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Memories of his grandmother's murder gave Hall of Famer Curtis Martin that extra push

Jets running back Curtis Martin, fourth on the

Jets running back Curtis Martin, fourth on the NFL's career rushing list, will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Credit: AP, 2002

CANTON, Ohio -- The anguish remains so overwhelming, so vivid, that even now, 30 years later, it still brings Curtis Martin to tears.

Martin was 9 years old at the time, growing up in a crime-ridden section of Pittsburgh where murder was commonplace. And this time, a bullet took the life of his grandmother.

Eleanor Johnson was killed inside the family home, an incident that affected Martin so profoundly that he considers it the single most important experience of his childhood -- and one that helped turn him into one of the greatest players in NFL history.

That's because his grandmother was never far from his mind, even during games. "Every time I would get injured on the field," Martin said, his eyes welling, his voice cracking. "When I was 9, my grandmother, who was like my mother, was murdered. I remember in court, when they had the people who had murdered her in there, they said that before they killed her, my grandmother was walking, following them around the house, just begging them not to kill her. And the murderer said to her, 'Listen, I have to kill you before I go, so leave me alone.'

"And when I think about the fear that must have been in my grandmother's heart the whole time they were robbing her, it's almost like, I'll tell you, that was something that drove me my whole career, because that's what kept me fearless because I said, 'You know what? My grandmother dealt with greater fear than what I'm dealing with, and I'm grateful to deal with this level of fear in comparison with what my grandmother had to deal with.' "

Martin will carry memories of his grandmother into Saturday night's induction ceremony in Canton, where he will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It is the greatest individual accomplishment for any player in the NFL and now it will belong to Martin, who pays tribute to the life lessons he learned while growing up in a neighborhood where death was always so near.

In fact, had Martin not played football in his senior year at Taylor Allerdice High School -- something his mother begged him to do as a way to keep him off the streets -- there are only two things that would have happened.

"I'd either be in jail," Martin said, "or I'd be dead."

Martin nearly did die when he was 15 years old, and to this day, he doesn't know why his life was spared.

"I had a loaded gun put to my head, the trigger pulled, and no bullet came out," Martin said. "I wasn't even thinking at the time that a miracle had happened, that God saved my life."

Martin said he can "probably name a minimum 25 family members or friends that have been murdered. And I'm talking about people who were closer to me than most of the teammates I played with."

Martin, who spent the final eight years of his 11-season career with the Jets, ran for 14,101 yards -- fourth in NFL history -- and led the NFL in rushing with 1,697 yards in 2004. He isn't sure what he'll say in his induction speech -- he hasn't written a word, he said -- but he certainly is moved by his induction.

"This is the first time I've felt this emotional, passionate connection to the game of football," said Martin, who admits he didn't love the sport when he played. "My perspective on football will never be the same after today. It means so much more now."

New York Sports