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#28: Truly a Great

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Today is a great day in New York Jets history. The greatest running back in team history and one of the greatest players to ever take the NFL field is taking his worthy place in the Hall of Fame.

Many Jets fans have strong negative feelings about Bill Parcells. No matter what you think of him, though, you cannot deny that his tenure as head coach was a turning point in team history. Since he was hired in 1997, the Jets have only had three losing seasons. Parcells' most significant move was bringing in Curtis Martin, whom he had coached with the Patriots. Running back was not a glaring need for the Jets at the time. Adrian Murrell was coming off a 1,000 yard season. Parcells still made a big play for Martin. His young lieutenant Mike Tannenbaum drew up an offer sheet so ingenious that the NFL had to change its rules to prevent something like it from happening again. The Patriots could not possibly match the contract for Martin so they let their division rival have him, amping up what was quickly turning into a bitter division rivalry.

Curtis Martin was an anomaly. He was the superstar who flew under the radar despite playing most of his career in New York. He never sought attention for himself. Nothing he did on the field jumped off the page. He didn't run people over. He didn't have breakaway speed. No, his greatness was refined. It came in way much more subtle but no less significant. It came through figuring out a way to slip through a small crack and grind out a five yard gain when a normal back would have been stuffed for two. It came in mentoring his teammates. It came in finding a way to not only play through but put up elite numbers with injuries that would have sidelined other players for a month. It came from his incredible consistency. Everybody has a bad year. Athletes just have that one season in their prime where they can't figure it out. It took Curtis Martin eleven seasons and a career-ending injury to stop producing.

Unfortunately, Curtis never got his due. Our sports culture is dominated by ESPN's highlight machine. Unless you are bombastic and make high flying plays, you are deemed inferior. It is this kind of faulty thinking that delayed this deserved prize a year. Martin might not have had burning speed or steam roller power, but what he did made him every bit as great as they guys who had those things.

That makes Martin something of a tragic figure as football goes. Mention him among the greats, and somebody will likely tell you about he lacked obvious attribute A of player A. Perhaps even more tragic was the trajectory of the team he left against the team to which he came. Three years after he signed with the Jets, the Patriots won the Super Bowl. They won two more while Martin played with Gang Green. The last one came in 2004, a season in which Curtis led the NFL in rushing.

I cannot help but think of what happened in January of that season. I have not followed the Jets as long as many of you, but I have followed them for two decades. I might not have memories of the game in Cleveland in January of 1987 or other painful ones, but I have seen my share of disappointment. I have seen the season ending collapses of 1993, 2000, 2008, and 2011. I watched the halfback option fiasco in Detroit in 1997. I was there for three AFC Championship Game losses. I also suffered through the painful Doug Brien meltdown in Pittsburgh in January 2005. I can and have watched highlights of all of those moments. What I have been unable to bring myself to watch again was the brutal press conference after that game in Pittsburgh when a distraught Curtis Martin said, "We left blood on that field." I think part of him knew that was his last chance to win the Super Bowl. In the second game of the next season, he suffered the injury that would end his career. He still somehow found the guts to play through the pain into December of that season.

It's tough to explain, but part of me wishes Curtis Martin stayed with the Patriots. Part of me would rather have had this great player and man received the prize he so deserved and won those three championships, even if it was with my team's bitter rival. Part of me wishes I was complaining about how overrated and lucky he was to be on such great teams as homer fans complain about successful rival players.

Today all of that pain goes away. Curtis Martin ends his career on a high note. It couldn't happen to a better guy or a greater player. You can call me a homer. You can throw stats in my face. I don't care. If I had to win one game, you can take any other running back who has ever played. I'm going to war with Curtis Martin. I like my odds.