For a guy who now admits he never even loved the game of football, Curtis Martin sure managed to put together an incredible career.
The greatest running back to ever wear a Jets' uniform will enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the game's greatest individual honor, a week from Saturday But unlike most others enshrined in Canton, Martin didn't consider football his passion. And still doesn't.
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"Football was a headache for me," Martin told a small gathering of reporters at a restaurant in Manhattan Monday. "I felt it was just something I didn't have the time to do. I didn't want to do it. For me, it just wasn't fun."
But it may have saved his life.
Martin, who grew up in a crime-ridden neighborhood in Pittsburgh, played just one year of high school football, and only at the insistence of his mother, who wanted him to avoid drugs and gangs. He went on to play at Pittsburgh, where he showed flashes of brilliance despite several injuries, and was an immediate NFL star in his rookie season with the Patriots in 1995.
"I may not have wanted to play, but I believe you have to do things," said Martin, who still lives in Garden City. "You know the saying, 'You have to do what you have to do so you can do what you want to do.' I always felt like that was my assignment. Football was like my basic training for life. I've learned how to work hard, how to commit, so many things I didn't know how to do until I had football in my life."
But Martin had to make sacrifices along the way, most of them physical. He endured a number of injuries, once playing nearly an entire season on two badly sprained ankles, and suffered several concussions. Saying he feels generally OK, Martin still required four surgeries -- one on each shoulder and one on each knee. And he is concerned about the game's future because of the injury factor. In fact, if he had a son, he said he would hesitate to let him play.
"If I had a son, I would really think about it," Martin said. "I look at the difference between when Jim Brown played and when I played. He was a big guy back then, but now, he would be an average-sized running back. So when you look at the game, it has progressively and continually gotten faster and bigger and stronger. The hits are going to be harder. I just don't know what the NFL can do to prevent that."
But Martin said he doesn't second-guess his decision to play.
"As an athlete," he said, "there's a certain part you have to accept, that certain things are going to happen."