I last saw Matt Hartl nearly a year ago. It wasn't the first
time we'd spoken. Hartl had been a redshirt freshman fullback on
Northwestern's 1995 Rose Bowl team, and I had interviewed him
and many of his teammates during that remarkable season. I also
talked with him the following spring while researching the
inevitable can-they-do-it-again story. On both occasions Hartl
came across as a bright, tough kid with an irreverent sense of
humor. He was everything you would expect from a Northwestern
football player, and he was utterly fearless on the field.
The circumstances of our meeting last fall were different: Hartl
was suffering from Hodgkin's disease and spending his senior
season on the sidelines. Doctors had discovered a tumor in his
chest in the spring of 1996, and he had missed the season that
year while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment. The
treatment seemed to eradicate the tumor, but, because of
residual nerve damage, Hartl played the '97 season essentially
with one lung. In June '98 the tumor was found to have returned.
When we talked in the fall, Hartl was awaiting a stem-cell
transplant, which would finally be performed last January. The
illness had taken 40 pounds from his once burly 6'2", 235-pound
frame, making his clothes stylishly baggy. His hollow eyes,
however, were portentous.
We spoke that day about Northwestern's football struggles. The
team was 2-3, and Hartl had no sympathy for some of the new
recruits, whom he considered to be underachievers. "You can only
say so much to a person to make him work hard," he said. We
talked about his illness, too: about trying to block Michigan's
linebackers when he couldn't catch his breath; about pain and
hope and fear. Hartl never blinked. He never cried or indulged
in self-pity, though he knew better than anyone the direness of
his situation. His mother, Eleanor, had died in 1997 of heart
failure brought on by Hodgkin's. Hartl's strength that day was
so palpable, the impression he made so powerful, that I have no
recollection of the interviews I did later with other players.
Matt Hartl died on Aug. 30. He was 23. I can't say for certain
that everyone who met Hartl will always remember him. I can only
say that I will.