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A Gift from HEAVEN
Michael Silver
September 11, 1995
NO doubt it's a bit much—for most people, anyway—to use those words to describe the opening of another NFL season, a Sunday on which 851,953 people in 14 stadiums witnessed 57 touchdowns, two overtime victories, the birth squalls of two new franchises and the relocation of two old ones. But the phrase is just right to describe a rookie running back's game-winning burst into the end zone, the perfect invocation for a new season.
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September 11, 1995

A Gift From Heaven

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NO doubt it's a bit much—for most people, anyway—to use those words to describe the opening of another NFL season, a Sunday on which 851,953 people in 14 stadiums witnessed 57 touchdowns, two overtime victories, the birth squalls of two new franchises and the relocation of two old ones. But the phrase is just right to describe a rookie running back's game-winning burst into the end zone, the perfect invocation for a new season.

He spent the hours before his first NFL game reading psalms out of a small Bible he keeps in a black, zip-up case. He said prayers on the sidelines in the fourth quarter and answered the taunts of Cleveland Brown defenders with "God bless you." Yet, when he finally had the chance to make a statement to the football-watching world on Sunday, rookie running back Curtis Martin, who is so religious that his New England Patriot teammates call him Moses or the Golden Child, acted not like a choirboy but a wild man.

Mouth yapping and fists pummeling the end-zone air, Martin celebrated his first NFL touchdown more fervently than any of the 60,126 fans at Foxboro Stadium. Having just made the dramatic one-yard lunge that gave the Patriots a 17-14 victory over the Browns in an opening-week battle of AFC powers, Martin was in perfect position to engage in a little religious symbolism. But in an era in which the kneeling end-zone prayer has become more trite than the overhead spike, Martin opted for a more spontaneous gesture. "My prayers were answered, and I was so excited, I just had to snap," Martin explained later. "My religion isn't something I have to show off. God is on my mind at all times, but that doesn't mean every time I get in the end zone I've got to get on my knees."

Perhaps it's the Patriots who should kneel in thanks, because if Martin, a third-round draft choice from Pitt, keeps running the way he did Sunday, opposing defenses will have more to worry about than quarterback Drew Bledsoe and tight end Ben Coates. Martin's 102-yard effort on 19 carries began with a bang—a 30-yard dash off left tackle—and ended with shouts of joy. With 24 seconds remaining and New England trailing 14-9, he was met in midair near the goal line by a trio of Cleveland defenders, but he surged forward a second time and stretched the ball across the plane of the goal. With that he also broke the spirit of a proud Brown defense that had dominated the Pats last January in a 20-13, first-round playoff victory at Cleveland Stadium.

Cleveland was stunned by the 22-year-old Martin's resilience, because the Browns assumed he would be the one to break. They had seen film of his impressive exhibition efforts (190 yards on 52 carries), noting his breakaway speed and ability to bounce off tacklers. But Cleveland figured it could rattle Martin by smacking him around and talking smack from the get-go. If the Browns had truly scouted Martin, they would have understood how futile their plan was.

When Martin, on the game's first play from scrimmage, raced through a gaping hole, bounced right and tiptoed out of bounds 30 yards downfield, the Cleveland players started barking like dogs. "That's the last run you're gonna get, rookie," one Brown defender told him. "I'm takin' you out next time, you punk," another one threatened.

Some players might have been rattled. But Martin, whose past makes Boyz N the Hood look like the Hardy Boys, was unfazed, sometimes replying, "God bless you," other times responding with silence and another tough run. And though the Browns, on the strength of two Vinny Testaverde-to-Michael Jackson touchdown heaves, appeared to be in control of the game by halftime, they were unable to put away either Martin or the Patriots.

"We hit him with everything we had—stuff about his family, stuff you can't print," said Rob Burnett, Cleveland's Pro Bowl defensive end, after the game. "We tried to get him mad, but he wouldn't respond, and that's no fun. After a while it's like talking to a wall."

Martin's performance contrasted sharply with that of the Patriots' running game last season. After signing 250-pound Marion Butts to a $1.4 million free-agent contract before the 1994 season, coach Bill Parcells employed his signature power-running attack with disastrous results. Butts spent most of the time on his butt, averaging just 2.9 yards a carry. He is out of football, having been cut by the 49ers, while the 5'11", 203-pound Martin, who produced New England's first 100-yard game since Leonard Russell in December '93, has trouble believing that he's in the NFL.

Before he became a born-again Christian two years ago, Martin says he was on a path that could have ended in tragedy. "If you knew where I came from and what I've been through," he says, "you'd be amazed that I survived."

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