THE MEADOWLANDS, N.J.-Over left guard for 6 yards. Past the right end for 8 yards. Over left guard for no gain. Over left guard for 8 yards. Those were the first-quarter achievements of New York Jets running back Curtis Martin on Nov. 14, in the 100th straight game he has started.
Big deal, you might yawn. But short runs add up: Mr. Martin is sixth on the list of the National Football League's all-time leading rushers, with almost 13,000 yards. His streak began in 1998, and the second-quarter performance I saw was typical: Over right guard for 1 yard. Up the middle for 2 yards. Over right tackle for 1 yard. Over left guard for 1 yard. Over right guard for 4 yards. Over right tackle for 8 yards. Over left tackle for 7 yards. Over left guard for 9 yards.
Boring, you might say. But by the end of this year, his 10th season, he is likely to be in fourth or fifth place all-time, because of runs that rarely make double digits. He continued his meat-and-potatoes work in the third quarter: 3 yards over left guard, 2 yards over left tackle, 2 yards over left tackle, 3 yards over left guard, 2 yards around left end.
Wearisome-or a representation of the Christian life? Mr. Martin is not the fairy-tale hero who kills a dragon or the movie hero who saves the world from annihilation. He's a tough player who gave the Jets a touchdown and a 7-0 lead by banging off a lineman, ricocheting off a linebacker, and bouncing into the end zone. Total yards credited to his account: 1.
Mr. Martin proclaimed his faith in Christ in 1993 and has a reputation for authenticity and consistency. He is better-known and better-paid than the Christian salesman who goes out day after day to learn what his customers need, or the Christian mom who makes sure she is home day after day when her children return from school. But the goal is the same: perseverance, an unnatural trait in a society that emphasizes immediate gratification.
Providentially, our environments do not rule us. Look at Mr. Martin now, and then read about his childhood in Linda Watkins's God Just Showed Up (Moody, 2001): He told her, "When I was growing up, I didn't expect to live past the age of twenty-one. Any day, any second, I thought I'd be dead because violence was part of my life. . . . When I turned nine, my grandmother's murder reminded me I lived in a violent world. . . . A knife was stuck in her chest. . . . I was almost killed many times."
What changed him? The discipline of sports helped: "Football has taught me a lot. I've learned to work hard, be diligent, and have strong faith." (Jets coach Herman Edwards simply says, "Curtis Martin understands how to work.") I can believe that. These days, because of the interests of my youngest son, we watch the NFL Channel more than any other, and story after story has the same emphasis: It's vital to work hard and have the will to succeed.
But underlying that discipline, more often than cynical journalists let on, is God's grace. Mr. Martin says, "The more I followed God, the more He helped me develop godly thoughts. That changed my attitude and then my behavior. God took away my confusion and fears."
Another Jets player, center Kevin Mawae, speaks similarly, and has started 163 regular-season games in a row, along with the last five Pro Bowl (all star) games; he merely says, "I've been blessed . . . not to be injured so badly that I couldn't play." For years he put a cross made of white trainer's tape on his face mask, but last year league officials told him to desist, saying he was violating the policy against personal messages on uniforms.
Faith in God doesn't spare believers from disappointment. Mr. Martin gained 25 yards on five carries in the fourth quarter and, with the Jets trailing Baltimore 17-14, seemed ready to lead his team to victory. But the Ravens defense croaked, "Nevermore," and New York had to settle for a field goal that sent the game into overtime.
In that extra period the pounding runner gained only 3 yards and Baltimore won the game. But he's still able to profess, "God is the One who protects me on the field just like He did when I was in the streets." That's also perseverance.