By Sean Hartnett
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Throughout his youth, Curtis Martin didn’t carry aspirations of one day playing in the National Football League. He never dreamed of becoming a star running back on Sundays.
Unlike most promising young athletes, Martin didn’t spend his Sundays watching games on TV or admiring idols of the gridiron in magazines.
“You know that I was never a football fan. I wasn’t the type of guy to watch football. I could probably count on one hand how many football games I’ve watched from beginning to end in my lifetime,” Martin said during Saturday’s Hall of Fame speech.
Instead, football was his escape from family tragedies and a tortured childhood. It was the only way he could escape the tough streets of Pittsburgh and appease his mother, who found her sister brutally murdered when Curtis was 13, and suffered unspeakable physical abuse before Curtis’s father abandoned the family.
Martin believed he wouldn’t live to the age of 21. As a youth, he had multiple brushes with death. On one occasion, a gangster held a gun to his head and pulled the trigger seven times. Remarkably, the gun didn’t fire while held to Curtis’ head and he survived.
“By the time I was 15, growing up in the environment that I was in, I had so many brushes with death,” he recalled. “I remember one distinct time a guy had a gun to my head, a loaded gun to my head, pulled the trigger seven times. God’s honest truth, the bullet didn’t come out. He wasn’t pointing the gun at me and pulled the trigger and a bullet came out. I was too young to even recognize that God was saving my life.”
Martin quit all athletics during his junior year of high school at Taylor Allderdice High School. He appeared to be heading toward a path of crime — or even worse, death. Martin described his teenage self as “a product of his environment.”
The school’s head football coach, Mark Wittgartner finally convinced him to use football as a vehicle to escape the streets and take advantage of his natural talent for the game of football.
Curtis recalled the strong message delivered to him by Wittgartner. He told a young Martin, “If you don’t do something with your life, from what I hear about you, you’re going to end up dead or in jail pretty soon.”
Martin’s talents were obvious at the high school level. He became an immediate star in his senior year. Every major college program wanted Curtis, who went on to become a standout at the University of Pittsburgh and declined a fifth redshirt year to enter the 1995 NFL Draft.
Still — after all this success, the desire to play football didn’t burn deeply inside Martin. He received a call from Bill Parcells informing him he would be drafted by the New England Patriots in the third round. He thanked Parcells, hung up the phone, then turned to his family and said, “Oh my gosh, I do not want to play football.”
What Martin did have was a passion for life and despite his childhood surroundings, was growing into a responsible young man who was ready to use his experiences to help others.
His pastor, Leroy Joseph explained to him that football could serve his greater purpose in life.
“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,” Martin revealed in front of the crowd at Canton.
After 11 years in the NFL, 5 Pro Bowl selections and ten consecutive 1,000 yard rushing seasons — Curtis Martin retired from the game as the NFL’s 4th all-time leading rusher with 14,101 career yards.
During my youth, I didn’t know the full story of Curtis Martin’s life. I always viewed Martin as inspiring teammate with an unmatched work ethic and a natural leader of men. Often, I would wonder what fueled his fire.
He did not live, eat and breath football like many NFL legends. It was just one part of the equation of his life’s success.
While Martin eventually came to appreciate football, he was always playing for something bigger than on-field victories. He would quietly donate 12-15% of his paychecks to The Curtis Martin Job Foundation, which lends financial support to single mothers, children’s charities, individuals with disabilities and low income housing providers.
After his playing days finished, he now donates 20-25% of his total income to the foundation and supports a number of additional worthy charitable causes.
He was always thinking about the greater goal and put a love of football on the back-burner.
It wasn’t until Saturday that Martin finally fell in love with football.
“I’ve spoken earlier about how my emotional connection to football really hadn’t been given birth,” Martin said, “and I think today with Ralph Wilson’s speech it was the first time I really felt this emotional, passionate connection with the game of football.”
A shining example of doing right on and off the field throughout his playing career, Curtis Martin is now focused on becoming an NFL owner. Perhaps, NFL ownership can become an even greater vehicle for Martin to spread his message and make an even larger impact on society.
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