The one that got away

DALLAS -- Running back Curtis Martin gets his first crack at the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday. Even if he doesn't get in on the first ballot, which can often be a challenge, it shouldn't be much longer before Martin crosses the goal-line one more time.

Here in New England, it won't take entry into the Hall of Fame to define how Martin will be remembered.

He's The Greatest Patriot to Get Away.

On Tuesday, the connection between Martin and the Patriots was revisited when owner Robert Kraft called him to offer congratulations. Martin shared that story on a media conference call, as well as fond memories of his three-year stint with the team (1995-97) that included trips to Kraft's home for the Jewish holidays for some of his favorite chicken soup made by Kraft's wife, Myra.

Martin had cooked up something special after arriving as a third-round draft choice, bursting on to the scene by setting the franchise record for rushing yards (later broken by Corey Dillon). On and off the field, where he carried himself as the consummate gentleman, he almost seemed too good to be true.

Then came the mistake that Pete Carroll said was the biggest regret of his Patriots coaching tenure -- losing Martin to the New York Jets as a restricted free agent. The Jets presented Martin with a six-year, $36 million offer sheet that was drawn up in a way that made it hard for the Patriots to match it. Not only were the Jets willing to pony up the cash, they also paid the hefty price of first- and third-round draft choices.

It turned out to be a bargain.

Meanwhile, the Patriots drafted running back Robert Edwards with the first-rounder and fullback Chris Floyd with the third-round pick. Edwards' career took a downward turn after he sustained a career-threatening knee injury playing beach football at the Pro Bowl following the 1998 season, and Floyd never panned out.

It was one of the key decisions that doomed the "triangle of power" regime of Carroll, vice president of player personnel Bobby Grier and salary-cap man Andy Wasynczuk.

For his part, Martin said he never intended to leave New England -- ever.

"I'm a very loyal person, I was totally open to staying in New England. I wanted to stay in New England," he said. "It's funny, because of all the teams that I may have had the opportunity to go to, the Jets were one in particular that I didn't want to go to."

Martin's mindset changed once former Patriots coach Bill Parcells, who he reveres and said will be his Hall of Fame presenter if he is elected, was hired. Still, while he might have privately been irritated at the lack of aggressiveness from the Patriots on a new contract, he wasn't planning an immediate departure. That's why he was in Maui when he received a call from his agent that the Jets wanted to sign him.

"I literally was at the mall, straight off the plane, and had to go back on the plane and fly all the way back to New York," he recalled.

While Martin's departure from New England is old news, the sting never left Carroll, who in March of 2010 cited his departure as the reason he wouldn't return to the NFL unless he had final control of personnel decisions. Carroll said he had made "strong efforts" to let anyone who would listen know that Martin was "not happy and ready to bolt."

"I'll regret that always, and how it fit into the fortunes of that team," Carroll said. "I was up against it because they really felt like we could play with other guys and still be successful."

Losing Martin was bad enough. Losing him to a rival and watching them win with him made it that much worse.

When Kraft called Martin on Tuesday, he told him how much he appreciated him as a player and person. On a week when Martin has reflected deeply about his career while considering the possibility of entering the Hall of Fame, the call was well received.

"I've always respected the Kraft family and I always respected the Patriots organization. The Patriots organization was the best foundation that I could have had as an NFL player," Martin said, noting the presence of Parcells and Kraft, and that there were few distractions for a city kid coming to suburban Foxborough. "Looking back on it, there is no other team I would have rather spent those first three years with."

It should have been more than three. Instead, Martin went on to eight ultra-productive seasons with the Jets. Now he's on the cusp of entering the Hall as a Jet, solidifying his title as The Greatest Patriot to Get Away.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.