"[It was] a brutally honest, heartfelt, and complex speech from Curtis Martin." -- Rich Eisen of the NFL Network describing Curtis Martin's Hall of Fame induction speech
The appropriate response to Rich Eisen's description of Curtis Martin's Hall of Fame induction speech by anyone who saw it should be "Exactly!" But the fact of the matter is you could add riveting, inspired, and introspective to the list of adjectives and still not completely capture the essence of Martin's 25-minute tour de force on Saturday night.
Before we go any further, do yourself a favor, take a few minutes and watch the highlights of Martin's speech right now:
Up until the time Martin took the stage on Saturday night, the 2012 induction ceremony had been lacking that little extra oomph that we football fans have become so accustomed to feeling that first weekend in August. Make no mistake, in large part it had to do with a string of speeches prior to Martin's that at best I would describe as "cookie cutter," and at their worst dragged on...and on...and on (yeah, I'm looking at you Cortez Kennedy).
Perhaps it was because the Class of 2012 had the unfortunate chronological challenge of following the Deion Sanders/Shannon Sharpe Class of 2011 (a speech enthusiast's wet dream of an induction class).
Perhaps it was because 2012's group was the first class since 2001 that didn't include a first ballot Hall of Famer and consequently there was no real "main eventer" on the card Saturday evening.
Perhaps it was the fact that no member of the Class of 2011 ever played on a Super Bowl winner (only Martin and Dermontti Dawson even played in the Super Bowl during their careers, going a combined 0-2).
Whatever the reason, as Hall of Fame induction nights go, this one felt very ordinary prior to Martin's grand finale. Hell, I'll say it, for the first couple hours, it was boring. That's not meant as a slight to the inductees, it's not meant to minimize their accomplishments. Hell, it's probably more a statement about me than about them.
At one point, in the doldrums of the pre-Martin speeches, I even semi-disgustedly tweeted that the Class of 2012's speeches "reflect their relevance." To be fair, I was probably combining my boredom with the class' words with their relative lack of marquee value compared to previous classes, especially the last two (2011: Deion/Sharpe/Faulk; 2010: Emmitt/Rice). Deeming the inductees somehow "irrelevant" was probably a out of line.
(This is the part where I apologize to Greg Koch, former NFL lineman, who rightfully called me out on that tweet, and for all I know, had to be talked out of finding me and going Andre-on-Finnegan on my ass. Now, I stand by the contention that this is a significantly less decorated class, but they are inherently "relevant" if they're going into the Hall of Fame. So here's me hoping that Kochie accepts my Twitter apology, heretofore referred to as a "twapology.")
That said, I do know that, as Dawson was wrapping up what he had to say, I was wishing I'd just set my DVR, gone out and drank about ten beers, and then come home and watched the ceremonies on fast forward (with about five or six Jack in the Box tacos).
And then Curtis Martin stepped to the stage. In the first two minutes, Martin cracked on Kennedy for droning on too long ("[Cortez went" so long, God decided to turn out the lights"). He then recounted a hilarious story of the well-north-of-350 pound Willie Roaf wanting to go get a mani/pedi/facial on Saturday afternoon. It was clear that Martin, armed with a quick wit, an amazing perspective, and no notes, would be speaking from the heart.
At that point, on humor and spontaneity, Martin had already won the day. He would proceed to run up the score for the next 25 minutes.
Like most football fans, I knew Curtis Martin on that cursory, Sunday afternoon-only level: How many points did he get my fantasy team? Did the Jets cover the spread? Curtis Martin is good, but he'll never be Emmitt Smith or Barry Sanders!
To me, Martin's claim to fame was his durability. He was one of the few "bell cow" running backs who was able to escape the clutches of the dreaded "fall into the abyss around the age of 28" rule that has curtailed so many great tailback careers. For ten straight years (1995-2004), Martin toted the rock 260 times or more (eight of those seasons, he carried it more than 300 times), and amazingly he had his most prolific year in the last of those ten seasons, leading the league in carries (371) and yards (1,697) in 2004 at the age of 31.
That's what I knew about Curtis Martin. Steady, productive, a machine.
Here's what I learned about Curtis Martin on Saturday night:
His becoming the fourth all-time leading rusher in NFL history may be the most ironic accomplishment in all of team sports when you consider that he has never really been a football fan....
I'll tell you this, I came into Canton this week, and everyone here who knows me, this section, everyone knows me. You know that I was never a football fan. I wasn't the type of guy to watch football. I could probably count on one hand how many football games I've watched from beginning to end in my lifetime.
....he hates to run (which has to be harrowing when the word "run" is in your job title)...
I'm up here because of how many yards I ran. Everyone who knows me also knows that I hate to run. I don't like to run at all. I box now to stay in shape just because I don't want to run anywhere.
....and most of all, he never expected his actual life expectancy to make it past the age of 21, let alone his football life expectancy to take him to the age of 31....
I always thought I would die before I was 21. So when I was 20 years old, I just said, you know what, I've got to go to the nearest church. I had never went to church. My mother never raised me telling me about God or anything. But I said I've got to go to the nearest church and tell this God, God, thank you, because I know I'm not faster than a bullet. I'm not Superman. But somehow I seem to have had more than nine lives
I remember, and this is one of the most surreal moments in my life. I remember sitting there after the preacher had preached his sermon, and I'm up in the balcony and everyone was getting up leaving, and I just sat there. I looked up at the ceiling and I said and at that time I was a street guy. So I looked up and talked to God like he was one of my boys in the street.
I said, "Listen, man, I don't know nothing about you or this Jesus cat that everybody talk about, but I'm going to make a deal with you. I heard about people making deals with the devil, but I don't want to do that. I'm going to make a deal with you. If you let me live past 21, dude, I promise that I'll just try to do my best and try to live right and try to do whatever you want me to do. I know you're a smart person, if you're God."
I learned that there were several points along Curtis Martin's journey where, if not by some divine intervention, we as football fans never would have been treated to his career, and more importantly, the lives of those outside of football whom Martin has impacted during and after his career, with his foundation and charitable works, never would have met Curtis Martin.
At some of those forks in the road which led Martin to his Hall of Fame career, he was steered by brief, but impactful words of advice, some in his teenage years...
And at the same time my gym teacher was the head football coach. His name is Mark Wittgartner, he's here. He comes up to me while we're in school, and he says, "Son, I want you to play for our football team." I said, well, "I don't really have an interest, Coach." He said, well, listen, if you don't do something with your life, from what I hear about you, you're going to end up dead or in jail pretty soon.
With him in one ear and my mother in the other ear, football became the default that I fell into. And Coach Mark Wittgartner, you have no idea what you were saying to me, but I believe what you said could have been the possible thing that saved my life. I think you were right.
....some in his adult years....
Parcells says, "Curtis, we want to know if you're interested in being a New England Patriot?" I said, "Yes, yes, sir." And we hang up the phone. As soon as we hang up the phone I turn around to everyone and I said, "Oh my gosh, I do not want to play football."
No, you're laughing, but this is the truth. I turned around and said, "I don't want to play football. I don't even know that I like football enough to try to make a career out of it." My pastor at the time was a guy by the name of Leroy Joseph, and I'm so glad he was there to talk some sense into me. He says, "Curtis, look at it this way, man." He said, "Maybe football is just something that God is giving you to do all those wonderful things that you say you want to do for other people."
I tell you, it was like a light bulb came on in my head. That became my connection with football. I don't know if he wouldn't have said that to me if football would have gotten out of me what it got out of me. I definitely wouldn't be standing here.
...and at other junctures in his life, the hand of God came down to block deadly traffic to allow Martin continuing down any earthly road at all, much less a Hall of Fame NFL career....
By the time I was 15, growing up in the environment that I was in, I had so many brushes with death. I remember one distinct time a guy had a gun to my head, a loaded gun to my head, pulled the trigger seven times. God's honest truth, the bullet didn't come out. He wasn't pointing the gun at me and pulled the trigger and a bullet came out. I was too young to even recognize that God was saving my life.
I knew in generalities about Curtis Martin's rocky upbringing, the death and danger that surrounded him as a youth, and about Martin's reconciliation with his late father during his adult years. I had no idea just how torturous -- literally torturous -- the details were...
I had a father who I love him dearly and he's passed and gone on, but he was my guy before he died. But when I was 5 years old, I remember watching him torture my mother, I mean, literally. I don't necessarily have notes, so I'm going to bare my soul and just bear with me.
But I remember watching him torture you. He had my mother locked in the bathroom. Had her sitting on the edge of the tub, and he turned on all the hot water and stopped the tub up so that the hot water would eventually flow on her legs. He dared her to move. As the hot water flowed up and started going on her legs and going on her feet and she would flinch a little bit, he would rush into the bathroom, take her hair and burn it with a lighter.
He would come back out, watch her some more, she'd move again, and he would go in there with a cigarette and put cigarette burns all over her legs which she still bares to this day. I've seen him beat her up like she was a man. I've seen him throw her down the steps. I've witnessed this woman go to they got a bet on whether I'm going to cry or not. So I'm going to hold it in.
By the time Martin was five years old, his father had left home (which, given his mortally abusive tendencies, was probably a blessing), forcing Martin's mother to raise him by herself. Along the way, Rochella Dixon had help from her mom and her sister, but both eventually were swallowed up by the murderous violence of their neighborhood. The one constant in Curtis Martin's life was and still is his mother; he made that abundantly and, at times, tear-jerkingly clear during what amounted to practically a verbal Mother's Day card...
For me, crazy was kind of like what my dad was. So in my mind, as a 9-year-old, my mother told me the only thing that got her through that was I came up to her and grabbed her hand and said, "Mom, are you going crazy?" And she looked down at me and said, "No. Why do you ask me that?" And I just said, "Well, that's good because if you go crazy, nobody's going to be here to take care of me." I'm so grateful to my mother. That is the strongest individual that I've ever known, and I appreciate her so much.
Along those maternal lines, I learned that Martin feels his greatest accomplishment has nothing to do with yards, touchdowns, or carries. Forgiving those who've wronged us is one of the most difficult things to do; convincing others to forgive those who have wronged them can be damn near impossible. Through the scars of all the cigarette burns on his mother's legs and her bruises, mental and physical, from the years of abuse, Martin was able to guide his mother into forgiving, and eventually caring for, his late father....
At the end of the day, I've achieved a lot of things, and I've done a lot of wonderful things in life that I'm so grateful for. But I tell you my greatest achievement in my life was helping my mother and nurturing my mother from the bitter, angry, beaten, hurt person that she was, nurturing her to be a healthy to have a healthy mindset, and to forgive my father for everything that he did to her. That's my greatest accomplishment. By the time he died, she was cooking him food every day and taking it to him. And she is so happy right now, and I'm so grateful for her.
I learned that the on-field accomplishments and experiences that to me most defined Curtis Martin prior to Saturday night, ultimately are byproducts of what truly defined him -- a will to serve others, an insatiable work ethic, and a gratitude to those who helped him, and at times saved him along the way.
In the end, after the ceremonies were all over, I got to thinking about these Hall of Fame speeches. I pondered what makes for a compelling speech, and lamented why more speeches couldn't be like Curtis Martin's. But the fact of the matter is that some inductees (hell, most inductees) are just predisposed to delivering a mundane induction speech because they lack the life experiences, and more importantly, the uncanny ability to process and articulate those events like Curtis Martin.
Very few can speak from the heart like Martin did Saturday, with no notes, just a brain full of memories and a heart bearing numerous jagged psychological scars, scars that have galvanized Martin when they could have consumed him.
Ultimately, I came away from Saturday night wishing I'd known Curtis Martin's story while he was still playing, to the point that I truly regretted not rooting for him during his playing career. As a football fan, my outlook toward Curtis Martin was, strangely enough, a lot like Curtis Martin's outlook on the game of football itself in that I had never really been a Curtis Martin fan.
Oddly enough, my realization about my Curtis Martin fandom occurred the same weekend as Curtis Martin's realization about his football fandom...
Let me say this: This weekend, and I'll tell you this, and this is God's honest truth, I came up here. I had a chance to spend time with the older guys and the guys who have been inducted. I had a chance to listen to their experience. On Friday morning, we went and listened to Ralph Wilson speak. Just the passion that he had for this game, being one of the founders, one of the founding fathers of this game, there was something that rubbed off on me, and literally yesterday I felt like it was my first day as a fan of the game of football.
Literally, Saturday, I felt like it was my first day as a fan of Curtis Martin.
Pretty cool feeling.
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And a damn good speech.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. weekdays, and watch the simulcast on Comcast 129 from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.