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
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, Ill., 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 Hartl'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."