Curtis Martin was passed over last year in his first year on the Pro Football Hall of Fame ballot for a star-studded class of modern-day candidates that included Marshall Faulk, Deion Sanders, Shannon Sharpe, Richard Dent and Ed Sabol.
The image of humility, Martin was gracious when he heard the news.
"I think the voters did a really good job," he told newyorkjets.com in the past week. "Those guys who went in last year really deserved it. There's a part of me that feels like Deion Sanders and Marshall Faulk and those guys — they're super-athletes. I viewed them as that next level of talent."
No doubt, Faulk, Sanders and the rest of the inductees were a cut above. After all, it is the Hall of Fame. But in no way does that mean Martin is not among the all-time greats. He will almost certainly find himself amidst the legends in Canton in the near future — possibly as soon as Saturday night, when the Hall's Class of 2012 is announced in Indianapolis.
"It's a tremendous honor," said Martin. "For me, there's something that's really humbling about it. To me, it almost signifies making the most of an opportunity."
Martin last played in 2005 and announced his retirement in '06. He is the NFL's fourth all-time rushing leader, behind only Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders. He was the second player in league history to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first 10 seasons. He was a two-time All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler. He holds nearly every major rushing record in Jets team history.
"I Don't Know That I Want to Do This"
And to think, Martin almost chose not to play football.
"Even after [Bill] Parcells called me on draft day, I questioned myself and I verbalized it to people who were at my house," said Martin. "I said, 'I don't really know that I want to do this.' My mentor told me, 'Well, Curtis, maybe football is a vehicle for you to do all the wonderful things that you want to do for people.' "
He was drafted in the third round in 1995 by Parcells and the New England Patriots. After deliberating with family and friends, Parcells and himself, Martin chose football.
"As I played, I began to enjoy it. But I've always viewed football not as a childhood dream or something that I always wanted to do," he said. "I viewed it as a tremendous blessing, and I would be a fool to not make the most of it. The NFL has been really good to me. Like I said in my retirement speech, I hope I've been good to the NFL."
Jets fans would say there is no doubt that Martin was not just good but irreplaceable in the Green & White. Had it not been for one NFL head coach who saw the brimming potential and value in Martin, the Jets would have given the number 28 jersey to someone else.
"Without Parcells," he said, "my career would have been 30, 40 percent of what it was."
After drafting Martin in 1995, Parcells went on to become the Jets' head coach in '97. His departure from New England began a chain of events that a year later would bring Martin, a restricted free agent, to the Big Apple.
Two to Enter the Hall Together?
Martin spent the duration of his career as a Jet. Interestingly, Parcells, who helped build the Jets in the late Nineties and into 2000, is also featured on the Hall of Fame ballot again this year. There is a chance that both will enter Canton together. It would be a fitting cap to two illustrious football careers.
"If you were to give me the option of going in last year as a first ballot or this year as a second ballot with Parcells, I would have turned it down last year to go in this year," Martin said. "That's how much he has meant to my career."
Last year Martin had expressed his desire to have Parcells present him at the Hall of Fame induction in Canton had Martin been selected. His plan remains the same, and he has no reason to consider anyone else at this point.
"It may sound modest to give someone else a lot of credit for their career, but literally, without him in my career, I'm not even having this conversation right now," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, there's no one else who is more fitting to be my presenter than Coach Parcells."
The final vote for the Class of '12 will come Saturday afternoon, and the announcement of this year's class will come on NFL Network's special show from 5:30-7 p.m. ET. Martin will not sweat while waiting for the phonecall. After all, he never once though that his career would come to this.
"This is something that wasn't in my plans. It wasn't even a goal. It wasn't even a thought. My mind couldn't even think far enough to imagine that I would even be up for the Hall of Fame," he said. "My goal was to go out there and give my best every single day."
"It's the Intangible Things"
Martin can consider his goal accomplished. Without leaving everything on the field, there is no consideration for the Hall. By competing every minute of every day in practice and games, Martin was simultaneously writing his Hall inscription with every cutback, stiffarm and blitz pickup.
He recalled the greatest compliment he ever received during his playing days. It came from Bill Belichick, who at that time was the defensive coordinator on Parcells' Jets staff.
"He said, 'You know, this guy, he's not just the best player on our team in the game, he's the best player every day in practice,' " Martin recalled Belichick saying. "For me, that really means something. It's the intangible things, not necessarily the accolades that come along with it."
That mentality is what elevated Martin to icon status in a town that demands the most from its athletes. Like Frank Sinatra once crooned about New York, If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere. Martin certainly made it in New York. Take a look around you the next time you're at MetLife Stadium to watch a Jets game. Number 28 is still a wildly popular jersey choice among fans.
"I attribute it to respecting morals and principles in life," he said. "A man once told me, 'Curtis, one of the best things you can do is find out how life works, and work it.' The way I view life, the things that are important to me is impacting people, charity, doing something positive in the community, helping people. These are the things that are like Super Bowls in my heart."
On Saturday Martin will be home with his family. At some point, his phone will ring, there will be words exchanged, he will hang up and will still be Curtis Martin. There are two potential contexts of that future conversation. Either congratulations will be in order while welcoming him into the pantheon of football greats, or there will be a verbal pat on the back and a good-luck-next-year.
"I think I'll go about my business as usual," he said. "I'm like that. Like with my birthday, until someone reminds me it's my birthday tomorrow … those things are important to me, but I tend not to put a whole lot of focus and energy into them until they happen."
At some point, Martin will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Jets fans are thirsty to see him get in sooner rather than later. Martin is in no rush … for the first time in his football life.