FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Running back Curtis Martin is still asked the question.

What if?

Martin played three seasons with the New England Patriots, 1995-97, before bolting to the New York Jets as a restricted free agent.

Martin, 39, played eight seasons for the Jets in a career that culminated in his induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame this past August.

Martin and two other former Patriots now in the Hall of Fame –Mike Haynes and Andre Tippett — appeared at Gillette Stadium Sunday night. They served as honorary captains for the Patriots.

Martin ranks fourth all-time among NFL rushers with 14,101 yards. He gained 3,799 in three seasons with New England before the Jets surprisingly signed him to a $36-million, six-year contract that the Patriots did not match.

“Probably my one regret is he got away from us,” Patriots owner Bob Kraft told espn.com.

But Martin only reached one Super Bowl, and that was with the Bill Parcells-coached Patriots in the 1996 season (a 35-21 loss to Green Bay).

While Martin played for the Jets, the Patriots won three Super Bowls. The Jets never made it to the big game.

“I can only imagine how many rings (I would have won) — how many they have, three, four?” Martin said. “It would have been great.

“But at the end of the day, things work out the way they are supposed to. As much as I would have liked to experience a long career with the New England Patriots, it just wasn’t in the cards for me.”

Martin, who struck up a friendship with Kraft in his three years here, said the owner’s involvement has kept New England a winner.

“It doesn’t surprise me because something I recognized when I first came was the type of leader and the type of man Mr. Kraft is,” Martin said. “I can remember days riding down the street in his car, and him speaking to me and giving me advice. You can feel his competitiveness.

“I really believe in the trickle-down effect. It was just a matter of time before it went from Mr. Kraft being one of the best owners in the league to having one of the best coaching staffs and organizations in the league, one of the best quarterbacks in the league, one of the best teams in the league.”

Martin grew up in Pittsburgh, but admits he wasn’t much of a football fan, even when he reached the pros. That changed with the Hall of Fame.

“They have this Ray Nitschke Luncheon, and the room is full of inductees — like you’re in the bust room and all the heads are really talking,” Martin said. “I learned a lot that Hall of Fame week.

“As I said in my speech I wasn’t a very big fan. I get it now. I get why football excites people and why they are fans now.”

Haynes, 59, also began his career with New England and then left. But he won a Super Bowl the next year (with the Raiders in the 1983 season).

Haynes, a cornerback, played from 1976 to 1989, and was inducted in 1997.

Tippett, 52, played linebacker for the Patriots his entire career, 1982 to 1993. He was inducted in 2008.

FORMER PATRIOTS receiver Randy Moss not only gave the 49ers a 7-0 lead with his 24-yard touchdown reception, he bumped up his career total receiving yardage to 15,219, good for third on the NFL all-time list (passing Isaac Bruce’s 15,208 yards). Jerry Rice ranks No. 1 (22,895) and Terrell Owens No. 2 (15,934).

IN REMEMBRANCE OF the 26 victims of the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary school Friday in Newtown, Conn., the Patriots applied a black ribbon sticker on the back of their helmets. Also, 26 flares were shot off during a moment of silence before the game.

Bob Kraft’s Rand-Whitney box and packaging company has a plant in Newtown, just over a mile from the school.

NBC moved from its telecast of the game to cover President Barack Obama’s speech in Newtown (the game was simulcast on CNBC) and returned later in the first quarter.

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at:

kthomas@pressherald.com

Twitter: KevinThomasPPH