To this day, I'm not sure how he was even able to breathe, much less kick a football. It's hard to imagine more pressure on a single human being, than the immeasurable weight placed on one Garrett Hartley the night of January 24, 2010.
The FOX television broadcast captured those unforgettable shots of an eerily desolate Bourbon Street in New Orleans' French Quarter, as Saints fans jammed into the bars awaiting this moment of truth. For over 40 years, the franchise had existed. And, for over 40 years it had never reached the Super Bowl. But, Hartley had a chance to change all that. With his team tied 28-28 in overtime against Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings, a 40-yard field goal attempt awaited him.
It's probably a good thing Hartley didn't grow up in Louisiana, like many of us did. Otherwise, he could have very well hyperventilated. No ego trip here - my days of getting nervous at sporting events had long passed. But on this occasion, my heart was beating like a Neal Peart drum. It was pounding like when I was seven years old, in the movie theater, watching Luke Skywalker take on Darth Vader in "Return of the Jedi." I knew what this kick meant to our state and the region. Reaching a Super Bowl had always been nothing more than a fantasy. It was like Casey Kasem telling us to "keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars." It was pure pollyanna, like awaiting a unicorn for Christmas. Yet, here we were. It could happen! And I knew if Hartley missed, it would make Bill Buckner and Ernest Byner's goofs look like some frat dude blowing an intramural game.
I'll be completely honest. I didn't have a ton of faith. Like many in the Superdome, my thoughts strayed to Hartley hooking that 37-yard field goal at the end of regulation roughly a month before, in the same building, against the Tampa Bay Bucs. That game also went into overtime and the Bucs won 20-17. But this time, head coach Sean Payton famously instructed Hartley to, "Hit the fleur de lis," between the goal posts and confidently told his kicker, "You belong here." The flight of the ball was actually hard to see from where we sat. But the ear-splitting roar of 71,276 fans told me all I needed to know. Hartley had delivered the moment.
"Pigs have flown! Hell has frozen over!" Jim Henderson exclaimed over the radio. "The Saints are going to the Super Bowl!"
Hartley was money again in Miami against the Indianapolis Colts, hitting field goals of 46, 44 and 47 yards in the Saints' 31-17 triumph. New Orleans had a World Championship football team and its kicker was the epitome of clutch during its postseason run.
Those memories are why I bristled when surfing Twitter Monday night. Shortly after Justin Tucker of the Baltimore Ravens made an incredible 61-yard field goal to lift his team to an 18-16 victory at Detroit, the keyboard tough guys started emerging in droves. They tweeted mean-spirited messages at Hartley like, "Take lessons from Tucker on how to be clutch."
Perhaps they needed this brief history lesson. Yes, Sean Payton waived Garrett Hartley on Tuesday. Simply put, Hartley has played with fire too often since that Super Bowl title and finally got burned for his woeful performance at St Louis on Sunday. There's little room for sentimental feelings in this cutthroat league, although Payton probably gave his kicker more rope than others because of what he had accomplished in the past. Unfortunately for Hartley, Payton finally feels he doesn't "belong here" any longer.
No matter what, Garrett Hartley's place in Saints lore is more than secure. No one has made bigger kicks and few have made bigger plays in the franchise's history. Ten, 20, even 50 years from now, Hartley will be remembered as the young man who ended over four decades of suffering with that one fateful boot; not the guy who duck-hooked a 26-yarder against a less-than-average Rams team, in a blah regular season affair.
What Garrett Hartley accomplished for the Saints during their magical 2009 season will always stand above his later disappointments. That one attempt thousands of fans begged and pleaded Hartley to make, he did. It's easily one of the biggest moments in Louisiana sports history. And, it will always belong to the baby-faced kicker from Keller, TX.
Cut from the Saints or not, that's quite a legacy for Garrett Hartley.