Raised in a hairy section of Pittsburgh, Martin saw friends and neighbors die on a regular basis. In the fourth grade he came home one day and found his grandmother, Eleanor Johnson, murdered in her bedroom. The scene is embedded in his memory: "She had a knife in her chest that went all the way through her back and into the bed. There was blood everywhere, and her eyes were wide open. We knew that the person who did it knew my grandmother because there was no forcible entry. For the next two years we lived in fear: It was me, my mom and her boyfriend, and if one of us went upstairs, we all went upstairs."
According to Martin, the case remained unsolved for two years until he was asked to visit the local police precinct. "They showed me pictures of all these different guys and asked me if any of them looked familiar," Martin says. "I didn't really recognize any of them, but just to give them something, I pointed at this one guy and said, 'I think I've seen him.' They investigated, and it turned out this guy was the killer. Looking back, that's how I know God was looking out for me."
Still, Martin hardly lived a pious life as a teenager, frequently visiting local clubs and dodging bullets. "I'm basically a good person," he says, "but just from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I came real close to dying. So many of my friends have gotten killed, and my best friend, Jamont Harris, got his chest blown out our senior year and died. We played football together in high school—he was the quarterback—and some guy mistook him for another guy. Jamont got a bullet right through his chest, and people said he ran for 100 yards before he finally fell."
It's unfair to draw a parallel between this and Martin's touchdown run on Sunday, but it puts his determination in its proper context. Sometimes sheer will is the difference in a game between two evenly matched teams, and this was one of those matchups you'd love to see replayed come January. Not only did the game feature some of the AFC's best players, it included a game-within-a-game between the two coaches, Parcells and Bill Belichick, who was the defensive coordinator for Parcells's 1990 Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
Portrayed as a humorless workaholic during his first four years as the Cleveland coach, Belichick has undergone a more drastic reputation repair than Andre Agassi. His players say the departure of several bad-attitude Browns—most notably four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry, who signed with Denver after being waived during the off-season—has helped Belichick relax. Last Thursday, Bill the Thrill engaged in a running conversation with an SI reporter during practice while ESPN announcer Joe Theismann, the former Washington Redskin quarterback, served as the Bledsoe impersonator on the scout team.
Martin, whose cousin is rapper Sam Sneed, has remained friends with rap giants Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg despite his newfound religious beliefs. "Instead of partying now," he says, "we do cookouts." The Foxboro crowd included TLC singer Lisa (Left Eye) Lopes, who is engaged to Cleveland's prized off-season free-agent catch, receiver Andre Rison. Though Rison was mostly a decoy Sunday—he caught two passes for 14 yards while Jackson pulled down a career-high seven catches for 157 yards, including first-half touchdowns of 70 and 30 yards—Brown owner Art Modell has big plans for him. Told that the lyrics of one of Lopes's songs express her desire to make love to Rison on the 50-yard line, Modell replied, "It'll be the halftime show." That drew prolonged laughter from Rison, who said, "Sounds like the Red Light Special."
As giddy as Modell is about the Browns' prospects for reaching their first Super Bowl, the optimism in New England may be even more pronounced. For the first time, the Patriots sold out their home games for the season even before it began, and second-year owner Robert Kraft has emerged as a cult hero. Before Sunday's game, he roamed the stadium parking lots, mingling with his public like a politician. Then he went inside his luxury suite, took a deep breath and said a little prayer. Bledsoe (30 for 47, 302 yards) was outplayed by Vinny Testaverde for much of the game, but he got the tough yards in the end, driving the Pats 85 yards for the winning touchdown and setting up Martin's heroics with a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-one from the three with 1:24 left to play. "I thought he went backwards," said Burnett, but the officials felt otherwise. Bledsoe made it by a couple of inches, and two plays later Martin did the same.
"My stomach was churning," Kraft said of Martin's final lunge. "But I knew it would happen—I felt like it was destined."
Martin shared the feeling. After answering reporters' questions for half an hour before the protective Parcells angrily broke up the interview session, Martin walked outside to greet his mother, Rochella, and several other relatives and friends. Following a short visit, he went back to the motel where he is staying, shut the door to his room and took his phone off the hook. The room was dark except for the glare of the football highlights on TV, and the strains of gospel singer William Becton soothed Martin's ears.
"I just tried to soak it all in," Martin said later that night. "It seems like this stuff only happens in movies."