NEW ORLEANS -- Garrett Hartley walked up to reporters not really knowing what to say.
He made me nervous just looking at him.
Hartley peeked over the media's shoulder for the New Orleans Saints media relations staff hoping he would say the right things as the questions became more intrusive.
"It's literally a tough pill to swallow," Hartley said in August, making a joke that was borderline inappropriate.
It wasn't after a missed kick or a tough loss. Hartley learned during training camp he tested positive for Adderall, a substance banned by the league unless the player has a prescription. Hartley didn't have a prescription as he popped an Adderall he procured from a college buddy as he wanted to stay awake to make the drive from Dallas to New Orleans.
He manned up, took the heat, eventually earned his job back from veteran John Carney after a four-game suspension and landed in a position he literally dreamed about on Saturday night.
"[Saturday] night, I really couldn't sleep well," Hartley said. "I called my dad [Bill Hartley] at 2:15 in the morning and I had a feeling I was going to hit a game-winner from 42 yards on the right hash."
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Hartley was two yards off his vision, but the result was still the same. He propelled the Saints to their first Super Bowl in franchise history as he drilled a 40-yard field goal dead center in overtime to give the Saints a 31-28 victory Sunday night in the Louisiana Superdome.
"It's funny how the game and all the things played out," Hartley said. "I just kept thinking about is this really happening? It was kind of like never-never land. We go to OT and the ball is on the right hash at 40 yards. It was just an amazing feeling."
Punter Thomas Morstead added: "[Hartley] didn't even see it go in. He turned, hugged [backup quarterback and holder] Mark [Brunell] and got mobbed."
Hartley didn't say whether he was nervous. The 23-year-old kicker, who has played about only one full season after he was originally signed by the Saints midway through the 2008 season, called it a calm focus.
"I saw [Anthony] Hargrove come over to the kicking net and I pointed my finger at him and said, 'No, no, no. Leave me alone,' " Hartley said.
Hartley nearly missed out on the opportunity because of one poor choice this summer. The Saints brought back Carney to replace the suspended Hartley in August.
Many in New Orleans resented Saints coach Sean Payton when he decided not to use Carney for what could have been a game-changing kick in the NFC Championship Game three years ago at Soldier Field. Payton didn't think Carney had the leg to make the 47-yard field goal attempt, so Payton threw Billy Cundiff, who was signed as a kickoff specialist, to the wolves. Cundiff's kick missed badly and the Bears ruined the Saints' previous best chance at a Super Bowl.
Payton thought he found stability with Hartley. The suspension could have easily pushed Hartley out the door because of his boneheaded drug choice.
|A distraction and a disappointment in August, Garrett Hartley is a hero in January and gives the Saints a game in February. (US Presswire)|
Then all hell broke loose for Hartley in the minds of Saints fans when Hartley missed a 37-yarder at the end of regulation against Tampa Bay in Week 16. The Saints eventually lost to the Bucs, which brought up more trust questions, even though it was only Hartley's second career miss, with his other coming on a 58-yard attempt.
Payton stayed loyal. The loyalty paid off.
"I told him there's a little fleur De lis up there right between both uprights, and I said why don't you see if you can hit this fleur De lis dead center," Payton said he told Hartley before the kick. "We belong, you are here for a reason, and you are going to hit it through. He has been real consistent for us and obviously it was a big kick."
That loyalty hasn't been lost on Hartley.
"There's times in everyone's career when things are just not going to be perfect," Hartley said. "Honestly for a while, and when you look at my suspension, to come back. And then I hit a game winner against Washington to bounce back. I missed that 37-yarder against Tampa. It's all a learning experience. I'm 23-years-old and I have a lot to learn. Just coming out here and trying to make up for my last mistake. I had to focus on it and see myself envision it was the most important part about today."
Morten Andersen is one of the most popular players in Saints history. During his career in New Orleans, he was probably known as the most effective offensive weapon for a team known for its "Dome Patrol" defense.
Hartley might eternally steal the spotlight from Andersen now.
"He's come a long way, but he knows he's got one more," long snapper Jason Kyle said. "Then people will really remember him."