2012 Hall of Fame: Curtis Martin delivers powerful speech, honors mother

By Ryan Wilson | CBSSports.com
'Football was shaping me as a man … I learned about life through football.' Curtis Martin (US PRESSWIRE)

If last year's Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony was equal parts flash and brash, the 2012 version was an understated affair featuring some of the most unassuming players in NFL history. Running back Curtis Martin, whose 11-year career embodied Theodore Roosevelt's famous quote, "Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far," was the last enshrinee of the six-member class to take the podium. His 20 minutes in front of those gathered at Fawcett Stadium mirrored his playing style: at first glance underrated, but on second thought both powerful and enduring.

2012 Pro Football Hall of Fame

The Class of '12:

The soft-spoken Martin bared his soul Saturday, speaking about how football, which didn't much interest him in high school and college, not only saved his life but molded him into the man he is today.

"When I'm in situations like this," he said Saturday speaking from his heart and without notes, "especially when I'm being honored for something I've achieved in football, it always makes me feel a little awkward and out of place because I've never been able to identify with the love and the passion that a lot of my colleagues and the alumni of the Hall of Fame have. Most of these guys have lived for the game of football, and eat, breathe, sleep football. And I was someone who was somewhat forced to play football."

But something changed the day the Patriots selected him out of Pittsburgh in the third round of the 1995 draft. It was a draft-day experience unlike any we've heard: as soon as he got off the phone with Bill Parcells, then the Patriots coach, Martin 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. ...

"I came up [to Canton], I had a chance to spend time with the older guys, and the guys who have been inducted, I had a chance to listen to their experience," he continued. "On Friday morning, we listened to Ralph Wilson speak. And just the passion he had for the game being one of (its) founding fathers. ... There was something that rubbed off on me and literally, yesterday, I really feel like it was my first day as a fan of the game of football."

Martin also spoke of his childhood, growing up amid the crime and violence of a tough Pittsburgh neighborhood. When he was nine, his grandmother was murdered. Several years later, the same fate befell his aunt. And when he was 15, someone put a loaded gun to his head, fired seven times, but the gun never fired.

For Martin, that was God sparing his life for something bigger. For Martin's mother, it meant that her son needed a diversion from a certain future that promised death or incarceration.

"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 not only used football as a vehicle to better himself and his family, his actions served as an example to others. In fact, those closest to him will tell you that his greatness transcends football.

"He has tremendous compassion for his fellow man," 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, 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."

Martin's on-field accomplishments were as much about consistency as longevity. After a college career beset by injury, he played 11 NFL seasons, the first three with the Patriots and the final eight with the Jets, where he rushed for 14,101 yards and 90 touchdowns. He added 3,329 receiving yards and 10 scores. His best season game in 2004, his next-to-last in the league, when he was named NFL Player of the Year after rushing for 1,697 yards and scoring 12 touchdowns. Even more impressive than a 31-year-old putting up those kind of numbers: Martin had 10 consecutive seasons of at least 1,000 rushing yards, including a rookie total of 1,487.

And now, more than six years after his last NFL carry, he's the latest member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"This has been unbelievable for me," Martin said early in his speech. … "Another thing about me: I played running back and I'm up here for how many yards I ran. Everyone who knows me also knows that I hate to run. I don't like to run at all. I box now to stay in shape just because I don't want to run anywhere."

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