Curtis Martin never took shots to numb the pain. He rarely ever threw back an ibuprofen.
He wanted to feel the pain, to know what his body was going through. So whether it was torn tendons behind his knees or severely sprained ankles, Martin instead thought back to his childhood in Pittsburgh.
When he was 9 years old, his grandmother was murdered in his home. When he was 15, a gun was pointed to Martin’s head and the trigger pulled several times… but no bullet came out.
“If my grandmother can go through what she went through," Martin said, "if some of the people I’ve seen go through worse situations and they’re not even living now, why can’t I play through an ankle? … All I have to do now is play with a bum shoulder vs. having my brains blown out. That’s the way I would challenge myself.”
Now, the Buffalo Bills are hoping LeSean McCoy can do what Curtis Martin did for the New York Jets: instill a winning culture. In today's News, several of the best backs in recent history dissect McCoy's game. And Martin was in McCoy's exact position in 1998 after inking a lucrative contract with the New York Jets.
By gritting through injuries as a true workhorse back, Martin led the Jets to the postseason four times in his eight years. A conversation with him last week was part science class, part TED talk.
As he explained Martin first tore a hard tendon behind one of his knees in camp. Trainers thought he’d be done for a month or two. Only… he wasn’t. Martin played on and averaged 2.6 yards per carry through a 0-2 start, fumbled twice in Game 3 and the hometown crowd booed him mercilessly. Head coach Bill Parcells grabbed Martin by the jersey, locked eyes, barked “What the hell is wrong with you?” and “Get it fixed!” Martin finished with 144 yards.
One game later, another tendon popped. He went on to lead the Jets to the AFC Championship and finish as the NFL’s fourth all-time leading rusher.
This entire sequence, he says, was the turning point of his career.
And his fight became contagious.
“When your leader, your captain, when you see him putting it all on the line,” Martin said, “it makes someone else say, ‘Well, I’m not the captain, I’m not one of the leaders of the team. So if the leader’s doing that, if the leader’s not getting away with coming late to a meeting, then I can’t get away with it.’ So it just encourages everyone else to pick their game up also.”
Another season, Martin played through two high ankle sprains. Both ankles were as wide as his knees — the skin hung over his cleats. Doctors actually told Martin he’d be better off if both ankles were simply broken. Every ligament, every tendon (including the Achilles) around the ankles were damaged.
Martin was hurting so bad, he'd well up in tears during practice.
“That was the most pain I’ve ever played in my entire life,” Martin said.
Martin cut a simple deal with the Jets' training staff: Unless his play suffered, he refused to come out. If the pain was already throbbing, if this is as bad as it gets, why tap out? His grandmother would came to mind. Or that gun to his head. Or the 25-plus close family and friends murdered back home. Martin says there were only two seasons in his career when he wasn't "dramatically hindered by an injury."
“I definitely didn’t think I was the most talented running back,” Martin said. “I wasn’t the biggest, strongest, fastest or the quickest running back. But in my mind, I wanted to be the toughest running back. People say I was very durable, but it was more of my ability to deepen my pain threshold from year to year that kept me on the field and was pretty consistent with the yards I would gain.”
The Bills would love to see McCoy have the same exact effect in their locker room. There's just about every time of player and personality in there now. Martin’s leadership set a tone. Changed the culture. Can McCoy do the same?
Martin knows there's major pressure involved.
“I think more than anything, it really comes down to being able to deal with the pressure, the responsibility that you feel,” Martin said. “When someone pays you that kind of money and you’re in the spotlight as much as he is, it comes with a great deal of pressure—and it’s about how you internalize that pressure.
“For me, I fed off of that. I wanted to be in those situations. And I wanted my teammates to witness me persevere, push through and excel in those situations because I was vocal guy when I needed to speak. But I’m not the type of guy to just waste a lot of words. I’m not a big rah-rah guy, so I did most of my talking through my examples. So it comes with a huge responsibility.
“Shady is so athletically gifted. I feel that if I had his talent, in the 11 years that I played I would’ve been way beyond where I ended up at—if I had the ability he has.”
Martin knows McCoy as a fellow Pitt alum. The two recently caught up at the school’s spring game. Surely, there will be a moment when McCoy faces such adversity. Martin says McCoy must have the right mentality if he’s been this consistent for six years.
Buffalo will find out soon.
Before signing off, too, Martin is quick to say that this back is more of a home-run hitter than he ever was.
“He’s capable of scoring a touchdown no matter where you are on the field,” Martin said. “I didn’t have the breakaway speed. I could make a big play at any time, but could make The Play at any time. So I think, more than likely, I wasn’t going to break an 80- or 90-yard touchdown run. I might have a 50-yard run and get tracked down from behind. But this guy can do it. When you have a guy that you’ve got to be worried about scoring a touchdown on any given play, it makes all the difference in the world — the way defenses have to prepare for you.
“It might’ve been my pride or ego, but I liked hearing coaches say that ‘As long as we shut Curtis down, we’ll win the game.’ There’s something I got off on, being that guy. Shady is that guy. He’s going to be a tremendous asset to the Buffalo Bills.”
Story topics: LeSean McCoy