Curtis charting a course past a Panther in '05
Even if he never suits up for another NFL game, Curtis Martin's place in history is secure.
The longtime New York Jets running back, who hasn't yet announced his retirement after sitting out the entire 2006 season due to right knee problems, is the league's fourth all-time leading rusher with 14,101 yards, and his 3,518 carries are third in NFL history.
But for all his impressive on-field accomplishments, Martin is more concerned with how he'll be remembered as a person, not as a football player.
"Hopefully, my legacy is a legacy of character," he said. "For me, I would rather be associated with words like 'integrity,' 'hard-working,' 'perseverance' and 'honest' more so than all the yards and touchdowns."
Since he entered the league as a third-round draft pick by the New England Patriots in 1995, Martin has been one of the NFL's "good guys" and the model running back. He has remained active in community work while steadily climbing up the statistical charts. Quietly and efficiently, Martin has entered conversations about who is the best running back ever. Though they tell only part of Martin's multidimensional story, his numbers certainly don't lie.
As the leading rusher in Jets franchise history, Martin gave the team a needed dimension in their offensive attack. The 5'11", 210-pounder's prototypical size for a running back was matched by great elusiveness and durability, and he seemed to get better with age. In 2004, Martin proved he had plenty left in the tank as he won the NFL's rushing title with 1,697 yards— 1 yard more than Shaun Alexander — and was named FedEx Ground Player of the Year.
But his myriad football accolades don't necessarily satisfy Martin. He's always looking to do more, to give back, to contribute to a greater cause.
"I only played football to do the off-the-field stuff," Martin said of his involvement in the community. "Football wasn't my first love and it's not something that I just had to do. I've learned to enjoy it and appreciate it, but first and foremost, it's how it helps me serve other people."
The five-time Pro Bowler was virtually impossible to stop during the prime of his career, earning an appropriate nickname of "untouchable." He posted 56 career 100-yard rushing games, 43 of those coming with the Jets and the other 13 with their AFC East foes, the Patriots. Seldom would Martin put himself before the team, and very rarely would he seek out the spotlight. That reputation extends to the person he is today, as humble and approachable an NFL star you'll find.
At age 34, he's much more grounded than he was as a record-setting rookie 12 years ago.
"I've just matured in so many ways," Martin said of his progression from his rookie season until now. "On the field, just with my experience, I don't have to be as nimble as I was when I came in as a rookie. I'm a lot smarter now and I've accomplished a lot more.
"And I think that pertains to life, also."
Aside from being out of action for most of the past two seasons, Martin was surprisingly resilient considering the pounding he took each week as a starting running back and focal point of his team's offense.
During his first seven years with the Jets, Martin missed just one game. And not only was No. 28 always in the game, he was usually taking it over, too. Before the knee injury, Martin joined Barry Sanders as the only players ever to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first 10 professional seasons. He's also got 100 combined rushing and receiving touchdowns and lost just 16 fumbles in 168 career games.
Not bad for a third-round pick who didn't even play football until his senior year of high school.
But good enough to be considered a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Not according to the man himself.
"No," Martin rebutted when asked if he'll be a shoo-in to Canton when he's eligible, likely in 2011. "I don't think I'm a shoo-in. I think I have a possibility, a good chance of making it, and hopefully I will."
That may come as a shock to many who feel Martin has the on-field statistics and the off-field character to earn his rightful place among the game's immortals. But modesty, humility and the blue-collar approach he brings to life is all the Pittsburgh native has known since his childhood days.
Now that the Jets have a legitimate No. 1 running back in Thomas Jones, the writing is on the wall for Martin's superb career to come to an end. Even if he's done playing on Sundays, Martin will continue providing valuable tutelage for Jones and other young players looking to learn life's lessons from one of the best.
"Every back that I've played with, I've tried to take under my wing because I've always been the elder running back," Martin said. "Most of them kind of look up to me, and it's more so off the field than on the field."