Heart and Soul Curtis Martin's commitment to excelling for the Jets is equaled only by his desire to find lasting happiness off the field

December 11, 2000

Sister luck is out there somewhere, merrily unaware of Curtis
Martin's greatest gift. More than being a tough, resilient,
revered pro football player--and a benevolent optimist who hands
out 100-dollar bills to the homeless--Martin, the New York Jets'
magnificent halfback, is a Barry White song come to life. He says
he knows how to make women laugh, and he understands why they
cry.

A couple of years ago, Martin says, he wrote a love letter to his
then girlfriend, R&B singer Toni Braxton, that was so moving it
made several of her friends cry. "I am like the king of romance,"
Martin, a 27-year-old bachelor, says, "but unlike the way I used
to be, when I was driven by desire, my romantic gestures come
from the heart. I believe I understand women, at least more than
I used to: how to get their hearts and their minds." He pauses,
then smiles so widely that his elegant, Tupac-smooth eyebrows
converge. "I honestly believe that my wife is going to be one of
the happiest women in the world."

Right now, though, Martin, is getting less action than Katherine
Harris at a Democratic Party fund-raiser because he's channeling
his passion into football. His athletic ardor can't be
undervalued: While most star players boast at least one area of
exceptional physical prowess, Martin's spirit is what sets him
apart. "A lot of fans don't realize it, but if you went around
the league and asked players, they'd tell you that Curt's one of
the top two or three backs," says New England Patriots linebacker
Chris Slade, a former teammate of Martin's. "His size and speed
aren't intimidating, but he plays with such fire."

There are ballcarriers who have glossier reputations than Martin,
but there may not be another back who does so much, so well.
"He's smart, tough and incredibly versatile," says Buffalo Bills
guard Ruben Brown, a four-time Pro Bowl selection who blocked for
Martin at Pitt. "No matter what down it is or what the situation
calls for--slipping between the tackles, busting it outside,
powering ahead for short yardage, splitting out wide and making a
tough catch, picking up a blitzing linebacker--he can do it, and
do it well."

All of Martin's gifts were on display at Giants Stadium on
Sunday. In the best game of his career he ran for a Jets-record
203 yards on 30 carries and scored the clinching touchdown in a
27-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts that kept New York
(9-4) on the heels of the AFC East-leading Miami Dolphins (10-3).
With 1,094 rushing yards in 13 games (10th best in the league),
Martin is one of only three players, along with Hall of Famer
Eric Dickerson and future Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, to have
exceeded 1,000 yards in each of his first six seasons in the
league.

However, when it comes time to name the NFL's top backs, he's
often left off the list. Last season he ran for 1,464 yards--the
league's third-highest total--yet he didn't make the AFC Pro Bowl.
Marshall Faulk, Eddie George, Edgerrin James, Stephen Davis and
Corey Dillon also had huge years in 1999, with Faulk, George and
James helping their teams reach the playoffs, but the 5'11",
210-pound Martin slips under the spotlight much as he slips
through the cracks of a defense.

He's the sort of player who has to be missed to be appreciated.
In 1996, his second season, Martin helped the Patriots reach
Super Bowl XXXI, and then 13 months later he shifted the power in
the AFC East by jumping to the Jets, who promptly reached the
1998 AFC Championship Game. But while Martin plays in the
nation's media capital--and though he may be the most important
player on a surprising Jets team--his excellence is lost on all
but the keenest observers. "He's the best cutback runner in the
game," says Zach Thomas, the Dolphins' All-Pro inside linebacker.
"He'll get you flowing one way and then put that one wicked cut
on you, and he's already flowing downhill."

Adds Bills linebacker John Holecek, "I'd rather face Eddie George
than Curtis, because Curtis is so elusive. Yet he's also tough
enough to take your best hit and keep going, and he reads his
blockers better than anyone."

Martin's mentality is easy to read: During an interview before
the 1995 draft, Patriots running backs coach Maurice Carthon was
struck by Martin's devotion to the game. "He had missed most of
his senior year with an ankle injury, and he talked about how he
had wanted to come back and play in the last few games, but
[coach] Johnny Majors wouldn't let him," says Carthon, now
Martin's position coach with the Jets. "He got so emotional that
he actually started crying."

After New England selected Martin in the third round, making him
the 10th running back taken, he rushed for an AFC-best 1,487
yards and was voted by the Associated Press as the NFL offensive
rookie of the year. He also won the first of three Pro Bowl
selections, not to mention the respect of his coach, Bill
Parcells. In 1997, the year Parcells jumped to the Jets, he wooed
Martin, a restricted free agent, with a six-year, $36 million
offer sheet. When the Patriots declined to match that deal, the
acquisition of Martin also cost New York first- and third-round
draft picks as compensation to New England, which most NFL
insiders considered a vast overpayment. It wasn't. The Patriots'
offense has suffered ever since, while the Jets have built a
potent attack around Martin. He rarely fumbles or loses yards,
and he executes his assignments rigorously and gets stronger as
the game goes on. "He's the centerpiece of that team," says
future Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen.

Last year, after his teammates had voted him the Jets' MVP, he
wrote a heartfelt letter to Parcells, who had resigned several
days earlier, thanking him and giving him the MVP trophy. Such
displays of selflessness are common for Martin, who routinely
gives his phone number to cancer-stricken children he befriends
while visiting hospitals and turns chance meetings with homeless
folk into a poor man's lottery. Brother, can you spare a
Benjamin? "Curt would be broke if it weren't for me," says his
mother, Rochella, who as a single parent raised her only child in
south Pittsburgh, where she still lives. "He will help anybody
for anything, and let me tell you, Boy, they all come at him."

Martin says the main reason he plays football "is to light up the
face of a sick child or someone less fortunate, for that makes my
heart sing. If football were just for the money and the fame, I
believe in my heart that I wouldn't play. I go through the pain
on the field so that I can somewhat relieve another person's pain
off it."

He often stays so late at New York's practice facility watching
film that he sneaks dinner from the spread provided for the
team's coaches, and he frequently reacts to subpar game
performances by volunteering for scout-team duty in practice. His
goals for the 2000 season--improving as a blocker and
receiver--have been realized. He is third on the Jets with 52
receptions, for 345 yards. If he has a weakness, it's an
inability to stay awake in meetings and during film sessions, a
condition he blames on viewing plays that he has already studied
on his own. "He's got 45-pound weights on his eyelids," says Jets
running back Bernie Parmalee. "Yeah," adds fullback Richie
Anderson, "and he does a lot of dumbbell curls during meetings.
It's crazy--he should be getting plenty of sleep at home, because
he doesn't have a love life."

Ah, the cruel twists of fate: Martin, who once cavalierly blew
through an assembly line of lovers--many of whom, he says, have
since received earnest apologies for his insensitivity--now
contends he knows the secret to a woman's heart. Yet here he is,
sitting idle on the sidelines. The women he fawns over are
Rochella, with whom he has daily phone conversations, and his
six-year-old goddaughter, Diamond. Martin calls himself a "loner
and an observer," a man who would rather fly solo in the big
city than hang out with the guys. He happily takes a table for
one at his favorite Chinese restaurant or jazz bar, but if he
sees an attractive woman at the dry cleaners or at an art
exhibit, he's not afraid to tell her, "I think you're really
beautiful."

As he sits in the living room of his spacious apartment in Garden
City, N.Y., surrounded by an eclectic array of paintings and
artifacts--"Every piece of art in my home is a reflection of a
different side of my personality, and this one shows my
gentlemanly side," he says, pointing to a Georgia O'Keefe
painting of a luscious white rose--the king of romance looks
forward to the day he'll find his queen. "You know, I enjoy
decorating my home, but all of this stuff has such minute value
to me," he says. "I'm a happy man, yet there's something exciting
about the prospect of sharing myself with another person without
any restrictions. Though sex is an easy thing for a person in my
position, it's important that a woman love me spiritually,
mentally and emotionally before the physical aspect enters into
the equation. What's great is that I'm finally mature enough to
have the type of relationship that I really want."

Until then, his heart belongs to the Jets.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER One step ahead Martin shrugged off Colts tacklers en route to setting a Jets single-game record of 203 yards rushing in New York's 27-17 victory. COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA Catching fire With 52 receptions, Martin is also a threat in the Jets' passing game.

"No matter what the situation calls for," Brown says of Martin,
"he can do it, and do it well."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)