Martin awaits next life-changing call

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Curtis Martin was shopping for underwear in a Maui mall when he received the call that changed his life.

This was March 1998. Martin, a restricted free agent with the New England Patriots, had just arrived on the Hawaiian island. He was on an extended vacation and his underwear supply was low, so he went directly from the airport to a mall. Then his agent called, asking him to get to New York ASAP to hammer out a deal with the Jets. He never made it to his hotel.

"At first, I didn't recognize the number. I guess it was from a land line," Martin said Tuesday in an interview with ESPNNewYork.com. "I almost didn't answer it. It's a good thing I did."

On Saturday, Martin will wait for another potential life-changing call.

Martin, in his first year of eligibility, is one of 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The 44-member selection committee, which meets Saturday at the Super Bowl XLV headquarters in Dallas, can elect up to five modern-day candidates for enshrinement in Canton.

Martin, never one to focus on individual accomplishments, admitted he's excited about the prospect of football immortality. He'd join Joe Namath, Don Maynard and Weeb Ewbank as the only Hall of Famers who forged their identities with the Jets. But he knows the competition is stiff, with Deion Sanders, Marshall Faulk and Jerome Bettis -- all first-timers -- among the finalists.

The fourth-leading rusher in NFL history said he's hoping for good news but he's prepared if it doesn't happen on his first shot.

"For me, it's been such an honor to accomplish what I've accomplished in the NFL," Martin said earlier Tuesday in a conference call with reporters. "Nothing will take that away from me or that joy of playing the years I did. The Hall of Fame is more of an acknowledgment of what you've accomplished."

Martin, who last played in 2005, was in a reflective mood. He reminisced about his late start in football. He didn't play organized ball until his senior year at Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh, where the football coach saw him in gym class and begged him to try out for the team. That was a Wednesday.

That Saturday, he started at running back in a scrimmage, ran a toss sweep to the left on the first play, made five would-be tacklers miss and took it 80 yards for a touchdown.

"It seems as though it was just like fate," he said. "It was something I was just gifted to do."

Martin was drafted by the Patriots, and he called his three seasons in Foxborough "the best foundation I could've had as an NFL player." He remembered spending the Jewish holidays at the home of owner Robert Kraft, enjoying chicken soup and warm company.

He recalled his landmark free-agent deal with the Jets, who essentially stole him from the Patriots with a clever offer sheet that included terms that made it almost impossible for the Patriots to match. When he arrived from Maui, he went directly to a meeting with Bill Parcells, his first coach in New England.

"He told me, 'Son, I always told you that I'd take care of you. Now I want to make you the highest-paid player at your position,'" Martin said, adding that he signed the offer sheet a few hours later. Seven days later, the Patriots declined to match.

The Jets' heist intensified the acrimony between the two teams at the coaching and management levels, but Kraft never let it affect his relationship with Martin, who never made any enemies. On Tuesday, Kraft called Martin to wish him luck Saturday, a classy gesture by the Patriots' owner.

Everyone, it seems, is pulling for Martin, who trails only Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders and Walter Payton on the all-time rushing list. Martin said it's humbling to be mentioned with those players. As a rookie in 1995, he had doubts about himself.

"It's funny," he said. "Coming into the league, I remember asking Parcells if he really thought I could play on this level. The Hall of Fame was a whole other world. That's something I never really imagined would happen. I never imagined being in this situation."

Life takes funny turns. For instance, Martin never thought he'd play for the Jets because they "were just seen as one of the worst teams in the NFL in my opinion, to be frank about it. I had never heard of the Jets winning. Joe Namath was so far beyond my time."

But then the Jets hired Parcells, who stole Martin. Together, they tilted the rivalry back toward New York before the Patriots started winning Super Bowls. If Martin makes the Hall of Fame, his presenter at the induction ceremony will be Parcells.

On Saturday, Martin doesn't have anything special planned. "Probably just doing something simple," he said. He will watch TV and wait for the call.

He won't be shopping for underwear.