CANTON, Ohio (AP) — Football saved Curtis Martin. His mother forced him to play so he'd stay out of trouble while growing up in a tough Pittsburgh neighborhood.
He not only survived, but thrived.
The running back was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night, the only "skill position" player in a group of six. Linemen Dermontti Dawson, Chris Doleman, Cortez Kennedy and Willie Roaf and cornerback Jack Butler joined him.
The last of the six players to have their bronze busts unveiled Saturday night, Martin used the big stage to recall his rough life, his mother's pain and his life-long indifference to the game that allowed him to become famous.
"I don't necessarily have notes, so I'm going to just bare my soul," Martin cautioned. "So bear with me."
His moving story was the longest of the six and had the audience of 12,100 cheering supportively whenever one of the NFL's greatest running backs got choked up or lost for words. It was quite a way to end a three-hour induction that celebrated some of the game's best blockers and tacklers.
Martin started 119 consecutive games with the Patriots and Jets, ending his career as the league's fourth all-time rusher. He joined Barry Sanders as the only runners to start their careers with 10 consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
Martin had former coach Bill Parcells introduce him Saturday. Martin followed Parcells from New England to the Jets.
When it was time for Martin, a former Jets star, to finish the evening, Broadway Joe Namath couldn't help but notice the "J-E-T-S! J-E-T-S!" chants were getting overwhelmed.
"I hear a lot of big mouths from Pittsburgh out there," he told the crowd. "And justifiably — yes, yes!"
Martin soon had them dabbing their eyes.
He described growing up in a rough neighborhood in Pittsburgh, the son of an alcoholic father who would beat and torture his mother by setting her hair on fire or pressing burning cigarettes to her legs. His mother, Rochella, wiped tears from her eyes as he shared his story, occasionally pausing to collect himself.
"My greatest achievement in my life was healing my mother and nurturing my mother," Martin said.
She urged him to play football to stay out of trouble. Even when New England coach Bill Parcells decided to draft him out of Pitt, Martin wasn't sure he wanted to play. His pastor told him he could use football as a platform to do greater things.
"I played for a purpose bigger than the game because I knew that the love for the game just wasn't in my heart," Martin said.
He followed Parcells to the Jets and finished his career and the fourth-leading rusher in NFL history. Parcells became one of his biggest influences.
"He has tremendous compassion for his fellow man," Parcells said. "He is, I think, the poster child for what the NFL is supposed to be. You come into the league, maximize your abilities, you save your money, you make a smooth transition into society and then you pass all those things on to other people. That's what this guy has done."