PITTSBURGH — Before he knew that he wanted to play football, Curtis Martin knew that he wanted to give back to his community.
Tuesday, the Pittsburgh native and Pitt graduate did just that, making a sizable donation as part of a $14 million dollar project to renovate Willie Stargell Field in the Homewood neighborhood of the city that Martin grew up in, years before the became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame playing for the New England Patriots and New York Jets.
The project, which features contributions from the city and state, Homewood Community Sports, Martin, Dan Towriss of Group1001 and the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation, will design and construct a new athletic complex on the site, which will be expanded by the demolition of the former Homewood Montessori School. The new multi-purpose football and baseball field will be jointly named for Martin and Stargell.
It’s a fitting honor for Martin, who said most of his motivation for going into football was to be able to make a difference in people’s lives beyond the game.
“I remember talking to Bill Parcells on the phone when he called [at the draft],” Martin said, recalling his selection in the third round of the 1995 NFL Draft. “He said, ‘Son, we would like to know if you’d like to play for the New England Patriots.’
“I said, ‘yes, sir’ and I hung up the phone. All my friends and family were there. I turned around and I said, ‘I don’t want to play football. I don’t want to play football at all. This thing has been kind of a joke to me. I just had the talent to get here, but this is not what I want to do for the rest of my life.’”
“I had a pastor there. The pastor looked at me and said, ‘Curtis, maybe all those wonderful things that you want to do for your community and for the state and for the world, all those big dreams you have, maybe football is just the vehicle that God has blessed you with to do that.’
“It was literally from that moment on that football took on an entirely new purpose for me, and because it was a new purpose, it gave me a new vision which motivated me to work as hard as I did to eventually make it to the Hall of Fame.”
Since his retirement in 2006, Martin has dedicated himself to charitable contributions, through his Curtis Martin Job Foundation and other ventures and said he hopes to find a way to give back 80 percent of his earnings. For most of his contributions, he feels more comfortable in a behind-the scenes role, but this project was personal.
A Taylor Allderdice and Pitt alum, Martin grew up blocks from the field and said it was a visit back to his hometown last August that prompted his interest in being a part of its redevelopment. Martin recalled his youth growing up in Homewood, one of the cities’ most depressed areas, and said that it’s hard to understand the full impact of the project to those that didn’t live through the hardships he and his family did.
“I grew up in this neighborhood and I’ve seen all the things that go on in this neighborhood,” he said. “Just to give you an understand of my background a little bit, when I was nine years old, literally five blocks from this field, my grandmother, who was like my mother, we found her murdered with a knife in her chest. I’ve had several friends who have had similar results in their lives. We all, who come from this community, know how important something like this is.”
Specifically, it was a brush with violence with his family in 2017 at Stargell Field that sparked his involvement in the project.
“I visited this field last August,” Martin said. “The house that I grew up in, there must have been 20 of us or maybe even 30 in a very small home. So, I took my kids — I have a three-year-old and a five-year-old — and my wife, I took them to visit the matriarch of this house. On our way leaving, I looked over and I saw this huge crowd. I said, ‘Oh, there must be a game up at the field. Let me show you where daddy used to play football when he was little like you.’
“I ended up seeing a few of my old friends and [Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle] Aaron Donald, who you all know, was across the field, because I think he was holding out of camp. I walked across the field, said hello to him. I was there for maybe 20 minutes, me and my family. After I left, I got a text that a little girl had just gotten shot in the head and shot in the foot. Now fortunately, that little girl lived. … What you guys are doing, you have no idea the difference that this facility is going to make in this environment, because this is not only going to change lives, but this is going to save lives.”
Mayor Peduto said the demolition of the vacant school building will extend the park space all the way to the already redeveloped Carnegie Library and hopes that the area will become a safe space for the children of Homewood.
“Some may view this as a field,” he said. “We view it as the opportunity for the individuals who will be using this facility and for the neighborhood, as a rebirth of a critical part of the rebuilding of Homewood.”
The Ripken Foundation will lend its expertise in building youth development parks. It has built 78 such parks across 22 states and Washington, D.C. The Pittsburgh Pirates are also expected to contribute to the project.
NOT A FAN OF THE GAME
The field will be a multipurpose one, with a baseball diamond in one corner and a football field covering the rest of the rectangular space that can also be used for soccer or other full-field sports.
That’s fitting for Martin, who said that he didn’t grow up idolizing football players or desiring to play the game. His mother demanded that he pick an after-school activity and football was the one he showed the most aptitude for.
He said he doesn’t follow a lot of football since the end of his playing career, whether it’s the NFL teams he played on, the Steelers, or his Pitt Panthers. But he did say he’ll watch the highlights and that he’s been impressed by Steelers and former Pitt running back James Conner.
“Someone I really appreciate their career and what they’ve been through is James Conner,” Martin said. “I think that he’s doing a phenomenal job and he’s a phenomenal person. He’s fought a struggle that is much harder than being out there on that field. I’m just happy to see him out there having some success right now.”