Whether or not Curtis Martin is elected Saturday to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, this day should be a celebration of the man's life and career. In 22 years of covering the New York Jets, I can say he's the most unique individual I've encountered.
I've written thousands and thousands of words about Martin the player and the person. His philanthropic spirit is unparalleled. Believe me, I've seen it. In 2004, I went to his hometown, Pittsburgh, to interview people from his past.
His mother, Rochella, owns a clothing boutique, and I spent about an hour in the store, talking to her for the story. While I was there, a couple of people came off the street and spoke to Rochella in hushed tones. Each time, she wrote something on a piece of paper. I asked her about it, and she said those were people -- strangers -- wanting to know if Curtis could give them money. One guy couldn't pay his rent and was on the verge of being evicted; there were stories like that.
Rochella told me she compiled a list and presented it to Curtis, and he decided whom to pay. She said he actually gave money to about half the people who came into her store. One time, Martin paid for the funeral of a youngster who was gunned down on the street; his family couldn't afford a proper funeral.
There are dozens, maybe hundreds of these stories, most of which we'll never know. Another anecdote just came to mind: Martin used to play with a $2 bill in his sock, given to him by his slain grandmother. Another favorite came from an interview with Martin in November 2007, when we discussed his first year in retirement and his dream of becoming an NFL owner.
Here's an excerpt from my story, which appeared in the New York Daily News:
Before announcing his retirement, he approached the mayor's office about getting involved in the city's fight against homelessness.
It wasn't a public relations ploy. Martin visits shelters and walks the streets, interacting with the homeless. After his first meeting with Robert Hess, the commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, he bumped into a homeless woman named Rhonda outside City Hall. Martin gave her $20 and they talked.
About 30 minutes later, Martin summoned Hess to the street, asking, "What can we do for her?"
They spent an hour trying to convince her to enter a nearby shelter.
"You can read people pretty quickly in this business," Hess says. "You can figure out which ones want to give lip service and which ones are serious. Curtis is very serious."
Rhonda declined the invitation to the shelter, but she agreed to accompany the well-dressed man to a nearby Duane Reade store, where Martin bought her $60 in groceries and hygiene products.
"I wish I could re-pay you," she told him. "I'll give you a kiss on the cheek."
Martin leaned over. She gently kissed him.
He filled her cart, she filled his heart.
These moments are his new touchdowns.