Numbers never told the story for Northwestern fullback Matt Hartl. During the Wildcats' run to the Rose Bowl two years ago Hartl, then a 6'2", 235-pound redshirt freshman, carried the ball only eight times for 34 yards but was a vital contributor as a lead blocker for running back Darnell Autry and as a clutch receiver. "He was one of our key players," coach Gary Barnett says. "He did a lot of the little things that allowed us to be successful."
Hartl took much the same hard-nosed approach when he learned just before the start of the 1996 season that he had Hodgkin's disease, a form of lymphatic cancer. Thinking he had a virus, Hartl had checked into an Evanston, III., hospital after experiencing shortness of breath during workouts. Instead, doctors found a fist-sized tumor beyond his sternum. "At first I was angry and confused," Hartl says. "I was like, Why me? What did I do to deserve this? Then I thought, Am I going to die?"
With that thought, Hartl realized he had to fight the disease, and he turned to his mother, Eleanor, who had had Hodgkin's 26 years earlier, for guidance. She had undergone cobalt radiation that eradicated the diseased lymph node but left her heart and lungs severely damaged. Still, she had survived to help her husband, Bill, raise Matt and his older sister, Beth.
During three months of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation, Matt called Eleanor in Denver whenever the nausea and pain became unbearable. She was the one who told him to stay in school, to keep battling, to live his life. When he lost 40 pounds and most of his hair, she was the one who told him he would someday look like himself again. "People would say, 'I know how you feel,' and I was like, How do you know?" Matt says. "Only my mom knew because she had been through it."
Hartl missed the 1996 season and was in such bad shape last October that Northwestern coaches thought he probably would not play football again. But after his radiation treatments ended in February, X-rays showed that the tumor had shrunk to the size of a pea. Doctors considered it scar tissue and cleared him to begin workouts on his own.
Hartl hit the weights, intent on rejoining the Wildcats this year. Just as he was beginning to regain his strength, however, he received more bad news: In May, Eleanor, 45, died suddenly of heart failure. "Matt took it hard," Northwestern running backs coach John Wristen says. "His mother had helped him through the toughest test of his life, and he didn't get the chance to say goodbye and tell her thanks. It was devastating for him."
Hartl can hardly bring himself to talk about his mother. He prefers to dwell on the future and his return to the game he loves. Although his cancer must be in remission for five years before he can be considered cured, he says he feels as good as he did two years ago.
Hartl was in the starting lineup on Aug. 23 when Northwestern opened its season with a 24-0 win over Oklahoma. Some 35 relatives were in the Soldier Field stands that day, many of them wearing T-shirts that had I'M BACK printed above Haiti's picture. Although he didn't carry the ball, Hartl caught a pass for 13 yards and was the lead blocker for Adrian Autry, who rushed for 67 yards on 16 carries.
As usual, however, the numbers didn't begin to tell the story. "During the game [against Oklahoma] I thought about my mom," says Hartl, who caught one pass last Saturday in a 27-20 loss to Wake Forest. "I'm pretty sure she was watching somewhere."