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Back on sound footing // Martin on a familiar run

It has taken us 2,805 rushing yards to learn his name. Only after 35 touchdowns, only after 701 carries and 78 catches, have we solved the mystery of Curtis Martin.

Who is this man flashing downfield in the highlight tapes? Why haven't we noticed him before?

Do not feel bad, however, if it has taken you a while to discover Martin. It was only a week ago that he sat in a darkened room, watching similar highlights, as he strained to rediscover himself.

On the screen in front of him were familiar images, of Martin slashing through the line a year earlier. The Martin on film did not have the hesitation that New England Patriots fans had seen much of this season. He did not dance or try to outrun players to the sideline. He simply cut back and burst through the tiniest of seams and outran the world.

"Where is this guy?" running backs coach Maurice Carthon kept saying. "I wish we could find this guy around here. Where did he go?"

So Martin sat and watched the highlights. And then he went out and made some more.

For two seasons, he has been the best back nobody ever heard of. Now, they have. If the Patriots 28-3 victory over Pittsburgh a week ago was this team's arrival, it also was Martin's coming-out party. After 166 yards, after three touchdowns, much of the world knows his name. Now, it is time it learned his story.

Who is the man in the highlights? Most running backs, the great ones, are known long before they ever hit this league. We have seen them in highlights and end zones throughout their college careers. We saw teams jockey for draft position to pick them.

So who is Martin? He's the shy, religious man in the Patriots' locker room, the one who skipped an appearance last week so he could attend a bible study class. He's the man from a cracked-sidewalk section of Pittsburgh who used to walk between the street gangs on his way home, once being caught in a cross-fire. He's the son whose mother told him as a senior in high school that he had to pick some extracurricular activity to stay out of trouble. Guess what? He picked football.

Who is he? He's the back Bill Parcells once called "a one-day wonder." He's the back who gained 1,152 yards this season and answered questions about what was wrong with him. He's the back who, with snowballs falling from the sky, could have the most impact upon today's AFC Championship Game against Jacksonville.

This is not Plan A of how to become a 1,000-yard rusher in the NFL. Not that it took Martin long to show his stuff. Even though his senior season was his first year of high school football, he was something special. Trouble is, he signed with Pitt, which wasn't.

Even there, however, he established himself. But in his senior season, he injured an ankle in his second game. Pitt was going to redshirt him, but Martin _ against advice _ decided to declare himself eligible for the draft.

He went in the third round to the Patriots, and no one around here thought anything about it. But sometimes, a player winds up in the right place at the right time. The Patriots had turned Leonard Russell loose in a salary squabble, and the Marion Butts reclamation was a failure.

So here was this quiet running back, who took the ball for the first time in his rookie year and ran for 30 yards. Before the day was out, he gained 109 yards and scored the winning touchdown against Cleveland in the closing seconds.

The next day, he was being interviewed when Parcells walked past. Parcells, who is slow to fall in love with rookies, said: "They all want to talk to the one-day wonder."

He gained 1,487 yards last season, including nine 100-yard days. This season, however, his per-carry average fell from 4.0 to 3.6. He had a game against the Giants in which he carried eight times for 9 yards. He had 13 yards against Denver, 23 yards against Miami. His teammates, and Parcells, defended him as being a more complete player. Still, something was missing.

That was why Carthon broke out the tapes, showing Martin the way he had run when he was successful. That was why Martin showed the nation what Carthon was talking about.

"He challenged me to have a better game, and I did," Martin said.

Parcells always has enjoyed a head game. All week, he kept talking up Dave Meggett, and how the Patriots would use him more because of the way Meggett blocked blitzing linebackers. All week, he kept telling Martin how slow he was, how he needed to "take it to the house." All week, the Patriots acted as if last season's Martin was missing in action.

Then the game came, and Martin went. The Steelers, the No. 2 defense in the NFL, a team that had allowed only 190 yards rushing in its past four games, spent the day chasing Martin, perhaps wondering "who is this guy?"

Who is he? He's the son praying on the phone with his mother, Rochella, who still owns a used clothing store in Pittsburgh. He's the player who was the 10th back taken in the '95 draft, and who now does not see 10 backs better than him in the entire league. He's the rare Patriot back who had a good first year and did not fall off the face of the Earth (like Carl Garrett, John Stephens, Russell) thereafter.

Who is he? On a cold, windy day in New England, he could well determine whether the Patriots make the Super Bowl.

If that happens, it will be a wonder of day. And Martin will never be a one-day wonder again.