I actually started this article about Matt Hartl a while back, but I have been putting it off a little because it takes a lot out of me sometimes to write about somebody like this. I cannot possibly grasp the level of pain experienced by the Hartl family and friends, but I would like them to know that Matt Hartl won’t soon be forgotten which is why I feel I need to write about him and his struggle.
After decades of bad football, the Northwestern Wildcats finally put together a truly unforgettable season in 1995 by winning the Big 10 Championship and earning a berth in the Rose Bowl. You can read my post about the 1995 Wildcats here: http://collegefootballcrazy.com/the-1995-northwestern-wildcats-took-the-nation-by-surprise/
The major headline players from that 1995 championship team were Darnell Autry on offense and Pat Fitzgerald on defense. Of course, a Quarterback is always going to get the credit for wins or losses and Steve Schnur deserved attention for leading this team to such an incredible year.
But, football is still a game that is won and lost in the trenches, so their Offensive Line and their
Defensive Line should be given a lot of kudos for their outstanding work.
But, even besides the big ugly guys up front, there are many other players on a team that almost never get mentioned that should a part of the discussion. Football is a team game, after all.
All of these guys go through countless hours in the weight room and with running and other forms of work outs. Football now days has become a 7 day a week, 52 weeks a year job and all the while they have to maintain their grades in the classroom.
Every one, from Pat Fitzgerald to every one of the walk-on players and scout team players had
something to do with the success of this season.
Former walk-on Matt Stewart worked his tail off for this team and wrote a book about his story that I highly recommend for anyone interested in reading quality books about college football: http://collegefootballcrazy.com/book-review-the-walk-on-inside-northwesterns-rise-from-cellar-dwellers-to-big-10-champs/
Even more, head football coach Gary Barnett deserves a lot of credit for changing a culture and turning things around in the astounding accomplishment of taking a perennial losing program to a Rose Bowl. Lots of coaches have tried to change losing programs and most have failed. Bobby Bowden did it at Florida State and Hayden Fry did it at Iowa. But, the names of other coaches that tried and failed are soon forgotten.
Never mentioned in the headlines and yet another key component to success for the Northwestern Wildcats in their 1995 Big 10 Championship season was redshirt freshman Fullback Matt Hartl.
Since he was mostly a blocking Fullback, Hartl only ran for 34 yards on 8 carries in 1995, and he caught 21 passes for 221 yards and 1 Touchdown. But, he was a major factor in the Wildcats amazing Rose Bowl run that year.
Matt Hartl was a 6-2, 235 bruiser and a key blocker for outstanding Northwestern Running Back Darnell Autry. His blocking helped Autry run for a really impressive 1,785 yards that season and finish 4th in the Heisman race. Just let that one sink in a minute. A Northwestern football player placing in the top 4 of the Heisman Trophy voting. That’s truly remarkable in itself.
That one Touchdown Hartl scored was the difference in winning and losing for the Wildcats against Michigan when Northwestern surprised them in the Big House. The Big 10 was known for years as Ohio State, Michigan and the Little 8. The very act of Northwestern traveling to Ann Arbor, Michigan and taking down the mighty Michigan Wolverines was yet another major accomplishment. This was not the Michigan of 2014, the Wolverines were a couple of seasons away from winning a national championship in 1997. This was a good Michigan football team that the Wildcats beat.
Hartl was just a redshirt freshman in the Fall of 1995 and he appeared to have a nice future ahead of him and not just on the football field.
Before the Northwestern Wildcats got the chance to even defend their Big 10 title, it was discovered that Matt Hartl had Hodgkin’s Disease.
His mother had suffered with this same disease 20 years earlier, but had overcome it and was doing well. His mother was a major factor in his possible recovery from this terrible disease.
Matt Hartl grew up in beautiful Colorado. He played high school football in Denver, Colorado at George Washington High School. Naturally, he excelled academically and athletically making all state in football and baseball both his junior and senior season. He was a physically gifted athlete and the recruiters started showing up at the Hartl home.
Northwestern coach Gary Barnett had major connections in Colorado and he recruited Hartl successfully. Not much information is out there on the recruitment of Matt Hartl, so I don’t know which other schools were involved, but he decided to become a student athlete at Northwestern.
Hartl missed the 1996 season while recovering and remarkably he came back for the 1997 season. He started 11 games playing with only one lung and still did his job as a blocking Fullback. He only got 3 carries on the season, but those were undoubtedly in short yardage situations where a first down was needed. He also caught 9 passes for 73 yards. He helped pave the way for Adrian Autry, no relation to Darnell Autry, run for over a 1,000 yards. But, 1997 was not a good year for the Northwestern Wildcats as they compiled a 5-7 record on the field.
Things were also not so great for Matt Hartl because the cancer came back with a vengeance and he had to give up football after that.
As already stated, his mother had beaten Hodgkins disease earlier and was an inspiration to him through his awful ordeal, because she had been through it. But, tragically, she died suddenly with a heart attack and he was obviously crushed. His rock and his support was gone and there’s really no such thing as a good time to lose one’s mother, but the timing here was terrible.
In the words of teammate Matt Stewart “When he was first diagnosed with Hodgkin’sdisease, he didn’t bring a lot of attention to himself and didn’t want our sympathy. He fought his battle with cancer quietly and with dignity, and we all supported him along the way. It was a shock to see him a few months after he begin chemo as he had lost a lot of his weight and muscle mass. But he had a positive attitude and did what he could to support the team despite the tough battle he faced, A battle only he truly understood.”
“It’s tragic he died at such a young age. But all of his teammates have come together to create the Matt Hartl scholarship fund to hopefully help other college athletes at Northwestern. He inspired many of us with his work ethic and his positive attitude, and we never would’ve won the Big Ten without him.”
Those words are an exact quote out of an email from Matt Stewart with his permission.
I do wish this story had a happy ending, but at the end of August of 1999, Matt Hartl did pass away.
His family wrote about him later in a message to Northwestern that Matt had ‘a hardy laugh, a contagious smile, and a million miles of love and life’.
That message was sent to Northwestern on September 1st, 1999. That was my 40th birthday, but not such a special day for the Hartl family.
In a day and age when so many young football players are getting in trouble, I really would love people to remember a great, hard working man like Matt Hartl who gave his all on every play and was the consummate teammate and team player.
Men like Matt Hartl will be forever missed.