Garrett Hartley moseyed into the Southlake Carroll (Texas) coaches’ office several months ago upbeat as usual even though he was looking for work.
The high school and college All-American kicker, a Carroll graduate, was between jobs. .
"His parents had just moved to East Texas so he was hanging at a friend’s house in town, sleeping on his couch," Carroll head coach Hal Wasson said on Monday. "He said something good was on the horizon. He just wasn’t sure what."
Getting hoisted on the shoulders of teammates after kicking an NFC Championship game-winning field goal probably wasn’t what he had envisioned, but then again, Hartley has always been a positive thinker.
In fact, beyond his extremely strong leg and mechanics, his mental approach is probably what has set him apart. It led him to a state title-game appearance in high school with Carroll, the national championship game with Oklahoma and now the Super Bowl with the Saints.
"I don’t know if there’s ever been a kicker better prepared for the big stage," said Carroll’s special teams and kicking coach, Larry Hughes. "He never expected to miss. He always had the mentality, ‘I’m making this.’ "
Said Wasson: "Garrett has never seen a kick he didn’t like or didn’t think he could nail."
And boy did he nail Sunday’s 40-yard game-winner in overtime against the Vikings.
"He killed it," Wasson said. "Crushed it."
And as soon as Hartley made it, Hughes began getting inundated with calls and text messages.
"People are happy for him, and they should be," Hughes said. "He’s a great kid, it’s a neat story and a good ending — though he has another week and entire career to go."
Like all good stories, Hartley has indeed faced major disappointments and challenges.
State of shock
In high school, Hughes first noticed Hartley as a freshman when he kicked the ball semi-regularly into the end zone. "For a freshman, that’s sort of eye-catching," Hughes said.
Though only 5-foot-8, Hartley was the team’s starting goalie on the soccer team, where he also displayed a very strong leg. Hughes, who also helped develop all-state and record-breaking kickers Kevin Ortega and most recently, 2009 All-American Cade Foster (already enrolled at Alabama), said Hartley worked hard on his fundamentals "and just got better and better and better."
The summer before his senior year he attended a kicking camp at Oklahoma and as the story goes, coach Bob Stoops was holding the ball when Hartley drilled a 50-something-yard field goal, helping lead to a college scholarship.
He set a state record with 90 extra points his junior year in 2002, helping the Dragons to a state and mythical national crown. Hartley 9-for-10 on field goal tries during the regular season of his senior year, including a 54-yard make. His only miss was a 71-yarder.
"There was a strong wind at his back and during warm-ups he made two of three from 72 yards," Hughes said. "It was kind of a blowout and coach (Todd) Dodge decided to give him a chance. He didn’t hit it that well. It would have only been good from 60."
A more memorable miss came in his final high school game, a 47-yard attempt with six minutes remaining in the state-title game against Katy. The kick, plenty long but slightly pulled, would have given Carroll a nine-point lead.
Instead Katy then connected on a long touchdown pass and won 16-15.
"It (the miss) probably would have sealed it but it’s funny over the years how that story has been twisted," Hughes said. "I’ve seen a lot of reports saying it was a last-second kick. It wasn’t."
Still, Hughes said, Hartley was obviously disappointed with the miss.
"The look on his face was a state of shock," Hughes said. "But then, he could never believe when he missed one."
The miss against Katy obviously didn’t mess with his confidence. "Even if it was a last-second miss, nothing could destroy his confidence," Hughes said. "That’s why he’s been up to move up the ladder and kicked at the highest level."
He was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award at Oklahoma in 2006 and a two-time All-Big 12 kicker, and wasn’t drafted after graduation in 2008, but was signed by the Broncos, who later cut him right before training camp.
He was picked up by the Saints in the middle of the 2008 season, made all 13 attempts the rest of year setting him up to be the team’s starter for 2009. But he was suspended for four games by the NFL for testing positive for prescription pills Adderall, a stimulant he took he said to stay awake while driving from Dallas to New Orleans during offseason workouts. He had no clue, he said, they were on the banned stimulant list.
The mistake cost him dearly. The Saints singed John Carney to a one-year contract and even after Hartley became eligible to kick, New Orleans continued to use Carney.
But when finally called upon in Week 12 at Washington, Hartley delivered, booting four field goals, including the game-winner in overtime. Teammates jokingly left Hartley a present in his locker that day, a box of five-hour ENERGY, an energy drink that helps people stay awake when tired.
"It’s all fun and games," Hartley told reporters that day with a smile. "I learned from a stupid mistake. It’s part of the learning process."
The up-and-down nature of professional place-kicking is a process, too. Hartley missed a 37-yarder with five seconds left that would have given the Saints a Week 15 win over the Bucs, who eventually won in overtime 20-17.
It was one of just two misses in Hartley’s NFL career, which has now featured 24 makes in 26 attempts. He told reporters Sunday that the miss against the Bucs never entered his mind.
"There are times in everyone’s career that everything is not going to be perfect," Hartley said. "Coming out here and trying to make up for my last mistake and knowing what I had to focus on, seeing myself and envisioning it was the most important part."
Instead, he focused on a premonition.
He had a sleepless night heading into Sunday’s game, and eventually called his dad Bill at 2:15 a.m.
"I said, ‘Dad, I have a feeling I’m going to hit a game-winner from 42 yards on the right hash,’ " Hartley told reporters. "It was funny, just the whole game how things played out and I just kept thinking about, ‘Is this really happening?’ It was like never-never land."
His dreams now are all being realized and his slumbers taking place in familiar places.
"As soon as he made (Sunday’s field goal) I thought to myself, instead of sleeping on someone’s couch he could now buy his own furniture store," Wasson said.