Sister Luck is out there somewhere, merrily unaware of Curtis Martin's greatest gift. More than being a tough, resilient, revered pro football player—and a benevolent optimist who hands out 100-dollar bills to the homeless—Martin, the New York Jets' magnificent halfback, is a Barry White song come to life. He says he knows how to make women laugh, and he understands why they cry.
A couple of years ago, Martin says, he wrote a love letter to his then girlfriend, R&B singer Toni Braxton, that was so moving it made several of her friends cry. "I am like the king of romance," Martin, a 27-year-old bachelor, says, "but unlike the way I used to be, when I was driven by desire, my romantic gestures come from the heart. I believe I understand women, at least more than I used to: how to get their hearts and their minds." He pauses, then smiles so widely that his elegant, Tupac-smooth eyebrows converge. "I honestly believe that my wife is going to be one of the happiest women in the world."
Right now, though, Martin, is getting less action than Katherine Harris at a Democratic Party fund-raiser because he's channeling his passion into football. His athletic ardor can't be undervalued: While most star players boast at least one area of exceptional physical prowess, Martin's spirit is what sets him apart. "A lot of fans don't realize it, but if you went around the league and asked players, they'd tell you that Curt's one of the top two or three backs," says New England Patriots linebacker Chris Slade, a former teammate of Martin's. "His size and speed aren't intimidating, but he plays with such fire."
There are ballcarriers who have glossier reputations than Martin, but there may not be another back who does so much, so well. "He's smart, tough and incredibly versatile," says Buffalo Bills guard Ruben Brown, a four-time Pro Bowl selection who blocked for Martin at Pitt. "No matter what down it is or what the situation calls for—slipping between the tackles, busting it outside, powering ahead for short yardage, splitting out wide and making a tough catch, picking up a blitzing linebacker—he can do it, and do it well."
All of Martin's gifts were on display at Giants Stadium on Sunday. In the best game of his career he ran for a Jets-record 203 yards on 30 carries and scored the clinching touchdown in a 27-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts that kept New York (9-4) on the heels of the AFC East-leading Miami Dolphins (10-3). With 1,094 rushing yards in 13 games (10th best in the league), Martin is one of only three players, along with Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson and future Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, to have exceeded 1,000 yards in each of his first six seasons in the league.
However, when it comes time to name the NFL's top backs, he's often left off the list. Last season he ran for 1,464 yards—the league's third-highest total—yet he didn't make the AFC Pro Bowl. Marshall Faulk, Eddie George, Edgerrin James, Stephen Davis and Corey Dillon also had huge years in 1999, with Faulk, George and James helping their teams reach the playoffs, but the 5'11", 210-pound Martin slips under the spotlight much as he slips through the cracks of a defense.
He's the sort of player who has to be missed to be appreciated. In 1996, his second season, Martin helped the Patriots reach Super Bowl XXXI, and then 13 months later he shifted the power in the AFC East by jumping to the Jets, who promptly reached the 1998 AFC Championship Game. But while Martin plays in the nation's media capital—and though he may be the most important player on a surprising Jets team—his excellence is lost on all but the keenest observers. "He's the best cutback runner in the game," says Zach Thomas, the Dolphins' All-Pro inside linebacker. "He'll get you flowing one way and then put that one wicked cut on you, and he's already flowing downhill."
Adds Bills linebacker John Holecek, "I'd rather face Eddie George than Curtis, because Curtis is so elusive. Yet he's also tough enough to take your best hit and keep going, and he reads his blockers better than anyone."
Martin's mentality is easy to read: During an interview before the 1995 draft, Patriots running backs coach Maurice Carthon was struck by Martin's devotion to the game. "He had missed most of his senior year with an ankle injury, and he talked about how he had wanted to come back and play in the last few games, but [coach] Johnny Majors wouldn't let him," says Carthon, now Martin's position coach with the Jets. "He got so emotional that he actually started crying."
After New England selected Martin in the third round, making him the 10th running back taken, he rushed for an AFC-best 1,487 yards and was voted by the Associated Press as the NFL offensive rookie of the year. He also won the first of three Pro Bowl selections, not to mention the respect of his coach, Bill Parcells. In 1997, the year Parcells jumped to the Jets, he wooed Martin, a restricted free agent, with a six-year, $36 million offer sheet. When the Patriots declined to match that deal, the acquisition of Martin also cost New York first- and third-round draft picks as compensation to New England, which most NFL insiders considered a vast overpayment. It wasn't. The Patriots' offense has suffered ever since, while the Jets have built a potent attack around Martin. He rarely fumbles or loses yards, and he executes his assignments rigorously and gets stronger as the game goes on. "He's the centerpiece of that team," says future Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen.