Curtis Martin got the nod into the NFL Hall of Fame this past weekend. But the truth is, he has been a Hall of Famer for years and years.
Anybody who has had the good fortune to meet Martin would agree.
I got to know Martin as the New York Jets beat writer for The Associated Press, just in time to write about the best season of his NFL career. It was 2004, and Martin was 31. He might as well have been 61 in running back years. Martin had quietly gone about racking up one 1,000-yard season after another. Despite living and playing in the media capital of the world, there was a good chance he could walk down the street of Manhattan unrecognized.
That is the way he wanted it. Rather than revel in his football glory, he reveled in what football allowed him to do for others. Rather than hold news conferences to discuss his charity involvements, he quietly went about giving.
There was the time at his hometown church back in 2000, when he stood up next to the pastor and told the congregants sitting in the pews to put away their money. They would not have to give that particular day. Martin would give to them. He gave out house payments, car payments. Whatever folks needed.
His charity in his hometown of Pittsburgh is well known. People would come to his mother's shop and ask for money to pay a light bill, or money to help cover the rent. Most every time, Martin would give. His insistence that his mother forgive his father, who abandoned them when Martin was 3, tells you all you need to know about who Curtis Martin truly is.
Stories like these, of course, do not get a man into the NFL Hall of Fame. Seasons like 2004 do. Martin made it his quest to get to 1,700 yards that season. To prepare, he ran up and down the grueling Santa Monica steps during the spring. He changed his code to get into the Jets' building to 1700. He asked for more work during training camp. Then he began the season with 196 yards rushing against Cincinnati -- a sign of what was to come.
Martin ended that season with 1,697 yards to claim his first and only NFL rushing title -- the oldest back to lead the league in rushing. He became the second back to start his career with 10 straight 1,000-yard seasons, joining Barry Sanders. His final season, in 2005, would prove to be his toughest, as a knee injury would eventually force him to retire.
It was stunning, really, when you consider just a few months earlier he was the toast of the NFL. But seeing him limp when he was not in pads and play tenuously in the games in which he suited up made it obvious he needed to quit.
But Martin never wept for his career. He had a plan after football. Because the truth was, he never really wanted to play football. He only picked up the game to stay out of trouble in Pittsburgh.
But his one magical season in high school led him to Pitt, where he still ranks No. 8 on the school's career rushing list with 2,643 yards. He also had has one of the most dazzling days in Big East history, when he ran for 251 yards against Texas in 1994. Still, Martin never had the glitz or the fanfare as other college prospects or NFL standouts.
He quietly ran for more than 14,000 yards in his NFL career to rank No. 4 on the all-time rushing list. He did not make the Hall on his first shot, but who is counting? His addition Saturday along with Pitt defensive end Chris Doleman was well deserved, and it gave the Panthers eight Hall of Famers -- tied for third among all colleges.
But when it comes to Martin, the people closest to him would probably tick off a list of how he has helped others before going into his career highlights.
That makes a true Hall of Famer.