Martin and Munson: Legacies united
This was late January, 2007, at Manhattan’s Marriot Marquis, where Mike Mussina, Carlos Delgado, Patrick Ewing, Rich Gossage and Curtis Martin were honored with Thurman Munson Awards before the annual dinner that raises money to benefit the Association for the Help of Retarded Children. It was a perfect fit for Martin, whose benevolence superseded his Hall of Fame NFL career that spanned 11 seasons with the Patriots and Jets.
Martin will be inducted Saturday night in Canton, Ohio, ironically the birthplace of Munson, the beloved Yankees captain. Two icons on Martin’s short list of role models are Bill Parcells and Munson, the latter due to how his influence extends beyond the baseball diamond, even after his tragic death on August 2, 1979.
“My tendency is to gravitate towards people who do extraordinary things off the field,” Martin told me that evening. “Thurman's one of those.”
Martin, with the help of his mother, turned to football to escape the gang life and violent atmosphere that dominated the inner city neighborhoods of Pittsburgh in the early 1990s. Whereas Munson never had a loving relationship with his parents, Martin’s father left the family when he was four years old – a bond severed until Martin reached out to forgive and mend on Father’s Day of 1998 – and his grandmother and several friends were murdered.
Football was never in Martin’s blood, but it was an escape. He was good at it, named City Player of the Year his senior season – his only season – at Allderdice High School that earned him a scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh. More importantly it was a new beginning. Martin was alive and well, and a light was on that was never to be extinguished.
"This wasn't something I planned on doing. Football is something I did so I didn't end up jailed or dead,” Martin recently told a group of Jets beat writers. "Part of me questions whether I would even be living. I definitely don't think I would have the happy ending that I'm headed toward. I was never a fan of the game. I never played football because I loved it. I used football as a vehicle to do what I really loved -- touching people's lives.
"If you make up your mind to just do the right thing no matter what ... and you stick to it, which I did, this is how things can turn around. I feel as if my life turned around from what it used to be, and I think anyone has a chance."
Martin parlayed the terrors of his inner-city surroundings into an extraordinary career, and an extraordinary life. He was equally productive (14,101 rushing yards) and durable (119 consecutive games started). Like Munson, Martin grinded his way to success, earning those tough, extra two or three yards with no excuses. He also set an example for others, which convinced Bill Parcells to make an unexpected run at the restricted free agent after the 1997 season to import an unquestioned leader into the Jets’ locker room.
Parcells, Martin’s former coach, general manager and still one of his closest friends, set the course of the Jets-Patriots rivalry and the rest of Martin’s career by orchestrating clandestine negotiations that turned into a five-year, $28 million contract, with a club option for a sixth year, and unique clauses that allowed Martin to void the deal after the first year and prevent the Jets from using a franchise tag, thus making him an unrestricted free agent. Rather than surrender the chance at a first- and third-round pick, compensation for losing a restricted free agent, the Patriots declined to match the deal and risk possibly losing him the following year for nothing.
Thanks to the dreaded poison pill, a loophole abolished by the NFL the following year, the Patriots held hard feelings that still exist, and Martin took his talent and intangibles to Gang Green. Parcells knew Martin like a son and told him that people naturally follow him because of how he plays the game and lives life as a person.
“I think that I did it – much of it was just pure determination,” said Martin on how he grinded out an 11-year career. “I still maintain the belief that every year there was someone on the team — and I don’t say it modestly – but every year on the team I felt like there was someone who was more gifted than I was. I don’t know if they necessarily had more talent as a package, but I felt like they had more ability just about every year.”
In 2004, Martin ran for 1,697 yards at age 31 to become the oldest ever to lead the NFL in rushing and clinch his spot in Canton. The Jets will honor Martin on September 9 when they retire his No. 28 during their season opener at MetLife Stadium against the Buffalo Bills. Munson’s bust and No. 15 may not hold a place in Cooperstown – a debate that rages on – but he was the ultimate example of how to get the most out of his abilities despite not being an athletic specimen. Martin looked the part, but he got the most out of himself relying not solely on talent.
“I just focused on outworking everyone,” Martin said. “I just knew that my edge in this game of football, I just felt like I was mentally tougher than everybody else on the field I played with. I think there are other guys who would have had better careers if they had just played with the amount of pain I was able to play with.”
Martin will take his rightful step into football immortality, proof that the Munson influence is everlasting.
Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC