When he looks back, it seems halfway to forever since Curtis Martin wore the Patriots' tricolor. "It seems longer than it has been," said the Jets' premier running back, who has spent the last seven seasons in green amid the paved Jersey barrens. "It almost seems like 10 years."
Had Martin stayed in Foxborough, he would have two Super Bowl rings by now. Has he ever thought about the road not followed? "I have," said Martin, who'll be knocking heads with his old team Sunday afternoon in the Meadowlands. "I'm glad I'm in New York."
When you're a Jet, you stay a Jet, all the way to the Hall of Fame, where the 31-year-old Martin is headed at 4.6 relentless yards per carry this season.
Ever since he arrived in 1998 as a free agent, Martin has been a fixture in the New York backfield, starting 110 straight games, including playoffs, and eclipsing Freeman McNeil as the franchise's all-time rusher (9,381 yards) and Emerson Boozer as its all-time rushing scorer (53 touchdowns). This year, he's leading the league in rushing yardage (1,511 and 12 TDs on 330 carries), while earning his fifth trip to the Pro Bowl.
"Great year, great career," saluted Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, whose defensive comrades will have to stifle Martin if they want to stop the Jets' offense. "You can mention him among the greatest backs who've ever played in this game."
The record book already has him among the top five. He moved ahead of Earl Campbell and O.J. Simpson a while ago. This season, Martin (13,180) has rumbled past Franco Harris, Marcus Allen, Jim Brown, and Tony Dorsett. If he gains 80 yards Sunday, he'll leapfrog Eric Dickerson (13,259). Up ahead are only three men -- Barry Sanders (15,269), Walter Payton (16,726), and Emmitt Smith (18,221).
"More so than surprising, it's humbling," said Martin. "I never imagined accomplishing anything like that. To be mentioned in the same breath as Sanders, Payton, and Smith . . ."
Nobody predicted that in 1995, when the Patriots tapped Martin in the third round, 74th overall, after nine other running backs had been plucked. He'd done some nice work as a runner and receiver at the University of Pittsburgh, including a monster 251-yard effort against Texas in his senior opener. But after messing up an ankle in a pileup in the second game, Martin missed the rest of the season, which made him an iffy pick in a draft loaded with big-stat backs.
But the Patriots needed just one game to realize they'd gotten a steal. In his pro debut against the Browns, Martin broke away for 30 yards on his first carry and ended up with more than 100, plus the winning TD with 19 seconds to play. "One-game wonder," coach Bill Parcells cracked later in the locker room, but the Tuna knew otherwise.
Martin finished the season with a franchise-record 1,487 yards, most in the conference and more than nine other AFC teams. That was the first of 10 straight 1,000-yard seasons, which only Sanders has equaled. "He's off the charts," said Patriots linebacker Rosevelt Colvin.
The procession of 1,000-yard seasons and 100-yard games (55 and counting, not including playoffs) comes from a consistency born of intense focus and hard work, neither of which Martin was known for as an adolescent. "I was a knucklehead back in high school and my early years in college," he admitted. "Totally opposite from how I am now."
What turned Martin around was seeing his friends from Pittsburgh's meanest streets being killed and jailed, and realizing that he might eventually end up the same way.
"I almost lost my life many times," he said. "At some point, I just matured and began to appreciate and be grateful that I was still living. I told myself that from now on, I am going to make the most of my life. I am not going to continue to cheat myself by trying to take shortcuts, by not doing what is right."
For a decade now, Martin has treated every carry as if it is his first -- and last. "One of the greatest things a person can learn to do is focus," he said. "My focus is so intense, it's carried me through a lot of adversity on the field. People think of me as a healthy player, but I've been injured a lot during my career."
Yet Martin hasn't missed a start since the fifth week of the 1998 season, when he sat out with a thigh injury. "Curtis is not the biggest guy in the world," said Jets coach Herman Edwards. "His mental and physical toughness and his ability to endure pain is the main thing that he has."
Week in, week out, Martin gets his workhorse's quota of yards and carries, and he still has plenty of gas in the tank, as Parcells likes to say. "It just shows you that when a guy reaches 30, he's not washed up," said New England safety Rodney Harrison, who just turned 32.
Martin's secret is in offseason preparation, a rigorous work ethic ("I don't take shortcuts. I don't think I ever have since I've been in the league."), and a savvy running style that reduces the crashing and smashing on his 5-foot-11-inch, 210-pound frame. "He has an ability to run where you're not," said Vrabel.
The Patriots have managed to lasso Martin recently, holding him to 53 and 89 yards last year and 70 yards on 20 carries in their first meeting this year. But they know they'll have to do it again Sunday if they want to stop a New York team that has won four of its last five games.
"If they can run the football, it's going to be a long day for us," acknowledged defensive end Richard Seymour. "We've got to do a good job on [Martin]."
It's a step-up game for Martin and his offensive teammates, who've been rapped for their lack of production in previous showdowns against the Patriots (7 points) and Steelers (6). "We know we're capable of beating anybody," said Martin. "We just have to be at our best to do it. That's the challenge. We have to be at our best."
The Jets, who'll clinch a playoff berth with a victory or tie Sunday, have been up to the mark far more often than they were last year, when they were 6-10 and lost seven games by a touchdown or less.
"The attitude of this team is totally different," said Martin, whose teammates have won six games by 8 points or fewer. "The attitude is what helps us win close games as opposed to losing them last year."
The turnaround, he said, has come from better leadership from the veterans, particularly their more vocal ballcarrier. "I'm the old man," said Martin, whose tenure predates all but three players on the roster. "I'm one of the oldest guys on the team. So I play much more of a leader. I'm like a mentor to some of the younger guys."
By now, his credentials are beyond reproach. Martin already owns every Jet rushing record. If he stays healthy and keeps his legs churning, he'll likely pass Smith as the all-time NFL leader. All that's missing is what his old New England teammates have two of. "I'm really in the game now to win that ring," said Martin. "I want that more than anything."
Dan Marino never got a ring. If Martin has to retire without one, he'll deal with it. "I'll live beyond that, if it were never to happen," he said. "But winning one, that would be the icing on the cake for me."
As it is, the man never expected to last 10 years in the NFL, hearing his number called every Sunday, piling up yards and touchdowns that only a handful of his peers and predecessors have matched. "I look at myself in the mirror and I say, I'm blessed," Martin said. "And I appreciate it."