Super Bowls with New England. But I know that my life has changed tremendously coming to New York.”
Flipping the switch
Martin piled up 14,101 yards in 11 years, the fourth-highest rushing total in NFL history, behind Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, and Barry Sanders. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first 10 seasons, and led the league with 1,697 in 2004, his penultimate year in football.
“He never was very fast, but he had a vision and an ability to do something that other people couldn’t,” Hackett said. “And I think that’s what kept him going and kept his interest.”
Because it wasn’t that way in college. He certainly didn’t seem to be headed to NFL heights.
“There’s a part of me that feels like I cheated Pitt and my teammates out of giving them my best because it wasn’t really important to me back then,” Martin said. “So I didn’t put that effort and the time into it that it deserved. I didn’t start doing that until I got into the NFL.”
Martin started competing with himself, challenging himself.
By the time Hackett came to the Jets in 2001, he found a mature and passionate Martin, a player with toughness and endurance who had found football in a way Hackett never expected. As the coach said, “Where he had come from just really took my breath away.
“I think the quiet demeanor, the quiet leadership, unassuming and basically never really talking about himself, but rather talking about his teammates and all the people who helped him, it’s just what you coach for.”
He did it quietly, at every point. He was underestimated and overlooked, his contributions to his teams not always understood until later. Even by Martin.
“I do think that he kind of flew under the radar a little bit,” Carroll said. “But he was deserving of a ton of credit.”
And yet, no one could have expected that his potential could reach so high, his success in the NFL called “shocking” by Hackett. No one could have expected a spot in the Hall of Fame — not at the beginning, at least.
“It’s just starting to hit me,” Martin said. “I’m still having a problem just really understanding that something that was so far outside of my dreams or my aspirations is actually happening right now.”
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.