One would probably think Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin was a huge football fan during his youth in Pittsburgh, PA.
Think Terrible Towel-waving, staunch Pittsburgh Steelers fanatic.
Martin was far from being a football-crazed young man in Western Pennsylvania.
Instead, he grew up in a seedy and crime-infested part of the city. Surprisingly, he didn’t expect to live past twenty-one years of age.
To the delight of many football fans, not only did Curtis Martin live longer, but he also became one of the best running backs in the history of the National Football League.
It’s hard to fathom this legend didn’t play football until his senior year of high school.
Long story short, Curtis Martin is a late bloomer who used football as a platform for many great things on and off the field.
Curtis James Martin, Jr. was born to parents Curtis, Sr., and Rochella in Pittsburgh, PA on May 1, 1973.
Curtis, Sr. finished his four-year stint in the Army when he met Rochella Dixon in McKeesport, PA that year.
The couple fell on hard times. Back then, Curtis, Sr. succumbed to peer pressure and started smoking marijuana and doing other vices that led to a downward spiral, per The Star-Ledger’s Steve Politi.
Curtis Martin, Sr. eventually left his family in 1978. Curtis, Jr. was just five years old.
The older Martin told The Star-Leger in a 2004 interview the years 1985 to 1990 were the worst.
Back then, he became addicted to crack cocaine and cherished his only possession – his clothes. He also lived like a vagabond sleeping in parks and shelters.
While Curtis, Sr. struggled, his son flourished on the gridiron.
Curtis, Jr. began playing football at Taylor Allderdice High School in his hometown of Pittsburgh.
He was a late bloomer: he didn’t set foot on the gridiron until his senior year.
Curtis, Jr. played football because his mother wanted him to find a diversion from their crime-infested neighborhood in the Homewood area of Pittsburgh.
Crime surrounded Martin when he was a youngster.
He even found his grandmother stabbed to death by a desperate man who needed cash for his phone bill, per The Star-Ledger.
Martin’s head football coach with the Taylor Allderdice Dragons, Mark Wittgartner, also saw Martin’s potential in gym class.
His hunch was spot on.
Martin suited up as a running back and linebacker for the Dragons and excelled on both sides of the ball. He also played quarterback and on special teams occasionally.
Curtis Martin, Jr. was a natural on the football field: he racked up 1,705 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground in his only season of high school football.
Nobody intimated Martin; not even Perry Traditional Academy’s All-City League linebacker Ramon Walden.
Martin remembered how their coaches came up to Walden during pregame warmups and asked him what he was going to do to the football newbie.
Martin recalled Walden saying, “I’m going to knock his head off! (per TribLive.com’s Tim Benz)“
Despite Martin’s lack of experience on the football field, he told Benz in May 2020 he was determined not to let Walden get under his skin.
Even though the Dragons lost 34-14, Martin had 217 rushing yards and an 85-touchdown run.
Through it all, his father never saw him play.
The younger Martin told Politi in 2012 he never held a grudge against his dad:
“I never held a grudge. It was him not wanting to be involved in my life. I understand that. he was strung out on drugs.”
“I understand the shame that he had and I never held it against him. It was always in my plans to do something for him, but I wanted to make sure he was fully rehabbed.”
He would manifest his love for his father during the peak of his pro football career.
Martin’s exploits on the football field caught the eye of then-Pitt Panthers head football coach Paul Hackett.
Martin reminded Hackett, who later went on to become the offensive coordinator of the New York Jets, of Dallas Cowboys Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett.
When Hackett saw Curtis Martin play for the first time, he scored five touchdowns.
Hackett told USA TODAY’s Gary Mihoces in 2004 Martin’s two college choices boiled down to the Pitt Panthers and Miami Hurricanes.
Hackett and his assistant Sal Sunseri – who watched the 217-yard game against Perry Traditional Academy – convinced Martin, a Pittsburgh native, to commit to their football program.
Curtis Martin remained in Western Pennsylvania to embark on his college football career with the Pitt Panthers.
College Days With The Pitt Panthers
Curtis Martin, the late bloomer with the Tony Dorsett-like potential, took the field for his true freshman season at Pitt in 1991.
That year, he suited up in eight games and ran for 556 yards and two touchdowns on 114 carries.
Pitt went 6-5 in Curtis Martin’s freshman campaign.
Martin fared better as a sophomore in Panthers Blue and Gold.
He had 730 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 158 carries in 10 games for Pitt.
The Panthers struggled in the next three seasons Martin played for them.
They averaged just three wins during that span and didn’t play in a bowl game until 1996.
Things didn’t look up for Curtis Martin, either.
Martin was hampered by injuries for the most part during his college football career.
He produced his best statistical season as a junior in the 1993 NCAA season.
Martin broke the 1,000-yard mark for the first time as a member of the Pitt Panthers.
He had 1,075 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on 210 carries.
Martin accomplished the feat despite sitting out Pitt’s final two games with a sprained shoulder.
"Pittsburgh will always be home."
Hall of Fame person and player.
All-time great Curtis Martin shares how his experiences shaped him.
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) May 1, 2020
He broke loose for a career-high 251 yards in the season opener against the 19th-ranked Texas Longhorns on September 3, 1994.
Unfortunately, the Panthers lost, 30-28.
Martin sprained his ankle in Pitt’s 30-16 victory over the visiting Ohio Bobcats a week later.
It turned out to be Curtis Martin’s final game on the college gridiron.
The injury forced Martin to sit out the remainder of the 1994 NCAA season.
Pitt gave him the option to redshirt and play for the Panthers for one more season.
Curtis Martin declined: after consulting Panthers head football coach Johnny Majors, he decided to declare for the 1995 NFL Draft.
While Martin’s college football career flew under the radar, he would go full throttle in the professional ranks and become one of the greatest running backs in the game’s history.
Nobody saw this coming.
Pro Football Career
Strangely enough, Curtis Martin wasn’t so sure about a career on the gridiron.
As the 1995 NFL Draft drew near, Martin told his spiritual mentor, the Rev. Leroy Joseph, he was having second thoughts about football, per Politi.
“Curtis, all the things you want to do for people?” Joseph told him. “Maybe football is just the vehicle to do it.”
Martin told TribLive.com in 2020 it was a turning point in his life: Joseph’s advice helped him form an “emotional attachment” to the game.
With Joseph’s words reassuring Martin, he took the stage for the 1995 NFL Draft.
When Patriots head football coach Bill Parcells – a fellow Pro Football Hall of Famer who became a father figure to Martin – called him up and asked if he wanted to play for New England, he still wasn’t sure about football, per Benz.
Nonetheless, the New England Patriots made Curtis Martin the 74th overall selection.
When the Patriots drafted Martin, he asked them if he could wear No. 29 – the same number he wore in high school and college.
However, cornerback Myron Guyton already wore No 29.
Martin wound up with No. 28 instead
When he mentioned the number switch to Rev. Leroy Joseph, the latter exclaimed, “Deuteronomy 28!”
According to SI.com’s Austin Murphy, Martin regularly read that verse from the Bible before games.
The verse reads, “The enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you. They will come at you in one direction but flee from you in seven.”
Back then, the Patriots hardly resembled the juggernauts that won six Super Bowl trophies several years later.
While New England won 10 games in the 1994 NFL campaign, they had averaged a paltry four wins in their previous five seasons.
Curtis Martin was sensational as a Patriots rookie: he had 1,487 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns on 368 carries.
To nobody’s surprise, he won NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and earned his first Pro Bowl berth.
Alas, the Patriots won just six games and missed the postseason for the eighth time in the past nine years.
With Martin running for 1,152 yards and 14 touchdowns, he earned his second straight Pro Bowl nod.
New England also won 11 games and made a deep postseason run in the 1996 NFL campaign.
Happy birthday Curtis Martin! I sure do wish you had hung around. pic.twitter.com/cDJAgQx5Sp
— Honest☘️Larry (@HonestLarry1) May 1, 2021
One of the highlights of Curtis Martin’s remarkable NFL career was his 166-yard, three-touchdown production in a 28-3 romp over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1995 AFC Divisional Round.
Not only was it Martin’s first postseason game, but it was also against his hometown Steelers.
“There were Steelers fans already buying Super Bowl tickets,” Martin told TribLive.com some twenty-four years later. “I’ve never taken as much pleasure in anything as destroying those people’s hopes. I had the game of my life.”
Regrettably, Martin and Co. lost to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXI, 35-21.
Martin had 70 all-purpose yards and a touchdown in the loss.
Bill Parcells, the man who drafted him two years earlier, bolted for the New York Jets that offseason.
While Martin recorded another 1,000-plus-yard season in New England in the 1997 NFL season, he only had four touchdowns.
The Patriots won 10 games under new head coach Pete Carroll but lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Divisional Round, 7-6.
By then, Curtis Martin had played his final down in New England.
The NFL Network’s “Curtis Martin: A Football Life” documentary premiered in the fall of 2016 and explained why he left the Patriots for their hated AFC East rivals, the New York Jets, after the 1997 NFL season.
In the documentary (via NESN.com’s Zack Cox), Martin, a restricted free agent revealed his quarterback Drew Bledsoe signed a six-year, $42 million contract with a $12 million signing bonus with the Patriots.
“I just felt like I was worth more than Drew Bledsoe’s signing bonus,” Martin told NFL Network.
Based on the premises of the so-called “poison pill” contract, Bill Parcells and the Jets dangled a six-year offer worth $36 million that New England could not match due to salary cap restrictions.
The Patriots received first- and third-round draft choices in 1998 as compensation for Martin.
To this day, New England wonders how many more Super Bowls it would have won had it had Curtis Martin in its backfield.
For his part, Martin solidified his relationship with Parcells, a father figure who was his head coach in his first two seasons with the Patriots.
“Bill is one of the closest relationships I’ve had in my life,” Martin told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Chuck Finder in 2005. “Bill has filled that father role, especially since I came into the NFL. He invested in me, and I’m grateful for it.”
Favourite message from HOF Coach Bill Parcells. Listening to Curtis Martin share what it meant to him to have Bill’s mentorship. Don’t listen to the noise, don’t listen to your detractors, the only person you answer to is the person in the glass. #TLPFBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/AxljGb9tJd
— TLPF Hockey 🇨🇦 (@TLPF_Hockey) August 29, 2021
In Curtis Martin’s first year with the New York Jets in the summer of 1998, he made an unscheduled appearance at his father’s apartment.
Curtis, Jr. blindfolded him and drove him to a brand-new and fully-furnished two-room condominium that he had bought for him.
The son also bought a Cadillac Seville for his dad.
The kind gestures coincided with Father’s Day.
Curtis, Sr., who passed away due to cancer at the age of 58 in 2009, thanked his son for the gifts.
In Politi’s words, he “thanked God for giving him such a forgiving son.”
Curtis, Jr. even helped his mother forgive her husband before he passed away, per The Star-Ledger:
“At his funeral, my mother came to me and said, ‘You know something, I am so glad you were not how I was. That fact that you forgave him helped me forgive him.'”
“She told me, ‘It would be so hard if he died and I never forgave him. I’m so grateful that you helped me do that.'”
That’s the kind of person Curtis Martin, Jr. was off the field.
After his father passed away, it was back to business on the gridiron.
An inspired Martin was reunited with Parcells on the Jets sideline. The former had 1,287 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in his fourth pro season.
The Jets won a franchise-record twelve games in the 1998 NFL season.
Unfortunately, they lost to the defending Super Bowl champions Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game, 23-10.
Entering his second season in the Big Apple, Martin told the New York Post’s Lenn Robbins his goal was to live to 21 years old because of his crime-riddled surroundings in Pittsburgh.
“My goal was to live to 21,” Martin told Robbins. “And I didn’t think I would make it.”
Not only did Martin live past twenty-one, but he also established himself as one of the best running backs in Jets franchise history.
Curtis Martin hits 10,000 rushing yards and gets the comeback win. pic.twitter.com/R7VJXWXDDZ
— Woody Johnson (@woodyjohnson4) May 14, 2021
He had at least 1,094 rushing yards in seven of his eight seasons with the New York Jets.
In those eight seasons, the Jets reached the postseason four times. However, they never made it past the AFC Championship Game.
Martin was also an iron man who missed just one game from the 1998 to 2004 NFL seasons.
During that stretch, he earned three Pro Bowl nods.
The 2004 NFL season was a breakout campaign for Martin.
Not only were his 1,697 rushing yards a career-best, but they were also the most in the league that year.
Martin consequently earned his first First-Team All-Pro selection.
He sustained a right knee injury in the 2005 NFL campaign that limited him to 735 rushing yards in twelve games.
Martin’s recovery took longer than expected. The Jets placed him on their physically unable to perform list prior to the 2006 NFL season.
He eventually missed the entire year and decided to retire in July 2007.
Curtis Martin was a rare breed of running back.
Martin’s 14,101 rushing yards currently ranks him sixth all-time behind Emmitt Smith (18,355 yards), Walter Payton (16,726 yards), Frank Gore (16,000 yards), Barry Sanders (15,269 yards), and Adrian Peterson (14,918 yards).
In Martin’s last year in Broadway, he began collecting art. He was also a regular courtside seat holder at New York Knicks games and New York City movie premiers.
Martin was also romantically linked to singers Toni Braxton and Destiny’s Child member Michelle Williams, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Curtis Martin married his longtime girlfriend Carolina Williams in Long Island, NY in 2010.
The couple welcomed their daughter Ava on December 15, 2011.
While Martin traces his roots to Pittsburgh, he still considers Long Island his home.
“This is home. This will be home, even after football,” Martin told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2005. “I just like it here, it suits me, fits me, everything that I want. I’m a Pittsburgher, but I live in New York.”
Martin used football as a platform to profess his faith and help the less fortunate.
During his 11-year NFL career, he spoke at churches and schools, gave money to the needy, and paid for funerals.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Martin even joined his Taylor Allderdice Dragons head football coach Mark Wittgartner and his family right after a Pro Bowl game to pray for the latter’s son, who perished in a skydiving accident.
Two years before Martin hung up his cleats in 2007, he told Finder he simply wanted to help other people:
“I’ve saved a lot of people’s lives everywhere, but mostly in Pittsburgh. I don’t want to coach, I don’t want to recruit, I don’t want to do any of that. When I retire, I’ll have a role in people’s lives. “
That’s precisely what Curtis Martin has done.
The New York Jets inducted Martin into their Ring of Honor in the summer of 2010.
The New York Jets retired his No. 28 jersey during a halftime ceremony of the season opener against the Miami Dolphins on September 9, 2012.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted Curtis Martin in 2012.
Part of his enshrinement speech reads:
“I knew the only way I was going to be successful at this game called football is if I played for a purpose that was bigger than the game itself because I knew that the love for the game just wasn’t in my heart.”
Curtis Martin earned his honorary degree in Doctor of Humane Letters from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai in May 2019.
Curtis Martin gives back to where it all began for him: his high school.
"Getting to the Hall of Fame started right here." 🙏
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) November 25, 2019
Martin presented his alma mater Taylor Allderice High School in Pittsburgh with a commemorative plaque as a gesture of appreciation in October 2019.
A month later, Martin earned Walter Camp Man of the Year honors for his outstanding role in the community.
The University of Pittsburgh Hall of Fame inducted Martin on October 16, 2020. Other Pitt Panthers legends who were inducted on that day included Glenn “Pop” Warner, Jackie Sherrill, Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, Ken Macha, and Brandin Knight, per TribLive.com.
According to The Star-Ledger, Curtis Martin has aspirations of owning an NFL team someday.