CANTON, Ohio — A night of humility at the Pro Football Hall of Fame ended with 28 minutes of inspiration.
That somehow seems more than appropriate.
The 2012 class of inductees — Willie Roaf, Jack Butler, Chris Doleman, Cortez Kennedy, Dermontti Dawson and Curtis Martin — enjoyed their moment, but none wallowed in it.
And the most moving and emotional speech of all was not a player touting himself, but describing the circumstances that created him.
Martin, the former Jets and Patriots running back, summed up a lot about this year’s class, when he said toward the end of the final speech of the night: “It’s not what you achieve in life that matters most, but it’s who you become in the process of those achievements that really matters.”
Roaf, a tackle for New Orleans and Kansas City, started the evening with some heartfelt thanks for many, but added he felt “an overwhelming sense of humility” at being inducted.
The theme was polished by Dawson, the Steelers center who said he wanted to share one lesson for young people listening.
“Do everything with a purpose,” Dawson said. “Live, act, play, work with a purpose, with a passion and, most importantly, with honor.”
Dawson barely spoke of himself even though he changed the way centers play the game.
“I hope I made the Steeler nation proud,” he said, epitomizing what the Hall is about — dedication, pride, effort, hard work and the perspective to understand there are others who came before and will come after.
That theme continued through the night, as 84-year-old Jack Butler, a former Steelers defensive back, gave one of the briefest speeches ever, ending by saying: “I am thankful for my wife, my grandchildren that are here to see this also.
“Heck, I’m thankful I’m here.”
But it was Martin who brought the crowd to silence as he matter-of-factly and without notes described the circumstances in which he grew up, and how difficult it was for his mother, Rochella Dixon. Early in his speech, Martin said he loved his father, but he also remembered how he had “tortured” his mother in the five years he was in the house.
He remembered being 5 and seeing his addict Dad (Curtis Martin Sr.) force his mother to sit with her legs in the bathtub while he filled it with hot water and did not let her move. Martin said if she moved his dad would come in and burn her hair with a lighter, and put cigarettes out on her legs.
“I’ve seen him beat her up like she was a man,” Martin said. “I’ve seen him throw her down the steps…. I’ve watched my mother get punched in the face, have a black eye and then go to work with makeup on just to support our family.”
Martin had a hard time continuing at that point. In the crowd his mother sat and wept nearly uncontrollably.
Martin talked of how as a young child he knew that his mother needed a way to get the anger out, and he told her he was “so grateful that I was there for you to take some of that pain out on, because you deserved it.”
Martin’s grandmother and sister were murdered and when his mother found his grandmother’s body in her bedroom with a knife in her chest, he, then 9, walked up to her and said: “You gonna go crazy?” because he knew it would be a normal reaction.
Why, she said?
“Because if you go crazy nobody’s gonna be here to take care of me,” Martin said to her.
Martin only started to play football at Taylor Allderdice High School because his mother wanted him doing something there after school instead of going back to the violent neighborhood in Pittsburgh where he lived.
It could have been glee club, Martin said.
He eventually wound up at Pitt, though he quipped it meant he was doing two things he didn’t like: football and school. His junior year he made his first visit to church, where he said he had a street-style conversation with God in which he promised: “If you let me live past 21, dude, I promise I’ll try to do my best and try to live right and try to do whatever you want me to do.”
So when Martin says he never had a passion for football, it’s understandable. He says he looked around the room after the phone call telling him New England would draft him and said: “Oh my God, I do not want to play football.”
But he did, and he tried to outwork everyone, almost as if he were working to get away from his past. That, he said, is what made him successful. He gave up to 15 percent of his pay to his Job Foundation, which helps single mothers and provides medical care in impoverished third-world countries, and he remains committed to it.
His greatest achievement?
“Helping my mother and nurturing my mother from the bitter, angry, beaten, hurt person that she was,” he said. “Nurturing her to have a healthy mindset and to forgive my father for everything that he did to her.”
By the end of his dad’s life, his mother was cooking for him and taking him meals.
“At my eulogy,” Martin said, perhaps speaking for all the enshrinees, “I don’t want my daughter, or whoever it may be, giving my eulogy to talk about how many yards I gained or touchdowns I scored.
“I want my daughter to be able to talk about the man that Curtis Martin was. How when she was growing up, she looked for a man like her father. That he was a man of integrity, a man of strong character, and a God-fearing man. That’s what I want.
“Then she could say, ‘Oh yeah, and he was a pretty good football player.'”