The Gospel of Curtis
Date Published: January 7, 2020
Curtis Martin went from a latchkey kid in a violent neighborhood to an NFL Hall of Famer and celebrated philanthropist. His unlikely rise was powered by faith, hard work, and near superhuman discipline. In this interview, he talks about facing fears, practicing values, and the life-or-death moment that changed everything. Mr. Martin received an honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
You're listening to Road to Resilience. I'm Jon Earle. Today on the podcast we have an interview with Curtis Martin. He's a former professional football player, a Hall of Famer, one of the greatest running backs of all time. And he has a really interesting story. Curtis grew up in inner city Pittsburgh in a really rough neighborhood. I mean gang violence and domestic violence and drug abuse—these were all parts of his everyday life. And yet Curtis beat the odds. Not only to become a pro athlete, but also to have this really thriving post-football career that involves business and philanthropy. He has a foundation that supports single mothers and youth charities, and he even received an honorary doctorate from the Icahn School of Medicine for his support for our work developing non-opioid, safe pain medications. So he's an extraordinary guy. And the question at the heart of this interview is: How did he do it? How did he beat the odds? What were the practices? What were the values? What does he think about every day that gets him to stay on course? He mentions faith. Faith is very important to him. He talks about facing his fears. He tells a story about pain that's—painful. That's really, really intense. And he talks about practicing the qualities you want to have as a person. So that's just the tip of the iceberg, there's a lot more, and we're going to start as we often do in childhood. This is Pittsburgh in the 1970s and '80s. Here's Curtis. Hope you enjoy it. Can you just describe in a few words where you come from?
Curtis Martin: 01:32
I come from one of the most violent neighborhoods, especially at that time, in the country. By the time I was 20 years old, I literally had 30 to 35 friends or family members that had been murdered. I'm talking about like brutal murders. I lived in somewhat of a project, low-income housing environment. Had an extremely abusive household. My father was strung out on drugs and he was clinically bipolar. It didn't create a good household, you know. I wouldn't literally watch him beat my mother like she was a man. And as a four-and-five year old it was hard to see. Especially, I mean, this occurred on an every-other-day basis. So that's a brief background.
Tell me the story—the story you've told before—about somebody holding a gun to your head.
Curtis Martin: 02:34
That was when I was 15. Guy put a gun to my head and said, "[bleep] you dead," and pulled the trigger. Click, click, click, click! And no bullet would come out. And then not pointing it at me pulls the trigger and a bullet just "pow" comes out. And I think it was the first time that it made me stop and think, like, "Was that lucky or was that one of those miracles that I hear people talk about? And if it was a miracle then who does that? Like is that this God person or is that just the universe or what happens? How does this happen? Because there's no way that I should be alive right now. And that was kind of the start of me beginning to have a different take and a different care about life. I used to—I think what happens is you convince yourself that you don't care if you're going to die and you almost put on this bravado because it makes you feel safe. I know for me it was necessary for me just to function in that environment and not walk around afraid or tippy-toeing because in those environments it's almost like the weak get swallowed up. And so you always have to stay on your P's and Q's.
Tell me that story of going into the church that day.
Curtis Martin: 03:54
Yeah, well I just went to the church because to be honest with you, it was just the church that I heard all the girls went to [laughs]. And I remember being there and at the end, the pastor says, "If anybody would like to change your life. If you think you want to have a better life, God can help you do that." And for me I'm connecting the dots like, "Oh yeah, that gun didn't go off." And the whole sermon was oddly enough about things like that—about how God can perform miracles and you can trust God and you can depend on God and he's watching over you when you don't even know him and different things like that. So it was like my seat was getting hot. It was like God is literally speaking to me right now, at least that's what it feels like. But I don't know what it's supposed to feel like, you know? And I ended up going up there and that was kind of the beginning of my turnaround. And I'll never forget praying for the first time that I can remember, like given a real sincere prayer to God and my prayer was simply like, "Well, I don't know anything about you. I don't know about this Jesus dude that this pastor's talking about. But I just want to live past 21. Just let me do that and I'll try and get myself together. But you uphold your end of the bargain, I give you my word, man, I'll do mine." And literally that was my first prayer.
Can you talk about other moments when maybe you felt that your faith helped to get you through?
Curtis Martin: 05:32
I think there's a million of them. You could almost ask me like what categories or what type of situations—.
Well what's something that happened maybe recently in your life where you're like, "There. I feel it. That helped me stay strong."
Curtis Martin: 05:46
Well, you know what—staying strong is, I think, a different type of commitment. I don't necessarily think we grow spiritually just from these miraculous moments. I think spiritual growth and growth in life is just a consistent staying at it. If you have to grow simply because of miracles happening in your life, then that's only going to occur every once in a while.
I read a little bit about how you work with people. Famous people, rich people. What do you tell them?
Curtis Martin: 06:21
I do a class. I teach a class just about life. So we'll talk about very real life situations. Like I'm teaching this class on fear right now. You know, I've had such extreme amounts of fear in my life that I almost felt like I got a PhD in fear. I lived in extreme fear for years and years.
You're talking about your childhood?
Curtis Martin: 06:47
Yeah. Thinking, you know, whether it was my dad killing my mother or my grandmother being killed or me worrying about myself being whatever, I grew up in fear. And I have this theory about fear. It's a principle about fear. I believe that whatever you fear in life creates your boundaries. So if you fear heights, you'll stay on the ground. If you fear flying in an airplane, you'll drive across the country to California and it'll take you three days instead of five hours. If you fear telling the truth, you'll lie. Whatever you fear in life creates a boundary. And my theory is that it's that type of fear that slowly but surely decays your life little by little. And you know, people ask me, what do I fear? And just because of what I know about it, I actually just fear being fearful. Anything that I fear, I want to run towards it and challenge it just so that I don't fear it. I do not like to fear anything.
That's very FDR. "The only thing to fear is fear itself."
Curtis Martin: 07:51
That's the way I feel. I'm afraid of fear. I'll put it to you this way—I'm afraid to fear. Because I know the results of it. I know the life and the mentality that I used to live with because of the fear that I had.
Tell me about the last time you ran towards your fear.
Curtis Martin: 08:11
I'd do it all the time. I'll give you a very physical example. When I was playing I'll never forget the time where I took this hit and literally my shoulder popped out of socket. All the ligaments tore around it and my bone was physically—If you were looking at me, you can clearly see that my shoulder was what looked broken because the bone was so obvious just sticking up. This happening like the second game of the season. I didn't want to miss the whole season. They told me that I'd need surgery to repair it. And I went to the sidelines and even when they just touched it, it felt like literally like touching a broken bone. And I said to them, "What are my options?" "Well, we could tape it up. We can strap this arm to your sternum so that you can't move it outwardly, and you could just carry the ball in his hand. But the pain will be so extreme that it's not even worth you trying that." I said, "You know, I want to try that." And so I had them strap my arm to my sternum so that it wouldn't move in a way that would cause it to fall further out of socket. And I wanted to go into game and playing like it was normal. Now the issue with that is that it is so painful that you will baby that shoulder. You'll try to prevent getting hit on that shoulder. And in your fear of getting hit there, you won't run and play the way you would normally do. So what I did was when I got the ball and I knew I was about to get tackled, I didn't protect it at all. I let 'em hit it and I actually took it and just rammed it into, you know, the defender. And in my mind, if I could just challenge myself to deal with that pain. And beyond that if I could get up off the ground from that pain and go back to the huddle, I defeated the fear, you know, and it was just about defeating the pain now. Long story short, I end up finishing the year with a Pro Bowl year. Went to the Pro Bowl. Couldn't move that arm for the entire season. But I had a pretty good year. And I conquered that fear and it taught me how to deal with pain. And what I used to do when I played is I would use football as a testing ground. So football is a very physical sport. You deal with a very physical, hard type of pain. And I would take those lessons I learned from dealing with physical pain and apply it to learning how to deal with emotional and mental and spiritual pain. And those lessons—that's the only thing that I really miss about football are the lessons that I was able to learn on a daily basis from a physical standpoint and apply it to my emotional, spiritual, and mental world.
So if I had to sum it up, it sounds like, no matter what, whether it's physical or spiritual or emotional, the lesson is run towards pain.
Curtis Martin: 11:25
Oh yeah. You have to go through pain and there's always a challenge because there's a risk because you don't know what's going to happen. You don't know how much it's going to hurt. But what I found, nine out of 10 times, if not 10 out of 10 times, it's not as bad as you imagined it to be. And you can deal with it better than you think you can. And, I think that fear of that pain and fear of pain in life is one of the things that robs us. I think that fear has shaped you more than you really know. People say they do things for this reason or that reason, but at the end of the day, I think we do a lot of things because of our fear or we don't do a lot of things because of what we fear. And so I just refuse to allow fear to create those boundaries in my life because those boundaries make your world very small, very quick.
Is that something you have to work on? Is that like a daily practice?
Curtis Martin: 12:33
Oh yeah, it's a practice. I mean, and this is the thing, life will present you with the opportunities to practice it. You know, you don't have to look too far for something to fear. But I've learned to use those as opportunities. They're not problems to me. They're not burdens. They're opportunities to get better at dealing with fear.
I'm interested when I talk to people, resilient people, about daily habits. I mean, it almost seems to me like a spiritual practice where you need to pray or you need to be mindful or you have a mantra or there's something you do every day that keeps your compass oriented. Do you relate to that? Are there any kind of everyday things that you tell yourself or that you think about to keep yourself on the right path?
Curtis Martin: 13:23
Yeah, I mean, I have a lot of principals. I've become a very principled man. I wasn't raised that way or brought up that way, but I've become a very principled man, so practicing principles in my life. And most people don't think that you have to practice things that you think about. You know, most of us think, "Alright, if I want to learn to play the piano, I have to go to piano lessons." And they get that. They know that they have to learn, you know, A, B, C— they have to learn the musical table, whatever that is. But when it comes to, "How do I learn to be patient? How do I learn to be forgiving? How do I learn to be considerate and compassionate?" Those are things that we think we could just turn on. But those things take practice just like the piano does. And so for me, I make principled living a practice.
What does that look like in practice?
Curtis Martin: 14:19
I'll tell you a principle that I think is very important. I read a Bible verse one time that says, "Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry. Quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry." What I've noticed about that is that most of us really, at the end of the day, most of us are quick to speak, slow to listen, and quick to become angry. But this verse says, "Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry." And so I said, "You know what—That's something that I need to implement in my life." Because that's one principle that if you can implement in your life, it has the ability to make every relationship in your life better. Whether it's a work relationship, whether it's your personal relationship, whether it's a marriage, whether it's a relationship with your kids. If you could just be quick to listen. So my wife and I, we're at home. She does something I don't like. I do something she don't like. We get into this little tousle. My first reaction now because I practice it so much—"So, alright, listen honey. I don't want to argue with you. Tell me what you're feeling. Explain to me why you say this or you do this." And I will sit there and listen. I won't interrupt her. I won't try to talk over her. Because I think most of the time in relationships we talk at each other and we talk over each other. And the problem is that we never really listen to each other. Because the more you listen to someone, the more you learn about where they're at. And you learn to gain this respect for their perspective and the way they're seeing things. If you listen long enough, you'll come to understand, "Oh, you know what? She really wasn't just being a butt hole. You know what I mean? This is what she really believes. This is what she was taught to do since she was a kid. So I can't be—alright, instead of me being mad at this, let's just start thinking about how we can work around it," you know what I mean? But you have to listen to learn that. See, even in business, you know, there's times where if you listen to someone talk long enough—and in business people think they're so brilliant. I just like to let people talk, and eventually they'll talk their way right out of my mind or right out of a business deal with me. Because after a while I'm just like, "Well, that just doesn't make sense now." You know what I mean? "You don't get from A to B by doing it that way. And actually what you said is really like sneaky and conniving and deceptive." You know what I mean? And so you listen to people and you come to understand who they are. So that's just a simple thing that if you could practice. And when I first started practicing it was really hard cause I'm sitting there like—I almost have to hold my lips shut because I'm like, "You are totally wrong! This doesn't make sense!" But just listen long enough. You'll learn, you'll respond better.
I want to go back to kind of how we started the conversation where I was listing off all those facts and I was saying that the chances of a black kid from the ghetto in Pittsburgh growing to become a football player, going to the Hall of Fame and now going on to have a wonderful post-football career, which is also not a given because, as you know, a lot of players finish the game and they flounder and they don't know what to do, and they have the different physical effects of the game. The chances of all that happening are so tiny. How do you explain it?
Curtis Martin: 18:11
I think that it's unexplainable—and not to be all spiritual and religious—but I think it's unexplainable without God. Because there's no way that I think, number one, that I'm alive. And number two, there's no way that I learn these different principles or even think to think in that direction if it wasn't for having a solid relationship with God. I mean, that's my general overarching answer. But along with that, I think it does take resilience. It does take hard work. It does take focus. I believe you drift towards whatever you focus on, and I made a better life something that I wanted to focus on. For me, I didn't have examples of how to be a good person, and the way I had to commit myself to learn was in reverse. So it was like everything that I saw, I had to go in the opposite direction and hope that I ended up in a good place because everything that I saw was horrible. So if I don't want to live a horrible life, let me just go in the opposite direction of what I see every day because I don't have any example of what's good. I remember I came to the New York Jets—and I don't say this in a braggadocious way, but I say it to make a point—I was the probably one of the most popular guys at the time on a team. I was the captain of the team. I was the highest-paid guy on the team. I was probably the most respected guy on the team. I was the most valuable player. I got the most valuable player award for the team. I got Ed Block Courage Award, which is where your teammates vote on you as the most inspirational person on a team. So I have all these things, but what was important to me was that I stayed as humble as possible, because I believe that humility is a huge key to life. So I was usually the first one to work. I was usually one of the last ones to leave. There would maybe be one or two guys there when I was ready to leave. What I would do is go around and clean up the whole locker room. I mean they pay people to do that—janitors and all that. But I would pick up towels that guys took showers with, their nasty washcloths and their garbage and, I mean, I literally would clean the locker room. Just because that was my way of keeping myself humble. That's a practice. You know what I mean? I had to practice humility because I knew that life was giving me more than what I ever expected, and I never wanted to take that for granted.
There has to have been a moment when you were like, "I don't want to do that today." And my question for you is like, when you feel yourself diverging, what brings you back?
Curtis Martin: 21:23
Well, again, I think it's the focus. It's like, and it's the sacrifice. I think that my life has been a compilation of really good sacrifices. I've learned to sacrifice things that a lot of people wouldn't sacrifice. But I sacrifice things in order to keep my integrity, because my integrity is really important to me. I read one Bible verse that says, "A good name is better than gold and riches." And I made that my goal. That was my number one goal throughout my entire career. I just wanted to finish my career with a name that was worth more than everything I accumulated when I was playing. And so keeping that good name—I had to sacrifice some things. I didn't do a whole lot of commercials. I passed up on millions and millions of dollars because I wanted it to be associated with integrity and prestige and honor and things like that. So when I want to pursue the things that would occur after my career, those things that I sacrificed would almost be like my resume.
So what's the difference between you and every other guy that wouldn't have done that?
Curtis Martin: 22:40
For me, my name and my integrity means more to me than the money. I grew up in an environment where I've seen money cost people their lives. And so money—I've never looked at it as the end all be all type thing. I think money's a great tool, but a horrible master. And for me, I just want to make as much money as I possibly can so that I can give as much money as I possibly can.
Great. Well, I think that's a great note to end on. Thank you so much, Curtis, for being here. It's been such a pleasure.
Curtis Martin: 24:02
Thanks man, thank you. It was a pleasure.
That's all for this episode of Road to Resilience. This podcast is a production of the Icahn School of Medicine here at Mount Sinai. It's produced by me, Jon Earle, Katie Ullman, and Nicci Hudson. Our executive producers are Dorie Klissas and Lucia Lee. If you'd like the podcast, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. Tell a friend about us. We really, really appreciate it. From all of us here, thanks for listening, we'll see you in a couple of weeks, and stay strong.