Gorman: Martin made most of 1 high school season
Every time he hears Curtis Martin's name in the news, Jim Trent can't help but feel a smile creep across his face.
And a shiver down his spine.
Trent, who spent 25 seasons as Schenley's football coach, still marvels at how Martin ran roughshod over his Spartans for Allderdice in the fall of 1990.
“I can still picture my defensive coordinator running into the locker room at halftime and going to the chalkboard and drawing up what we were doing wrong because we couldn't stop him,” Trent said. “We were just loading everybody up in the box, doing everything we could to stop him. Our kids just bounced off him like it was nothing. He beat us pretty one-handedly. It wasn't until a few years later, when Curtis was at Pitt, that we realized we weren't playing that bad.
“He was that good.”
Today, Curtis Martin will be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Not only is Martin the first City League alumnus to have his bust in Canton, but he is also its most improbable success story.
Martin played only one season of high school football, after being discovered in gym class by then-Dragons coach Mark Wittgartner.
“Soon as he got on the football field, we all knew he was going to be something special,” said Jason Kuhar, a teammate of Martin's at Allderdice. “He was so much faster than anyone we ever saw.”
Martin rushed for 1,705 yards and 20 touchdowns, scored on four receptions and threw four touchdown passes. Most amazing, he reeled off four consecutive 200-yard games, including one against defending PIAA champion Perry, which won the City League that season.
Gus Catanese, who spent 21 years as Perry's coach, remembers hearing buzz about Martin before the Allderdice game. It was played at Perry's home field in Observatory Hill, where both teams shared the same sideline. Martin rushed for 217 yards, a feat then unheard of against Perry's defense.
“It didn't take long to see that he was the real deal and he was going to run the ball virtually every play,” Catanese said. “He was exceptional. I remember him wanting to come out to take a break, and their coaches were yelling in, ‘Give it to Curtis.' I would have done the same thing.”
Amazing as Martin was, he had competition for the City rushing title from Oliver's Ray Zellars, who later played at Notre Dame and was drafted in the second round by the New Orleans Saints.
“Honestly, he was a sleeper; Allderdice is a big school, but Curtis was one of the best-kept secrets,” Zellars said. “He went on a rampage in the middle of the season, and we were like, ‘Whoa, this guy has turned it up. He's serious.' He was very shifty in the open field and could go the distance. If you gave him an inch, he would take a mile.”
Martin edged Zellars for the rushing title, but Oliver ended Allderdice's season with a 40-0 defeat in the City semifinals. They remained rivals when Martin went to Pitt and Zellars to Notre Dame, except for two games as teammates: the Big 33 Classic and, four years later, the Senior Bowl.
Martin ran for 2,643 yards at Pitt and 14,101 in the NFL, which ranks fourth all-time.
“There's no telling how far someone can go until they're given the opportunity,” Zellars said, “and Curt certainly took advantage of his opportunities and made good on them.”
Whether Martin is regarded as the greatest football player in City League history — some reserve that honor for Brashear's Major Harris — he left a legacy that should inspire anyone who dreamed of playing high school football.
“There's so many kids walking the halls with great athletic ability who, for whatever reasons, don't play,” Catanese said. “It's just so tough for a kid that has never played before to come up and make an impact like that. You can hold out hope, but it's such a pipe dream to think that somebody can come out for one year and go to the Hall of Fame. I hope kids don't think that's realistic, just because Curtis Martin did it that they can.”
Still, Martin's success serves as a valuable lesson: There's no telling how far you can go until you're given an opportunity. Then it's up to you to take advantage and run with it.
Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7812.