By Jason Keidel
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On some level we’re all guilty of galling apathy, hardwired into the gory and detached from the glory. We’ve come to accept, if not celebrate, hubris over humility.
Sadly, we embrace Terrell Owens and we shun Curtis Martin.
Indeed, if I write a column about Tim Duncan’s stoic dominance, his laconic, iconic countenance, I will get three hits, no emails and slapping snooze buttons around the nation. But if I mention A-Rod getting busted for betting in illegal poker parlors I will get thousands of page views, dozens of emails and slaps on the rear from around the world.
It’s a sad observation, but all too real. Martin is real, too, and we don’t care. We pride ourselves on our blue-collar grit, guile and family ethos, yet our heads snap at something so vapid as a Kardashian and the diamond-laced leash with which she dragged a Brooklyn Net.
That is what we call news, reportage and profundity. But what about Martin? The reserved, regal running back played in our backyard and plowed his way through NFL defenses to the tune of 14,101 yards and over 100 total touchdowns. Martin is one of just four men to pull a pigskin out of the backfield with such alacrity.
Most men of my vintage (over 40) have been lectured about Jim Brown while bouncing on dad’s knee. Among his athletic splendor was the notion that you can succeed and still act like you’ve been there before. Martin was clearly cut from that gladiatorial cloth. There were no dances, extemporaneous or rehearsed. There was no bling, no posse and no demands. He was simply a football player.
There is nothing disingenuous about Martin, who got my attention in 1996 by shredding my Steelers in a playoff game, gashing us for 166 yards and 3 touchdowns. This was when Bill Parcells coached the Pats and coached Martin, showing you how long ago it was.
After his latest round of wanderlust — as new pilot of the Jets –Parcells’s first order of business was to bring his boy to the Meadowlands. Martin didn’t disappoint. He was a beast who rarely fumbled on the field — or the locker room or the streets. Martin is exactly what we want out of our gridiron, diamond and hardwood heroes. He made the Jets relevant after a decade-long snooze under Rich Kotite, Pete Carroll and Bruce Coslet.
Martin was inducted into the Hall of Fame last Saturday, and his speech was a treatise on the American Dream, about struggle, domestic violence and using his anger and frustration for fuel. Life forks for us all, but the adolescent axis is particularly poignant for black youths, who are forced to become men before the rest of us. Their paths are well documented and often painted in blood. The stats are staggering. Up to 70 percent of black children are raised in single-parent homes. A black man is more likely to spend time in prison than get a college degree. Martin could have been the wrong kind of statistic, yet here we are honoring the most honorable man in Canton.
Martin was abandoned by his father, who preferred a nuclear life to the nuclear family, vanishing into the netherworld of booze and drugs. His grandmother was murdered when he was 15, and Martin himself had a gun pressed to his head — trigger pulled seven times — only to misfire with each click.
Perhaps 90 times out of 100, the child follows the forlorn father into a life of crime. But Martin had and has that thing, the intangible, metaphysical glow that propels him to greatness. Too often we hear of someone with daddy issues who uses a tough puberty to preclude them from trying. Martin is not only what’s good about football, but what’s good about sports, about men, about mankind.
The only hole in Martin’s resume are his bare fingers, one of which should have been fitted for a Super Bowl ring. In the ultimate irony, Martin — who gripped the ball like a grenade with the pin pulled — blew his best shot at a Lombardi Trophy when he fumbled in Denver, his Jets just 30 minutes from the Super Bowl and a date with the very beatable Atlanta Falcons.
There is no better homage to punctuation to his peerless career than his 2004 season. Parcells famously said a running back’s shelf life is most finite because “there’s only so much tread on those tires.” Yet, at 31, Martin had his best year, a career year in a career for the ages. He carried the ball 371 times (leading the league) for 1,697 yards (also leading the league), averaging 4.6 yards per carry (his personal best).
The difference between good and great isn’t always found in a stat sheet, box score or final score, but rather somewhere in between, in the nuance of gestures. But Martin’s greatness is everywhere, an American mosaic we’ve admired for 15 years. Just don’t ask him to brag about it.
Jets fans, where does Martin rank on your personal list of all-time favorite athletes? Let us know in the comments section below…