NCF Nation: Curtis Martin

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.

[+] EnlargeCurtis Martin
Tony Kurdzuk/The Star-Ledger via US PresswireCurtis Martin, shown at a Jets' preseason game in 2010, is one of two players to reach 1,000 yards rushing in each of his first 10 NFL seasons.
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.

The final four revealed

May, 12, 2010
5/12/10
12:00
PM ET
Two rounds are in the books and four teams are left in ESPN.com’s playoff to determine college football’s best NFL pipeline.

Clemson, Oklahoma State, Nebraska, Florida, Tennessee, Michigan, Arizona State and Penn State were eliminated in Round 2.

Georgia, Notre Dame, UCLA and Ohio State were pushed aside in Round 1.

Only Florida State, Pittsburgh, Miami and the University of Southern California are left.

Based on recent history, it’s a surprise the Panthers are still standing.

Next to college football’s teams of the 1980s (Miami), 1990s (FSU) and 2000s (USC), the Panthers stick out as much as Lane Kiffin sitting at a table of Hall of Fame coaches.

But here’s a brief history lesson to bring you up to speed on Pittsburgh football:

In the early 1980s, there probably wasn’t a better NFL factory than the Steel City’s university. Quarterback Dan Marino played there, along with fellow Pro Football Hall of Famers Russ Grimm and Rickey Jackson.

Who can forget Pitt’s stellar offensive linemen like Mark May, Jimbo Covert, Ruben Brown and Bill Fralic or its menacing defensive linemen such as Hugh Green, Chris Doleman and Sean Gilbert? Former NFL running backs Curtis Martin and Craig “Iron Head” Heyward played for the Panthers. More recently, Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald and cornerback Darrelle Revis starred at Pitt.

But if the survey were based on the last 10 to 15 years -- instead of the last three decades -- the Panthers wouldn’t have a seat at the front table.

FSU, Miami and USC are far and away college football’s best NFL factories during the last two decades.

The Hurricanes blessed us with alumni who won five NFL Most Valuable Player awards and made 100 Pro Bowl appearances. An alumni game at "The U.” would include a defense led by safety Ed Reed, linebacker Ray Lewis, and defensive linemen Warren Sapp and Cortez Kennedy. Try scoring against that unit.

The Miami offense would include quarterback Jim Kelly, tailbacks Edgerrin James and Clinton Portis, receiver Michael Irvin, tight end Jeremy Shockey, and tackle Bryant McKinnie.

Only USC can match that kind of star power. Four of the former Trojans drafted by NFL teams since 1979 are already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: safety Ronnie Lott, tailback Marcus Allen, and offensive linemen Anthony Munoz and Bruce Matthews.

It’s probably only a matter of time before former Trojans Junior Seau joins his fellow USC alumni in Canton, Ohio.

Florida State, which won 10 games or more every season from 1987-2000 and won national championships in 1993 and ’99, produced NFL stars such as Deion Sanders, Derrick Brooks, Walter Jones and Warrick Dunn.

But many of FSU’s best players during the 1980s and ‘90s never found as much success in the NFL. Brad Johnson, the only former Noles quarterback to have sustained success in the NFL, didn’t even start during his senior season at FSU. Quarterbacks like Peter Tom Willis, Danny McManus, Danny Kanell and Casey Weldon had a cup of coffee in the NFL, but not much more.

What was the biggest surprise in the first round? No. 12 seed Ohio State over No. 5 seed Tennessee.

Ohio State’s lineup of Orlando Pace, Cris Carter, Chris Spielman, Eddie George and Robert Smith is as good as anybody’s, but Tennessee’s roster of NFL talent is arguably just as solid.

Besides, who doesn’t know the Buckeyes are going to lose to an SEC team every time?

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