So far, in our efforts to identify every player who's worn a Jets uniform, number by number, we have given some past players legendary status on the basis of trivial things - funny sounding names, hair choices, impressive anonymity, or maybe just ineptitude. There's a lot to go around. But only two - Don Maynard and Joe Namath - have gotten their own entries. We are at the end of discussing all the players in #28 but one, and he deserves a similar honor. Between the two, #28 Curtis Martin is more like Don Maynard in that he's a legend in both Jets' lore and in the annals of the game itself.
When Bill Parcells took Curtis Martin from the New England Patriots, it was the beginning of a high time for morale in Jets' history. The Jets won the division the year he arrived. Martin uncharacteristically missed one game that year; normally he just didn't miss games. He was just the kind of player whom Parcells loves and rewards.
Of course, being Parcells' favorite is a decidedly mixed blessing; such a player must be forced to sometimes haul around the coach's emotional baggage; he must expect to be blindsided, derided publicly, made to feel public shame and humiliation whenever necessary before being finally pulled back close to the coach's heart. Just ask Parcells' first wife or Bill Belichick about it. Just ask Phil Simms. When he picks you, he often picks a punching bag that must be painted with a smiling face. But though he was highly respected by Parcells, Curtis Martin remained either impervious to the coach's Treatment or he was immune by virtue of his basic integrity. Everyone loved Curtis.
He knew he was special, yet this did not compel him to distinguish himself with the manner of similarly talented men. He did not wear gold teeth, he did not sport extravagant tattoos with Japanese calligraphy, he did not hide props for a vaudeville routine in the padding of the goal post. He did not wonder aloud if anyone could possibly stop him. He did not gather around him a posse of "friends" whose intention was to use his acclaim to settle their own emotional troubles. He did not blame his teammates. He did not feign injury for the purpose of passively addressing his discontent with a team. He did not threaten to not show up for training camp because he was generally unhappy. He did not market himself in the commercial world as if he trying to stave off death. He never brandished weapons, solicited prostitution and did not batter a girlfriend or child. He was never caught with a handgun in his suitcase at airport security and claim that he kept it for his own security. He did not blame fans. He was, and is, a grown-ass man.
It's a shame when you have to identify someone as great because they haven't distinguished themselves with habits more appropriate to dysfunctional high school kids. You can identify many contemporary players in the traits above, yet few of them will never make the Hall of Fame. There are exceptions; Terrell Owens and Randy Moss probably will. But to be great is also to stand out for the best reasons. Curtis Martin will be in the Hall of Fame for three important statistics: he stands at #4 in the all-time rushing leaders as of this writing. He managed 1,000 yards in his first 10 seasons, and he scored more than 100 touchdowns.
But he also represented something that only fans of predominantly losing teams can appreciate. I was walking around in Philly last year and a complete stranger saw my simple Jets t-shirt, and he felt comfortable looking me in the eye saying, "Jets suck." He said it as if he were letting me know there was a huge bug on my shoulder or there was toilet paper on my shoe. He was saying it out of general courtesy. When I calmly replied, "Go to hell," he looked surprised. Jeez, asshole, he seemed to say. I was only trying to help.
As long as I've been a Jets fan, I've known that, traditionally, when my team comes up on someone else's schedule, their fans look at us and say, "OK, but we've got the Jets this week. That's a win." I know it. Last season we fans knew that there was no one on our squad that represented a tangible threat. Maybe as a team we came together and rallied four times. There were close games, but we were never really in it. With Curtis Martin, we always knew that somehow we were in it.
When he lined up in the backfield, we knew something might break open. He wasn't about to break out in the style of Barry Sanders, but he would consistently wear defenses down. His opponents knew it; we knew it. His blockers knew it. Larry Csonka once said he felt the greatest self-assurance in his life when Bob Kuchenberg demanded that Csonka "run behind (his) ass" in Super Bowl VII. It was also the blocker knowing that Csonka could run up his ass that made him say it. Blockers love great runners, and Martin inspired that kind of belief in his blockers and in us. He gave Jets fans a consistent sense of self-confidence that fans of a losing franchise crave even more than they do a Super Bowl appearance. Perhaps I exaggerate, but Namath did that kind of thing, Maynard did that, and Riggins did that. That's what makes them legends. They made the opposition worry, yet made their fans proud. Opponents' fans wished Martin would go away, even while they wanted him on their fantasy teams. It's nice to be envied that way.
Curtis Martin didn't really miss games. In this sense, he has something in common with our current starting quarterback. But then the differences emerge. Brett Favre's airing out his thoughts and feelings as he approached the summer were uncharacteristic of the kind of player Curtis Martin was. As Martin was preparing to play in his hometown of Pittsburgh in the 2004 playoffs, he identified with his underdog Jets because they flew "under the radar." Though he grew up amid the titanic Steelers of Pittsburgh in the 70's, he nevertheless felt more at home as a player in the role of an unflappable spoiler, even toward the end of his career.
He would manage one more season in 2005. To him a career played out and ended. That's all. There was nothing about which to ruminate aloud. There was nothing to look back on in dismay. Even though he never won the championships that his old team in New England would have, with or without him in the backfield, he preferred to be indispensable to the Jets than an ornamentation on a Team of the Decade. He refused to regret. There was nothing about which to equivocate. He might have managed another 1,000 year in 2005, but he ended up about 240 yards short. It just wasn't to be. And we could scarcely endure parting with him.
Brett Favre will probably sell 6,000 jerseys by the opening day snap. That's more than the Jets probably sold all last year. But Curtis Martin's is the only one I've spent my money on (my wife bought me Joe Namath's for Christmas). Buying Favre's jersey is a message of infinite hope, a characteristic well suited to a loyal Jets fan. It would be nice to imagine that it might mean something more than that someday. But owning Martin's jersey signifies a rare, special pride that a Jets fan is entitled to feel. You want to wear a jersey that speaks to the best of your team, and Curtis Martin represented all the best things that Jets fans can claim (unless their knuckles drag along the concrete turns of Gate D): loyalty, dedication, hard work, and showing up. His success was special to us.