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The knife was plunged so deeply into her chest that the blade pierced through her back and into the mattress.
That’s how Curtis Martin’s family found his grandmother all those years ago, murdered in her bed during a home invasion.
“A man robbed her for $140,” Martin said softly, as he recalled losing the woman “who was like my mother” to violence. “But in doing so, he broke her neck and took a butcher knife and embedded it so far through her heart that it was sticking out of her back.”
The Hall of Fame running back’s connection to the cause of helping women who are victims of violence is rooted in his life story and everything he witnessed growing up in a gang-infested Pittsburgh neighborhood.
A drug-addicted and physically abusive father.
A single mother forced to bear the scars of that mistreatment and the responsibility of making ends meet.
And when he was 9, the violent murder of his grandmother, Eleanor Johnson.
Hours before he was due to be honored at the Coalition Against Trafficking Women’s 30th anniversary gala in Manhattan, Martin spoke of the people who were far more deserving of the spotlight: Women who are physically, verbally and mentally abused by men. Women who are routinely taken advantage of and forced into situations they cannot escape. And women who have lost their lives at the hands of men.
“I do see it as an honor, but I look at it more as a responsibility,” Martin told Yahoo Sports by phone Monday morning. “It’s something that’s very unjust, something that’s very unfortunate and unfair. And I think there are a lot of women and people who are suffering from those who take advantage of them and trafficking them and abusing them.
“This is just something I feel more called to do,” added the five-time Pro Bowler-turned entrepreneur and philanthropist. “I appreciate them honoring me, but I really look at it as almost an honoring of these women who have survived and made it through some of the abuses they’ve been through.”
Martin’s mission is to ensure that women can be saved from violent and abusive situations. He is a New Abolitionist, a member of a coalition comprised of more than 120 leaders in business, government, media, the arts and human rights that aims to end human slavery and trafficking in New York State. He also created the Curtis Martin Job Foundation, which provides financial and hands-on support to single mothers and aims to combat homelessness.
And it’s because of his commitment to marginalized communities that he is being honored by CATW.
“I think most of us are just a few degrees away from either knowing someone or knowing someone who knows someone who’s involved, in some form or fashion, in the abuse of women,” he said. “Even if it’s not as severe as trafficking or physically abusing a woman. … In whatever way a person can contribute to ending it, that’s what I would hope people come away from this event with. That sense of what they could possibly do.”
Over the years, Martin has come to understand the ways in which sex trafficking most often starts with some form of abuse. “I’ve just seen that there’s a whole lot of emotional, mental, psychological issues that take place in that journey, from losing that innocence to becoming severely abused,” he said. “And I think it takes place in so many different ways.”
The men Martin came in contact with during his formative years were all “womanizers,” he recalled, adding that “from the time I was born until I was at least 17 or so,” he had never seen an example of how a man is ‘supposed’ to treat a woman. During his 27-minute Hall of Fame speech in 2012, he detailed the physical violence his mother, Rochella Dixon, endured from his father, Curtis, Sr., and discussed how he later learned to repair his relationship with his estranged father before his death.
“It’s almost as though I had to learn how to respect and treat a woman in reverse because I had never had a good example of how to even deal with a woman,” said Martin, 45. “There are lot of young kids, like myself, growing up in that environment and I think it just perpetuates the abuse. And it’s unfortunate because I look at everything that I had to go through to not be a product of my environment and I just don’t know how many men are willing to make those types of sacrifices or get that type of help so they don’t become products of environments like that. … I think a lot [of] times, that’s where it starts.”
Playing in the NFL taught him discipline and instilled within him values he still holds dear. Despite becoming one of the game’s greatest running backs, Martin feels like he’s now doing “what really matters. And that’s impacting people’s lives in a positive way.”
Asked what his message would be to the audience Monday night, Martin admitted he wasn’t sure. Save for his opening sentence, he had not rehearsed or prepared any remarks prior the CATW gala.
It’s his style not to overthink the moment, he said. When he stands before a room full of people, he usually just lets the words flow.
Over the years, he has learned it’s better to just let the heart take over.
“I’m always interested to see what comes out at that moment,” Martin said, with a chuckle. “And then we’ll see what happens thereafter. Usually, all I need is my first sentence and my time limit.”
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