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Original Issue

A Gift From Heaven

No doubt it's a bit much — for most people, anyway — to use those words to describe the opening of another nfl season, a sunday on which 851,953 people in 14 stadiums witnessed 57 touchdowns, two overtime victories, the birth squalls of two new franchises and the relocation of two old ones. But the phrase is just right to describe a rookie running back's game-winning burst into the end zone, the perfect invocation for a new season.

He spent the hours before his first NFL game reading psalms out
of a small Bible he keeps in a black, zip-up case. He said
prayers on the sidelines in the fourth quarter and answered the
taunts of Cleveland Brown defenders with "God bless you." Yet,
when he finally had the chance to make a statement to the
football-watching world on Sunday, rookie running back Curtis
Martin, who is so religious that his New England Patriot
teammates call him Moses or the Golden Child, acted not like a
choirboy but a wild man.

Mouth yapping and fists pummeling the end-zone air, Martin
celebrated his first NFL touchdown more fervently than any of
the 60,126 fans at Foxboro Stadium. Having just made the
dramatic one-yard lunge that gave the Patriots a 17-14 victory
over the Browns in an opening-week battle of AFC powers, Martin
was in perfect position to engage in a little religious
symbolism. But in an era in which the kneeling end-zone prayer
has become more trite than the overhead spike, Martin opted for
a more spontaneous gesture. "My prayers were answered, and I was
so excited, I just had to snap," Martin explained later. "My
religion isn't something I have to show off. God is on my mind
at all times, but that doesn't mean every time I get in the end
zone I've got to get on my knees."

Perhaps it's the Patriots who should kneel in thanks, because if
Martin, a third-round draft choice from Pitt, keeps running the
way he did Sunday, opposing defenses will have more to worry
about than quarterback Drew Bledsoe and tight end Ben Coates.
Martin's 102-yard effort on 19 carries began with a bang--a
30-yard dash off left tackle--and ended with shouts of joy. With
24 seconds remaining and New England trailing 14-9, he was met
in midair near the goal line by a trio of Cleveland defenders,
but he surged forward a second time and stretched the ball
across the plane of the goal. With that he also broke the spirit
of a proud Brown defense that had dominated the Pats last
January in a 20-13, first-round playoff victory at Cleveland

Cleveland was stunned by the 22-year-old Martin's resilience,
because the Browns assumed he would be the one to break. They
had seen film of his impressive exhibition efforts (190 yards on
52 carries), noting his breakaway speed and ability to bounce
off tacklers. But Cleveland figured it could rattle Martin by
smacking him around and talking smack from the get-go. If the
Browns had truly scouted Martin, they would have understood how
futile their plan was.

When Martin, on the game's first play from scrimmage, raced
through a gaping hole, bounced right and tiptoed out of bounds
30 yards downfield, the Cleveland players started barking like
dogs. "That's the last run you're gonna get, rookie," one
Brown defender told him. "I'm takin' you out next time, you
punk," another one threatened.

Some players might have been rattled. But Martin, whose past
makes Boyz N the Hood look like the Hardy Boys, was unfazed,
sometimes replying, "God bless you," other times responding with
silence and another tough run. And though the Browns, on the
strength of two Vinny Testaverde-to-Michael Jackson touchdown
heaves, appeared to be in control of the game by halftime, they
were unable to put away either Martin or the Patriots.

"We hit him with everything we had--stuff about his family, stuff
you can't print," said Rob Burnett, Cleveland's Pro Bowl
defensive end, after the game. "We tried to get him mad, but he
wouldn't respond, and that's no fun. After a while it's like
talking to a wall."

Martin's performance contrasted sharply with that of the
Patriots' running game last season. After signing 250-pound
Marion Butts to a $1.4 million free-agent contract before the
1994 season, coach Bill Parcells employed his signature
power-running attack with disastrous results. Butts spent most
of the time on his butt, averaging just 2.9 yards a carry. He is
out of football, having been cut by the 49ers, while the 5'11",
203-pound Martin, who produced New England's first 100-yard game
since Leonard Russell in December '93, has trouble believing
that he's in the NFL.

Before he became a born-again Christian two years ago, Martin
says he was on a path that could have ended in tragedy. "If you
knew where I came from and what I've been through," he says,
"you'd be amazed that I survived."

Raised in a hairy section of Pittsburgh, Martin saw friends and
neighbors die on a regular basis. In the fourth grade he came
home one day and found his grandmother, Eleanor Johnson,
murdered in her bedroom. The scene is embedded in his memory:
"She had a knife in her chest that went all the way through her
back and into the bed. There was blood everywhere, and her eyes
were wide open. We knew that the person who did it knew my
grandmother because there was no forcible entry. For the next
two years we lived in fear: It was me, my mom and her boyfriend,
and if one of us went upstairs, we all went upstairs."

According to Martin, the case remained unsolved for two years
until he was asked to visit the local police precinct. "They
showed me pictures of all these different guys and asked me if
any of them looked familiar," Martin says. "I didn't really
recognize any of them, but just to give them something, I
pointed at this one guy and said, 'I think I've seen him.' They
investigated, and it turned out this guy was the killer. Looking
back, that's how I know God was looking out for me."

Still, Martin hardly lived a pious life as a teenager,
frequently visiting local clubs and dodging bullets. "I'm
basically a good person," he says, "but just from being in the
wrong place at the wrong time, I came real close to dying. So
many of my friends have gotten killed, and my best friend,
Jamont Harris, got his chest blown out our senior year and died.
We played football together in high school--he was the
quarterback--and some guy mistook him for another guy. Jamont got
a bullet right through his chest, and people said he ran for 100
yards before he finally fell."

It's unfair to draw a parallel between this and Martin's
touchdown run on Sunday, but it puts his determination in its
proper context. Sometimes sheer will is the difference in a game
between two evenly matched teams, and this was one of those
matchups you'd love to see replayed come January. Not only did
the game feature some of the AFC's best players, it included a
game-within-a-game between the two coaches, Parcells and Bill
Belichick, who was the defensive coordinator for Parcells's 1990
Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

Portrayed as a humorless workaholic during his first four years
as the Cleveland coach, Belichick has undergone a more drastic
reputation repair than Andre Agassi. His players say the
departure of several bad-attitude Browns--most notably four-time
Pro Bowl defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry, who signed with
Denver after being waived during the off-season--has helped
Belichick relax. Last Thursday, Bill the Thrill engaged in a
running conversation with an SI reporter during practice while
ESPN announcer Joe Theismann, the former Washington Redskin
quarterback, served as the Bledsoe impersonator on the scout team.

Martin, whose cousin is rapper Sam Sneed, has remained friends
with rap giants Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg despite his
newfound religious beliefs. "Instead of partying now," he says,
"we do cookouts." The Foxboro crowd included TLC singer Lisa
(Left Eye) Lopes, who is engaged to Cleveland's prized
off-season free-agent catch, receiver Andre Rison. Though Rison
was mostly a decoy Sunday--he caught two passes for 14 yards
while Jackson pulled down a career-high seven catches for 157
yards, including first-half touchdowns of 70 and 30 yards--Brown
owner Art Modell has big plans for him. Told that the lyrics of
one of Lopes's songs express her desire to make love to Rison on
the 50-yard line, Modell replied, "It'll be the halftime show."
That drew prolonged laughter from Rison, who said, "Sounds like
the Red Light Special."

As giddy as Modell is about the Browns' prospects for reaching
their first Super Bowl, the optimism in New England may be even
more pronounced. For the first time, the Patriots sold out their
home games for the season even before it began, and second-year
owner Robert Kraft has emerged as a cult hero. Before Sunday's
game, he roamed the stadium parking lots, mingling with his
public like a politician. Then he went inside his luxury suite,
took a deep breath and said a little prayer. Bledsoe (30 for 47,
302 yards) was outplayed by Vinny Testaverde for much of the
game, but he got the tough yards in the end, driving the Pats 85
yards for the winning touchdown and setting up Martin's heroics
with a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-one from the three with
1:24 left to play. "I thought he went backwards," said Burnett,
but the officials felt otherwise. Bledsoe made it by a couple of
inches, and two plays later Martin did the same.

"My stomach was churning," Kraft said of Martin's final lunge.
"But I knew it would happen--I felt like it was destined."

Martin shared the feeling. After answering reporters' questions
for half an hour before the protective Parcells angrily broke up
the interview session, Martin walked outside to greet his
mother, Rochella, and several other relatives and friends.
Following a short visit, he went back to the motel where he is
staying, shut the door to his room and took his phone off the
hook. The room was dark except for the glare of the football
highlights on TV, and the strains of gospel singer William
Becton soothed Martin's ears.

"I just tried to soak it all in," Martin said later that night.
"It seems like this stuff only happens in movies."

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Curtis Martin capped his 102-yard performance with an extra-effort plunge for the decisive TD. [gatefold]

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Testaverde completed 20 of 29 passes, but linebacker Willie McGinest got in some good licks for the Patriots. [Willie McGinest tackling Vinny Testaverde] COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Jackson made history of his own with this 30-yard TD catch and a career-high 157 receiving yards. [Michael Jackson] COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Bringing down Coates proved to be a tough chore for the Browns, whom he burned for 106 yards. [Ben Coates]

Sometimes sheer will is the difference between evenly matched