by Jon Kendle
Curtis Martin is one of 29 members enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame who was born in the state of Pennsylvania. Raised in a tough part of Pittsburgh, Martin had to rise above the hardships of a difficult and traumatic childhood in order to fulfill the dreams that many of his friends and family would never get the opportunity to achieve.
“I know God saved me so many times,” Martin explained. “I don’t want to make it sound like Vietnam or anything, but I have seen a lot of people killed. A lot of my friends and family members have been killed. I just thank God I didn’t end up that way.”
The first time Martin suited up to play organized football was during his senior year at Allderdice High School. He exploded onto the scene as he rushed for 1,705 yards and 20 touchdowns. He was rewarded when he earned All-State honors and named City League Player of the Year. It wasn’t long before colleges began knocking on his door to recruit him. It was at that point that Curtis realized not to put limits on his talents.
Although Martin had options he decided to stay close to home and play for the University of Pittsburgh. He seemed to be on the fast track to the National Football League after two seasons of steady improvement from 556 rushing yards and two touchdowns as a freshman to 730 yards rushing and five touchdowns as a sophomore. Martin then gained national attention with a breakout season during his junior campaign when he rushed for 1,075 yards, seven touchdowns and added 33 receptions for 249 yards and another score.
The Panthers tailback returned for his senior season among whispers of Heisman Trophy candidacy. Those whispers became screams following his 251-yard rushing performance to open the season against the University of Texas. Unfortunately, the hype fell silent during the second game of the season when Martin severely sprained his ankle against Ohio University. The injury ended his season.
“The Heisman Trophy was not really something I thought about at all,” Martin shared. “I heard some talk about it after the first game, but I never really got a chance to go after it. It would have been nice to have had a chance, but that’s something I really had no control over.”
With his senior season limited to just 282 yards rushing on 36 carries and a touchdown, Martin had an important decision to make. Would he heed the advice of Pitt head coach Johnny Majors and apply for a fifth year of college eligibility or would he put his college career behind him and make himself available for the 1995 NFL Draft? Curtis decided to take a chance on his talent, declared himself eligible for the NFL Draft and set out to prove he was healthy to NFL scouts and coaches during the postseason college all-star games and draft workouts. The 5-11, 207-pound back performed well which helped his draft stock.
“A lot of scouts didn’t realize I’m as big as I am,” said Martin. “I think going to the Blue-Gray Game gave them a chance to talk to me and get to know me a little bit. They did a lot of testing, and I had some pretty good practices. A lot of people told me they thought I opened some eyes.”
Martin did catch the attention of New England Patriots head coach Bill Parcells, who likened Martin to Joe Morris, his running back with the New York Giants. Parcells took a chance and with the 74th pick overall (a third round selection acquired from the Philadelphia Eagles) and selected Martin. He was the 10th running back off the board. The media criticized the pick and worried that Parcells’ gamble wouldn’t pay off.
Those concerns were squashed during the first game of Martin’s rookie season. He ran 30 yards on his first NFL carry, scored the game-winning touchdown and became the first Patriots player to rush for 100 yards in his pro debut. Martin compiled nine 100-yard games that season and finished the year as the AFC’s leading rusher with 1,487 yards and scored 14 touchdowns. He was named the NFL’s Rookie of the Year, All-AFC and voted to his first of five Pro Bowls.
Martin went on to play in 168 games during his 11-year career. He led his team in rushing in each of those seasons and joined fellow Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders as the only other runner to begin their careers with 10-straight 1,000-yard seasons.
Kendle is a researcher at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He joined the Hall of Fame's staff in 2006.
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