In today’s era of the National Football League, it is quite rare to come across a player who is as great of a human as they are a football player. Too often in recent years have players made headlines, not for their feats on the field, rather their faults off of it. From assault and battery to driving while intoxicated to sexual abuse to the violent fighting and execution of dogs, players across the league have struggled preserving the sanctity of the NFL player’s image. Certainly they may dazzle crowds for sixty minutes on a Sunday afternoon, but the remaining 10,000 minutes are spent defaming the reputation they’ve worked so hard to earn.

As this has become increasingly the case over the last decade or so, there is one player who’s off-the-field reputation has transcended the work he put out on the football field. The league’s fourth all-time leading rusher (14,101 yards) and the third most worked back (3,518 attempts) rose above his peers, not only due to his excellence on the grid-iron but his dedication to bettering himself as a person and a ball player.

When Curtis Martin finished his collegiate career at the University of Pittsburgh, he knew that he didn’t have a true desire to play football. Yet, when the Bill Parcells and the New England Patriots selected him in the third round of the 1995 NFL Draft he answered yes, knowing that football provided the platform to pursue his true passion: helping people.

Curtis Martin addressing the Jets fans in his inaugeration to the Jets Ring of Honor. Martin hopes that green jackets turns into a creamy off-white as he awaits to hear about his Hall-of-Fam status from Canton, Ohio. ( Photo).

And as February 5th fast approaches Martin will await a phone call from Canton, Ohio that will undoubtedly be the validation of an exemplary NFL career, both on and off the field.

“When I look back over my career, I’m more proud of the things that I’ve done off the field and the impact that I’ve had on my team as a leader,” Martin said on Wednesday. “Those are the things that make me proud as a player because, as we all know in this game, there are so many distractions. There are so many things that can take your focus off the field. For me, the thing that I’m most pleased with is to be able to retire with a name; a name that, hopefully, can be associated with good character, humility, a leader, a hard worker, and as someone who endured.”

On the field, Martin was a model of consistency. He is one of two players to have 1,000 yards in his first 10 seasons in the NFL (some guy named Barry Sanders is the other). His 3,518 rushing attempts will, in all likelihood, remain third all-time, as no running back below the age of 27 is 1,500 attempts (the Rams’ Steven Jackson is the youngest, closest at 27 years old and 1,878 attempts). Put it this way, it would take Jackson an average of 328 attempts (his career average is 268, high 345) over the next five years just to reach Martin’s attempt numbers.

Perhaps what’s even more impressive than his ability on the field, was his durability. Out of a possible 176 career games he played in 168, missing games in three of his eleven seasons played. Broken fingers, busted shoulders and partially torn ligaments in his knees was nothing that could have stopped Martin from competing. Jets owner and friend Woody Johnson said he ran in a such a unique way that it “defied description”. Current Jets guard and former teammate, Brandon Moore said he has only seen Martin practice at one speed: full. In the 2000 season opener, in a game against the Green Bay Packers, he had injured his right leg in a such a way that he couldn’t feel where his thigh and lower leg connected. Instead of leaving the game, Martin would slap on a knee brace, rush for 110 yards and two scores and call it a day.

“I believed my value to a team was in things like that,” he said.

The pounding he took between the tackles forced him to retire as doctors warned he would be walking with a cane by 38 if he were to continue to put that type of wear and tear on his body. And with his retirement, Martin felt comfortable leaving on his terms and, relatively, pain free.

“There’s very little pain,” he said. “I usually only have pain because I still work out pretty vigorously. I’m doing a lot of boxing. I’m in really good shape. Like the other day, I boxed and went maybe 17 rounds or so. I think with all the movement and everything, my knee got a little swollen, but it’s fine.”

When he’s not doing his best Apollo Creed impression, Martin is working towards fulfilling the dreams that he used football to bridge himself to. While playing in the league, Martin donated 12% of every paycheck to a charity of his choosing and started up the Curtis Marin Job Foundation, which helps give permanent shelters to the homeless. In adding to that, he now works with Surgicorps, an organization that funds trips for doctors to perform operations on patients who live in third-world countries. But despite his devotion to humanitarianism, Martin’s real goal is to one day own an NFL team.

“I really want to [buy an NFL team] and I almost did it twice,” Martin said. “There’s not a rush or I’m not anxious about it. It’s like running the football. What makes a good running back versus an okay running back is that you know how to be patient and wait for the right hole and then just hitting that hole. That’s kind of the approach that I’ve taken as far as ownership goes. When that right opportunity comes, when that hole opens up, I’ll know its the right now and I’ll hit it.”

The  articulate Martin joins Marshall Faulk, Jerome Bettis, Deion Sanders and Willie Roaf as finalists for the 2011 NFL Hall of Class. If chosen, which is only a matter of time, Martin has already stated that it will be his longtime coach and mentor to enshrine him in Canton. “I always knew that as the talk began that there was never a question or doubt in my mind would [present me], and it is Bill Parcells,” Martin said.

When asked what he will be doing in preparation for that 6 p.m. Saturday evening phone call, Martin’s response was somewhat bland, maybe even a little under-the-radar. “I’ll probably be home watching T.V., doing something simple. I’m not too sure what will occur.”

May the youths of the league and below take notes from a man who transcends a generation of selfishness, glutony and greed.

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