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Garrett Hartley on his kick that sent us to the Super Bowl 

Garrett Hartley ends a roller coaster season with a Bowl-sealing field goal

click to enlarge Hartley's field goal in overtime sends the Saints to the Super Bowl. - PHOTO BY A.J. SISCO

Garrett Hartley's name is now indelibly etched in Saints lore. And the most endearing thing about Hartley is he doesn't seem to fully grasp the gravity of his game-winning kick that secured the Saints' first-ever Super Bowl appearance.

  The 23-year-old Texan, with his boyish visage and shaggy blond locks, could easily pass for someone who would sell you flip-flops on vacation. When Hartley encountered fans in downtown New Orleans during the celebratory hubbub after the NFC championship game, he was somewhat baffled by their reaction.

  "(They were) just coming up to me and thanking me," Hartley says. "And I'm like 'For what? I play a game.' Yeah we're going to the Super Bowl and it's cool and it's awesome. Everyone was excited. I guess I'm not used to it."

  Hartley's 40-yard field goal against the Vikings represented a new high point in what has been a tumultuous second pro season, one that saw him get suspended by the NFL, lose his starting job, reclaim it and experience both ends of the agony and ecstasy spectrum.

  "Definitely a roller coaster ride and hopefully you don't get nauseous too easily," Hartley says.

  His professional ride started less than two years ago. The Southlake, Texas native closed out a stellar career at the University of Oklahoma, where he ranked third in career field goals. He was not selected in the 2008 NFL draft and signed as a rookie free agent with the Denver Broncos, but they cut him days before training camp started.

  Hartley was out of the league until he landed an October tryout and, subsequently, a contract with the Saints, who were looking to replace former draft pick Taylor Mehlhaff.

  Hartley was perfect for the rest of the season. He made all 13 field goal attempts and did not miss an extra point. The Saints felt they finally had found the solution to their kicking quandary; Hartley was the team's sixth kicker in the past three seasons. That plan was tested during this season's training camp, however, when the NFL announced Hartley had tested positive for Adderall, a stimulant banned by the league, an offense that carries a four-game suspension.

  According to Hartley, he borrowed the prescription drug from a former college friend to help stay awake while driving from Dallas to New Orleans for an offseason workout.

  He says he was not aware Adderall was banned by the NFL, but that his ignorance was no excuse. Seeming genuinely shaken by the ordeal, he issued an earnest apology to reporters.

  Hartley's impending suspension forced the Saints to go kicker shopping once again. But it was a brief process. The team brought back 45-year-old John Carney, who spent 2001-06 with the Saints and still owned a home in the New Orleans area.

  Since being released by the Black and Gold after the 2006 season, Carney had gone on to kick for Jacksonville and Kansas City. He even made the Pro Bowl with the New York Giants in 2008.

  While Hartley began the regular season serving his four-game suspension, Carney assumed the starting job. It was a role he didn't want to relinquish — at first.

  When Hartley's suspension was over, the Saints had a decision to make: Cut Hartley, cut Carney or keep them both. In an unusual move, the team kept both kickers on the 53-man roster, and Carney continued to start.

  "I've really relied on outside sources: family, friends for support," Hartley says. "There was a time there when things weren't really going too well. You're not quite sure what's going to happen, especially after the suspension. They decide to keep me around, which is truly an amazing feeling. Coming back out, I feel I had to prove myself all over."

  Hartley was not active, meaning he wasn't even in uniform on game day, until the 12th game of the season when he made four of five field goals, including the overtime game-winner against Washington to keep the Saints' undefeated season intact. Two weeks later, the Saints decided they had seen enough and released Carney, signifying Hartley would be the team's kicker for the rest of the season.

  They didn't let Carney get away this time, however. Two days later, the team announced it had hired the 21-year veteran as a kicking consultant, a newly created position in which he would mentor Hartley and rookie punter Thomas Morstead. The role meant Carney could not kick for the Saints or any other team for the rest of the season.

  It wasn't long before Carney's protégé was tested. Hartley missed a 37-yard potential game-winning field goal in the waning seconds of the 15th game, against Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers went on to win the game in overtime. Some fans wondered if the right guy was on the field kicking, or on the sideline consulting.

  For NFL kickers, though, redemption is only one snap away.

  Hartley's opportunity came in overtime of the NFC championship game. With the score tied at 28, Hartley strode onto the field as more than 71,000 fans (or at least those who could bear to look) were fixed on his every step. It was one of the most pressure-filled moments in the 35-year history of the Louisiana Superdome.

  Any successful kick would have sufficed, but Hartley's perfectly bisected the uprights and sweetly kissed the net.

  Sudden death became sudden life.

  "The kick itself happened so fast, it was kind of like a blur," Hartley says. "I remember it coming off my foot, kind of like a home-run hitter, I guess that perfect swing on a bat. I didn't really feel much, so whenever I looked up I was like, 'OK, it's going down the middle,' so I just turned to (holder Mark) Brunell and I was like 'I guess we're going to Miami.'"

  The 5-foot-9 Hartley, who became the epicenter of the celebration, was immediately mobbed by his delirious teammates. "I was on the bottom of a pile getting smashed by about 800 pounds of guys," he says. "It was like 98 percent fun, 2 percent hurt."

  Hartley's kick took an even more compelling turn when he revealed in the post-game news conference that it was, quite literally, a dream come true. The night before the game, he had dreamed he would kick a 42-yard game-winning field goal from the right hash mark.

  He was 2 yards off.

  "People said premonition." Hartley says. "I don't know what it was. I call it a feeling, a random gut-check. I'm not quite sure."

  Carney praised Hartley's composure.

  "Maybe youth is a benefit for him," Carney says. "He comes in here out of college just a year and a half now. He's a very, very talented kid. I'm very excited for him and this city and this franchise, for him to come through on that kick."

  Carney, along with Tom Dempsey and Morten Andersen, is among the biggest name kickers in Saints history.

  But fate chose to feature little-known Garrett Hartley in this dream season, and for that Hartley is thankful.

  "Things happen for a reason and here I am and I love it," Hartley says. "I love to be a Saint."

Adam Norris is a sports anchor for WGNO-TV, ABC26.

click to enlarge saints.jpg

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