Sam Hartman finds his 'level' with Notre Dame football

ByAdam Rittenberg ESPN logo
Thursday, September 7, 2023

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Sam Hartman has learned that the well-paved straightaways in his life never last. There's always a bend or a boulder waiting.

Hartman didn't envision ending his sixth preseason camp in college, much less as the starting quarterback for Notre Dame. He never expected to take the field in Ireland for his Notre Dame debut wearing a necklace his mother made from a piece of his rib, removed after an unusual blood clot condition that cost him the first game at what was supposed to be his final season at Wake Forest last year.

Hartman is attuned to what's coming his way, but doesn't agonize over it. There will be good twists, bad ones and odd ones.

"The thing I've learned is if things are going smoothly, you've got to be a little wary, because something's around the corner," Hartman told ESPN last month. "That's life. It's very circular in nature, good and bad, but you're kind of doing a cycle.

"You might be hanging out in the bad area for a while, or you might be hanging in the good area, but at some point, as they say about water, it always finds its level."

Hartman has found his level at Notre Dame as a 24-year-old, four-time captain, occupying one of college football's highest-profile positions. He's off to a stress-free start with the Irish, recording 445 yards and six touchdowns and completing 82.5% of his passes through three halves (he didn't play in the second half last week against Tennessee State). Hartman has 116 career touchdowns, tied for 13th in FBS history, and has the nation's longest active streak with a touchdown pass at 32 games.

The ACC's career touchdown passes leader begins a reunion tour in the league Saturday when No. 10 Notre Dame visits NC State (Noon ET, ABC), one of six ACC opponents the Irish will face this fall. The stretch of familiar foes will end ironically with Wake Forest, which will visit Notre Dame Stadium for Hartman's second and final Senior Day.

"Being here is probably the biggest flip on your head, when you start looking at the beginning," Hartman said.

Hartman thought he'd be done with college football in 2023, but several factors brought him to Notre Dame (beyond the money he's earning off his NIL, as many have assumed). His final chapter is about immersing himself with a new team in a brighter spotlight, showing he can thrive in a more conventional offense and boosting his NFL chances. He may help Notre Dame get back into the College Football Playoff mix along the way.

As long as he can navigate the inevitable bends in the road.

WATER FINDING ITS level has special meaning for Hartman at Notre Dame, where many of his favorite moments have occurred alongside the water. An avid fisherman who grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, he quickly bonded with teammates and coaches over one of his favorite pastimes.

He has taken teammates to fishing holes he found near campus. After spring practice, the entire offense gathered at a pond near offensive coordinator Gerad Parker's home.

"I have a few rods lying around in my car and so I brought those out," Hartman said. "Guys were catching fish that don't normally fish or haven't fished before."

Wide receiver Jayden Thomas grew up fishing frequently in Georgia, but didn't cast a line during his first two years at Notre Dame, until Hartman showed up. Sophomore quarterback Steve Angeli, who became Hartman's backup after Tyler Buchner transferred to Alabama, is a common fishing companion. In fact, Angeli's offseason highlight came when he edged Hartman in a bass fishing competition.

"Only beat him by one, it was a race to six," Angeli said. "It didn't take many days for us to start to bond and start to mesh. It's felt like he's been here since I've been here."

Hartman's proactive approach with his teammates hasn't come as a surprise. Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson would often talk about Hartman wanting to play for his teammates as opposed to just with them.

During his official visit to Notre Dame, Hartman told coach Marcus Freeman his goal was to earn "the trust of every position on the team." Hartman reminded Freeman of other quarterbacks he'd been around -- Purdue's David Blough and Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder.

The difference is they had years to build up goodwill with their teams. Hartman had seven months.

"It's a really unique circumstance for a guy to come in and gain the trust and respect of the locker room right away," senior linebacker Jack Kiser said. "Sometimes when a [high-profile] guy comes in, there's challenges and the locker room doesn't gravitate to you. But that wasn't the case at all with Sam. His personality, his leadership, it's been in the spotlight since Day 1."

Hartman hasn't just organized fishing or golf outings (although he, Angeli and Thomas have done several), or provided the type of on-field mentoring that comes from 47 career starts in 50 games. During Notre Dame's mental health night in training camp last month, Hartman addressed his own journey and joined a panel with other players and a sports psychologist.

Hartman started therapy in 2021 and found tools to manage the anxiety and stress he had suppressed for years. Hartman spoke to his teammates about his brother, Demetri Allison, who moved in with Hartman's family at 15 and went on to play football at Elon University. Allison died by suicide in 2015.

"Him showing us what he's been through and telling us about his mental health journey and seeing a therapist, it reached the whole room," Thomas said. "We've all been there, we've all struggled with it before, so to have a teammate who's not afraid, he's someone who can have those deep conversations but also sheds a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel."

Hartman sees some of Allison in his Notre Dame teammates. Those traits drew him to continue playing college ball. He also thinks some players had similar background barriers to his brother, which might discourage them from revealing difficult thoughts.

"It goes back to being vulnerable," he said. "It goes back to them seeing you as not just the quarterback, not just Sam Hartman, or whatever that allure is. It's that, 'He's one of my teammates, he's one of the guys.' It gives another avenue for a guy who may be struggling."

AS WAKE FOREST'S 2022 season wound down, Hartman had no doubt it would be his last in college.

"One hundred percent, this is it," he remembered telling himself. "Everything was the last one. I was like, 'This is a long time. Holy cow, look at all the stuff we did, look at all the changes.'

"Just the way my career goes, there's always a twist and now we're here."

When visiting Notre Dame, Hartman was "still very hesitant, still on the fence" about playing in 2023. But he knew making it in the NFL wouldn't be easy, especially if he landed in the wrong spot.He was a Day 3 pick according to ESPN's draft analysts, and scouts wanted to see him perform outside of Wake Forest's unconventional offense.

"He liked to have an opportunity on a national stage, playing in that kind of offense, just to see if it can bump up his draft status," said Hartman's mother, Lisa. "Then, after we talked to Coach Freeman, I felt like, 'Where are the pads? I'll suit up.'"

Many viewed his transfer through the NIL lens, and there have been obvious benefits. Although Hartman had NIL deals at Wake Forest -- Bose headphones, Mizzen+Main menswear -- his portfolio has grown significantly at Notre Dame. He now has agreements with Under Armour, Beats, Dollar Shave Club and Dick's Sporting Goods, putting him among the nation's top NIL earners.

Coming to Notre Dame was supposed to mean playing for offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, a former Notre Dame quarterback who spent 2016 with the San Diego Chargers and used a scheme rooted in pro concepts. But a month after Hartman picked Notre Dame, Rees left his alma mater for the offensive coordinator job under Nick Saban at Alabama. Notre Dame pursued several external candidates -- Kansas State's Collin Klein and Utah's Andy Ludwig -- before promoting Parker and hiring Gino Guidugli to coach quarterbacks.

Yet another twist.

"My mom said when it happened, it just wouldn't be my story or my career if it wasn't something crazy," Hartman said. "She was right."

But Hartman soon bonded with Parker and Guidugli, spent the spring absorbing the new offense and, so far, has operated it smoothly.

His incredible production at Wake Forest -- an ACC-record 110 touchdown passes, 944 completions and 12,967 passing yards -- came with a caveat. Wake Forest runs a distinct offense, based around run-pass options and a slow mesh at the line of scrimmage, that has been undeniably successful but casts doubt about its stars succeeding elsewhere.

Hartman, like other Wake Forest quarterbacks, is labeled as a system player, and some coaches, even those he tormented in the ACC, wonder how he'll fare in a Notre Dame offense that will incorporate some ingredients that worked at Wake Forest while still maintaining a conventional structure.

"All the connotations are just people trying to poke at anything that has success, because it's not the natural, it's not the way," Hartman said. "But you see guys get out of there and they go have success. You have a quarterback who's still in the NFL with John Wolford. Maybe if I don't have success, they'll call it a sham."

Many of Hartman's Notre Dame teammates are more proficient in the team's offense, but he has caught up quickly. Freeman noticed a significant change between the end of the spring to the start of fall camp.

Hartman has helped facilitate that change, whether he's telling Thomas how certain defensive backs will approach him in games, or mentoring Angeli on the finer details of the position during their summer film reviews.

"The coaches see Sam as an extension of the staff," Angeli said. "Any questions I've got, I go to Sam."

Hartman has some areas for growth. He didn't complete more than 59% of his passes in his first four seasons at Wake Forest. He's a bit undersized at 6-foot-1 and doesn't overwhelm with his arm strength. There's an injury history, too.

But Hartman's teammates and coaches think he's equipped to handle anything.

"You're not going to shake him," Freeman said. "He's experienced, he's seen a lot. So his leadership traits, his consistency and his approach every day is just tremendous. You can't lead without earning trust, and that's what Sam Hartman has been able to do.

"Now he's leading at all positions."

LISA HARTMAN'S DEVOTION to her sons, Sam and Joe, is beyond skin-deep, as she showed this summer.

"My boys, they're my life," Lisa said. "I would do anything for 'em."

"Anything" included crafting a necklace from Sam's rib, which he asked to keep when doctors removed it in August 2022. Sam needed surgery after being diagnosed with Paget-Schroetter syndrome, which causes a blood clot in a vein underneath the collarbone. He missed most of preseason camp but returned for Wake Forest's second game and recorded his best overall season, completing 63.1% of his passes for 3,701 yards and 38 touchdowns.

Sam wanted the rib to be a memento, so Lisa got to work. She had made necklaces out of Petoskey stones, the state stone of Michigan, where she grew up, but realized more research and technique would be required to construct the rib necklace. She had to remove the flesh and clean it with an extra-strength peroxide. At one point, she texted Sam.

"Look, on my computer history, I'm searching human bones and how to preserve them, so if something happens, you've gotta be my alibi, like, I'm not trying to get rid of your dad or something," Lisa told Sam. "We laughed about it."

So far, police have not raided the Hartman home.

"I'm still flying under the radar," Lisa said.

Sam doesn't plan to wear the necklace often and was nervous about traveling with it internationally. He will keep the rib in his apartment, a symbol of what he went through, and his bond with his mom.

While Sam is close with his father, Mark, a surgeon, he and Lisa have more similar personalities.

"Mom is a competitor," Freeman said. "That shows you who she is, [to] take a piece of the rib and make it into a necklace. She loves [Sam] like any mom, but she will not deal with any mess from him. That's why he is the way he is -- one of the hardest workers I've ever been around."

Lisa said she and Mark were strict in raising the boys and "didn't do a lot of coddling." There was a difference between being hurt and being injured. But in the important moments, they always provided support. Before Sam's junior year of high school, he needed emergency surgery to remove a large abscess on his esophagus. He lost more than 20 pounds during the recovery.

Sam's Wake Forest career went through waves. He started as a freshman but injured his leg in November, and then watched Jamie Newman lead the offense in 2019. Hartman reclaimed his spot in 2020 but had an uneven season that ended with four interceptions in a bowl loss to Wisconsin.

"She's why I'm here," he said of Lisa. "She's been the one who's there when I was in the hospital when I was 17, when I'm in the hospital again when I'm 23. Those are tough moments where you're seeing your mom sleep on either a chair sitting upright, or sleeping on a small couch. I'm important to her and I felt that the whole time.

"Those little moments, you can't describe the comfort it brings."

Lisa is thrilled to see Sam happy at Notre Dame. Despite growing up in a family of Michigan graduates, she thought Notre Dame and being around Midwesterners -- "The salt of the earth," she said -- would be great for Sam's final season.

Not every day at Notre Dame will bring joy. Hartman knows that more than anyone. Lisa reminds him that "nothing happens by coincidence," but knows her son will refuse to be sidetracked.

"You look back and you'd love to leave in three [seasons] and be this big-time [NFL] draft pick," Sam said. "But I don't think I am the player I am, if I don't go through all the things: bad games, good games, big wins, big losses, hardships outside of football, everything from the start of my career.

"That's why I love the game so much, because it's so much like life."

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