Friday, July 27, 2007

A Go-To Guy Sees Himself in a New Role

Sports of The Times
July 27, 2007

“If I had an enemy and I was trying to conquer him, I would give him money, fame and power. They are three things that are extremely difficult to deal with.”

Yesterday, as always, you could count on Curtis Martin to put the moment in perspective. He always had an appropriate answer for every situation.

When the Jets lost a classic heartbreaker of a game as only they could, and members of the news media predicted that the sky would fall, Martin would coolly say: “The sky is not falling. We lost a game. We’ll come back stronger next week.”

If the Jets won a big game, Martin would temper the urge to make the moment seem larger or more important than it was. With typical grace, he’d acknowledge the victory and add, “We still have a season to play.” He always converted on first down.

Martin was the go-to guy for reporters, and for two N.F.L. teams (the Patriots and the Jets). He continues to be the go-to guy for a number of organizations in Pittsburgh, his hometown. And he is the go-to mentor for a number of professional athletes who seek him out for a levelheaded perspective about a world of sports in which the lines between fantasy and reality often blur.

Everyone’s go-to guy officially announced his retirement from the N.F.L. yesterday. Martin made a whirlwind, daylong retirement tour, speaking with print, radio and television reporters, saying goodbye, offering retrospectives.

Was the N.F.L., I wondered, in better shape today than it was when he entered the league in 1995?

“I think the league has better athletes,” Martin said at the Jets offices in Manhattan. “But I think the rise of talent, the rise of money and the rise of fame and the rise of power has affected the character.”

Martin, a five-time Pro Bowl selection, is not leaving the game. In fact, he announced that he planned to own a piece of the game. He wants to buy an N.F.L. team.

Martin said that he approached his career like an internship for ownership, studying management styles and all of the components of operating a multimillion-dollar franchise.

“Even the way I’ve carried myself off the field, my reluctance to do a lot of commercials and a lot of publicity,” he said, explaining that he always tried to set himself apart from the activities of most star players. “While most people have seen me as a low-profile player, I’ve always seen myself as a high-profile owner.”

The notion of Martin as an N.F.L. owner is intriguing, particularly in the current sports climate, in which owners and the men and women they hire seem baffled by the young athletes they pay handsomely to run and jump. Increasingly, the method of bridging the gap is a strong-arm, might-is-right approach.

“One of the key differences is that I will be an owner who understands what the player thinks, feels, why he does what he does,” Martin said. “I’ll be able to empathize, sympathize and advise athletes in a way that I believe can help out the league as a whole.”

I wondered how Martin the owner would deal with Michael Vick the player. Martin played in New York and did the impossible: He stayed out of the limelight. You rarely, if ever, heard about Martin outside of game articles or his various charitable works. No one is saying that Martin is a saint or that he never crossed the line. It’s just that you never heard about it. That’s a major victory in the current climate of real-time, all-the-time news.

As Martin announced his retirement in New York, Vick, the Atlanta Falcons’ quarterback, pleaded not guilty to charges that he and three other men operated an interstate dogfighting ring at a house Vick owned in Virginia.

“I wouldn’t turn my back on him,” Martin said of Vick. “I wouldn’t suspend him. I wouldn’t say, ‘You know what, Mike, you’re out of here.’ I would try my best until I knew I could not work with him anymore to give him the support that he needed to succeed.”

Martin said that Vick reflects the difficulties facing a younger generation of athletes.

“Society equates money with maturity,” he said. “Society feels that if you have money and material things, there is no way in the world you should do this or do that. But money gives you more of an opportunity to do what you would normally do.

“When you have all that money and all that fame, people assume you don’t need help.”

Great players come and go. Indeed, the N.F.L. is built on a steady infusion of great young talent. But in Curtis Martin, the league has lost one of its great go-to guys. His presence will be difficult to duplicate.



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