Posted: Nov 25, 2004 12:00 AM

 THE MEADOWLANDS, N.J. -- Over left guard for six yards. Past the right end for eight yards. Over left guard for no gain. Over left guard for eight 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 those short runs add up: Martin is No. 6 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 one yard. Up the middle for two yards. Over right tackle for one yard. Over left guard for one yard. Over right guard for four yards. Over right tackle for eight yards. Over left tackle for seven yards. Over left guard for nine 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: three yards over left guard, two yards over left tackle, two yards over left tackle, three yards over left guard, two yards around left end.

 Wearisome -- or a model of perseverance? Martin is not the fairytale hero who kills a dragon. He's not the movie hero who saves the world from annihilation by asteroid. 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: one.

 Martin's childhood did not teach him perseverance. As he told Linda Watkins for her book, "God Just Showed Up," "When I was growing up, I didn't expect to live past the age of 21. 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."

 The discipline of sports helped to change him: "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.")

 That makes sense. 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 often let on, is God's grace, which Martin took to heart in 1993. He 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."

 Martin is better-known and better-paid than the salesman who believes in following God's will by going out day after day to find out what his customers need, or the mom who doesn't miss a carpool assignment -- but the goal is the same: perseverance, an unnatural trait in a society that emphasizes immediate gratification.

 Faith in God doesn't spare believers from disappointment. With the Jets trailing Baltimore 17-14 in the fourth quarter but nearing the end zone, it looked like the pounding runner could lead his team to victory. When he gained only four yards in his next two carries, though, New York had to settle for a field goal that sent the game into overtime.

 In that extra period, the pounding runner gained only three 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.