The ultimate motivation

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Near the end for Bill Parcells as Jets coach, he happened to cross paths with Curtis Martin in the men's room of Weeb Ewbank Hall.

"Hey, Boy Wonder," Parcells called over. "Who's going to keep you humble when I leave."

Parcells had believed in him, even when Martin hadn't believed in himself coming out of the University of Pittsburgh. Parcells believed, even when Martin needed his pastor to convince him an NFL career was worth the trouble for a running back who had never loved the game. Yes, Parcells believed, when Martin had to decide for himself that he was even worth the trouble.

Who would keep Curtis Martin humble?

"To be quite honest with you, it's not you who keeps me humble," Martin replied, suggesting a higher authority than an NFL emperor.

"But you definitely help," Martin assured.

On the roll call of Parcells' most beloved pupils, there are few, if any, Parcells holds in higher esteem than Martin. After Martin was the voted the Jets MVP in Parcells' final season as coach in 1999, Parcells walked into his office to find a gift on his desk, a note of gratitude attached. The gesture moved the cantankerous old coach to tears.

In Martin's mind, Parcells had been responsible for delivering one of the game's great backs his most treasured professional gift: The lessons and principles needed to be one of the league's best, especially when Martin's motivation to play football has so much of a product of the stage it gives him to touch people's lives. There are charitable players in sports, and there's Martin. Few do more, and almost no one does so much, so quietly.

He never did play for the cheers, the adulation, the touchdowns. He played football to get himself out of harm's way as a kid growing up in Pittsburgh, to get a scholarship and get on with a good life. Once Martin started running with a football, he's never stopped.

So Martin, 31, goes home to Pittsburgh to play the Steelers in the AFC Division Playoffs on Saturday. This will be his second game at Heinz Field this season, and the fourth in his career back home in Pittsburgh. Martin can't begin to tell you how little sentiment that holds for him.

He brings home no stories to tell of standing in the cold outside Three Rivers Stadium and hoping for Mean Joe Greene to toss him one of his jerseys. There are no memories of running through the streets with a football under his arms, pretending he was Franco Harris. There were no Steelers posters hanging in his bedroom, no terrible towel clutched on Sunday afternoons watching his hometown team.

"I wasn't a Steelers fan," Martin said. "I wasn't a football fan."

The thing is, Martin still isn't a football fan. People have a hard time reconciling this with his largely peerless professionalism, his undying devotion to his job and teammates, but you have to understand something: It took forever until Martin could even tolerate football. It wasn't that he didn't watch games on television as a kid, he doesn't watch them now. From start to finish, he says he never watched a football game on television until the Super Bowl two years ago. Nevertheless, he's never been better, rushing for 1,697 yards this season, 13,366 in his career. He's never been better, never been running so hard, so well, this late in the season.

"It just doesn't interest me. Don't get me wrong: Winning is important to me. That's something that moves me. I don't want it to come across like football doesn't mean anything. It means a lot. It's a huge part of my life. Yet, I'm just not a fan of the game.

"Looking at me from the outside, you would think that I love the game because of the way I'm dedicated and committed to it. Yet, that dedication is to people, is to purpose in life, that makes me to do this with all my might."

Parcells was with the Patriots when he drafted Martin in the third round in 1995, and brought him to the Jets as a free agent three years later. Parcells and Martin couldn't be more opposites, yet feel more connected. Parcells couldn't stay away from the game, always feeling that pull back to it. For Martin, he's sure of this: When his career is over, it's over. He'll never coach. He'll never be one of those ex-players always hanging around, always needing his validation around the game. He could walk away tomorrow, and never look back.

"(Parcells) has seen that you can have that commitment without that love," Martin said. "He accepted that. And I think he really respected it, because football wasn't my end-all for everything. He realized that I used football as a vehicle, and realized that it made me work even harder."

So, Curtis Martin comes home on Saturday to play the Steelers, a chance to get the Jets within a victory of the Super Bowl. The only longer shot than the Jets winning three games on the road in these AFC playoffs to reach Jacksonville, is Martin turning on the television to watch the game if they don't.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com. His book, The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty, can be pre-ordered release.