Curtis Martin almost told Bill Parcells no. As intimidating as Parcells can be, it was nothing compared to the kind of adversity Martin faced growing up amid the crumbling neighborhoods of inner city Pittsburgh. Martin, of course, agreed to Parcells' offer to join the New England Patriots, though more out of a sense of duty to himself and his family than a love for the game itself.
Martin's admission that football had never been a true passion left some fans scratching their heads, or even frustrated that he would make such a confession the center of his induction speech into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Football would seem insignificant to someone who watched his father torture his mother, had his beloved grandmother murdered in his own house and was almost killed himself, saved only by a misfire.
The league's fourth all-time leading rusher started playing football at his mother's urging. "'I want you to do something after school so that you're not in this neighborhood 24 hours a day,'" Martin recounted his mother telling him. He weighed his options, deciding against baseball because of the hot summers and basketball because he figured that he would max out at 6-foot. That left football.
Martin's career took off, and soon enough college recruiters scrambled to lure him to their schools. He chose Pitt because it was close to his home. Bill Parcells chose him in April of 1995. Martin was reticent about the decision to play because football until that point had just been something he did, not a passion.
That started to change when he joined Parcells in New England. Parcells became the first father figure in Martin's life, and when the coach left New England for the New York Jets, it was Martin that persuaded Parcells to bring him along.
"He was a staple of our offense," Parcells said. "He had an ability to elude contact, and I think that's part of the longevity factor."
Martin also pointed to the experience of his grandmother's murder.
"When I think about the fear that must have been in my grandmother's heart the whole time they were robbing her, it's almost like, I'll tell you, that was something that drove me my whole career, because that's what kept me fearless," Martin said.
Under Parcells' wing, Martin flourished. At one point in his speech he called his former coach his "consigliere," the man who gave him advice about the game and life. Parcells was more guarded in his remarks, but the mutual admiration unique to such a deep relationship was still there.
"He has tremendous compassion for his fellow man," Parcells said. "He's the poster child for what the NFL is supposed to be. Tonight the game is telling you that you belong among the very elite that have ever played."
Martin summed up his career in the most fitting way imaginable for a player who opened with his confession.
"It's not about what you achieve in life, but who you become during the process of those achievements that matters the most," Martin said.