Martin: Accidental superstar

Published: Saturday, January 15, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 14, 2005 at 10:54 p.m.
PITTSBURGH - Truth be told, Curtis Martin never much cared for football.
Never watched the Pittsburgh Steelers play. Never wanted to play in college, though his mom thought the whole scholarship deal would keep him out of trouble. Never even watched a full game on television, coin toss to end, until the Super Bowl the year before last, in his 30th year.
Never thought his life would be like this, either: A Long Island penthouse seen on MTV, an art collection with objects dating back to the 17th century, a celebrity Bible study and a lifestyle so spotless that the best the New York Post's gossipy Page Six can unearth on him is that he enjoys takeout from the Italian eatery Da Silvano. Lobster gnocchi and tuna pepato. Which a guy who grew up in blue-collar Pittsburgh never figured he would want as drive-through eats, let alone drive to fetch behind the wheel of a Range Rover.
He considers himself a Long Island man now, wrapped around an enigma of a Pittsburgh guy from the previous two-thirds of his down-and-up life. He bought some property, drew up plans for more space to contain his art, hopes to break ground in the offseason. He'll still come back to Duquesne. But suburban New York is home now, too.
This square-shouldered man of 31, one of the NFL's top five all-time rushers seemingly by accident, prefers the solitude and peace of being able to blend into a background of some 11 million people in this madding metropolis.
''They know I don't play football because I love football so much,'' he said this week of his New York Jets mates, with whom he will confront his hometown Steelers in today's AFC Divisional playoff.
''Football is a means to help and escape. Curtis Martin, New York Jets running back, has a much stronger voice with adults as well as kids because of it. That dedication is to people, a purpose in life.''
He comes home to play the Steelers for a sixth time in a 10-year career where the decorating hasn't stopped: NFL's leading rusher this season with 1,697 yards, the league's fourth all-time rusher with 13,366 yards (70 ahead of the Steelers' Jerome Bettis). One more season like this, and he'll beat Barry Sanders' record of 10 consecutive 1,000-yard years.
Just the same way he doesn't work up a lather about the homecoming - ''this is my first time playing a playoff game in Pittsburgh, so I'm looking forward to that; but I was never really a Steeler fan or a football fan, so I don't get emotional about the game'' - he doesn't get all fussed up about numbers.
Sure, he programmed his entry code into the Jets' Hofstra University complex to read: 1700. It was a total he strived to eclipse this season, and he came up a scant three yards short. Still and all, he became the oldest player to lead the league in rushing, quite an accomplishment for a decade-long veteran at a position that eats up and spits out the average tailback after, what, three seasons?
Oh yeah, it also was his career-highest total.
''The thing that motivates everything he does is his faith,'' Pro Bowl-starting center Kevin Mawae said. ''He doesn't need to be in the spotlight to be the man and the football player he is. He doesn't want it. Doesn't need it. Doesn't ask for it.''
Martin didn't realize all that when he joined the high school football team, forced by his mother into some sort of extracurricular activity so he wouldn't have a gun put to his head again, when he may not be so lucky that it jammed. He quickly owned the City League, to the point where then-Pitt coach Paul Hackett had to have him for the Panthers.
''My mom didn't want me out on the streets,'' Martin recalled. ''Too many of us were getting killed. I feel like I could have been dead so many times. I feel so blessed and grateful that (bad) things never panned out for me.''
Hackett and assistant Sal Sunseri wooed Martin, sold his mother on a Pitt education, landed the prize recruit.
''I listened to them and the whole time I'm thinking in my mind, 'They don't know, I don't even care.' I was horrible in college. I didn't want to play. I just didn't want to look stupid (frittering away) the scholarship.''
When he left Pitt early in 1995, Martin still didn't want football even while Bill Parcells was selecting him in the third round of the draft. It wasn't until Martin telephoned his pastor, the Rev. Leroy Joseph, that he saw the post-draft path before him. His pastor told him that football was his vehicle and the Maker was handing him the keys.
The brash, bullying Parcells, of all people, became his mentor. First in New England, then in New York.
''Bill is one of the closest relationships I've had in my life,'' Martin said. ''Bill has filled that father role, especially since I came into the NFL. He invested in me, and I'm grateful for it.
''I think he respected that football wasn't my end-all. But he knew that football was a means, and that it made me work harder.''
The Jets standout made Esquire magazine's best-dressed list in 2004. He has been linked recently with Destiny's Child member Michelle Williams, a fellow devout Christian.
Martin will lead the Jets in pre-game prayer, then he'll try to run roughshod over the Steelers he refused to watch as a kid ("I was a knucklehead back then'') but has come back to gash for 483 yards in five NFL meetings. And he'll board the team flight back to his new address.
''This is home. This will be home, even after football,'' Martin said of Long Island. ''I just like it here. It suits me, fits me, everything that I want. I'm a Pittsburgher, but I live in New York.''

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