Walter Payton. Barry Sanders. Jerome Bettis. Emmitt Smith. LaDainian Tomlinson. Curtis Martin.
You’ve undoubtedly heard about every single running back on this list, right? Each one of them was a legend of the game who revolutionized the running back position. These are the guys who you’ll be telling your grandkids about someday, the kind of players that you’ll save photos of just because you never want to forget seeing them play. Well, all of them except for one.
Ask any football fan over 40 years old about Payton or Sanders, and then watch them try to describe an athlete so dominant that he was on a different plane from everyone else. Ask any football fan over 20 about Bettis or Smith and you’ll get stories of two running backs who ran over defenders like battering rams. Look up any Tomlinson highlights and you’ll see for yourself what makes him so special.
Now, go to any of these sources and ask about Curtis Martin. Their eyes do not light up. There are no exciting or mind-blowing clips of Martin running over, under, or around any defense. Those same fans that gushed about Sanders and Payton will probably say about Martin: “Yeah, that guy was OK too.” His failed bid for the 2011 Hall of Fame class did not leave me thinking that Martin was underrated (he was recently included in the 2012 Hall of Fame class). No, instead it was a conversation I had with a friend at school. We were discussing who belonged in the all-time running back top five and I suggested Martin. Keep in mind, my friend is a knowledgeable and sensible football fan, a guy who I have had hundreds of NFL-related conversations with over 10 years. His response? “Nah, he wouldn’t even be in my top ten.” Not only that, but when I went around to other very sensible football people in my school, I got answers varying from “Maybe Number 8 or 9” (acceptable answer) to “Who’s that?” (makes me fight off tears). For those of you who don’t know him, allow me to introduce my favorite Jet of all-time (although Darrelle Revis is definitely a close second).
I could state his case well enough with statistics alone. His 14,101 rushing yards rank fourth on the all-time rushing list. His 10 straight 1,000-yard seasons are the most to begin a career in NFL history, not to mention the fact that he became the oldest player to lead the league in rushing in 2004, at age 31 (doubly impressive since running backs tend to hit the wall around 28 or 29. Look up what happened to Shaun Alexander, Marshall Faulk, and Eddie George at that age; it makes Martin’s record a lot more substantial.) You always knew what you had with Martin, a guy that showed up every single day and consistently gave a first-class performance, win or lose.
But in the grand scheme of things, the stats are secondary. The Hall of Fame is for those who “have made positive contributions to the game of football,” and nobody has made more positive contributions than Martin. He grew up in a violent and gang-ridden section of Pittsburgh and used football as a refuge from his troubled life. When he signed his first NFL contract, he said in an interview that his first thought was “How can I use my good fortune to help others?” You have to understand what this meant for a certain super-impressionable 7-year-old Jets fan. Even back then, I knew that athletes shouldn’t be my role models. I grew up in the era of diva wide receivers, the steroid scandal in baseball, and multimillionaire athletes who quite clearly didn’t care about their fans. Martin was the one guy who did and said all the right things, and that says a lot about not only the kind of football player he was, but also the kind of man he was.
Martin will inevitably fade away over the years. People will pick apart his stats and say that they didn’t measure up to the all-time greats when you consider era differences. Nothing stood out about Martin but his amazing consistency, yet only die-hard fans seemed to appreciate it. In the future, people will tell their kids about Bettis’s toughness or Sanders’s explosiveness and omit Martin. I’ll tell my kids that Martin wasn’t the model of a perfect running back, but instead a role model for how to live life. At the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.