Analysis: How Notre Dame football QB Sam Hartman wins over fans behind enemy lines

RALEIGH, N.C. — Sam Hartman, no longer winless at Carter-Finley Stadium, was walking to the Notre Dame football team bus after a long, soggy, satisfying Saturday afternoon in the capital of his home state.
Having led the 11th-ranked Irish (US LBM Coaches Poll) to a 45-24 win over his longtime nemesis, N.C. State, the sixth-year graduate transfer quarterback from Wake Forest had family and friends waiting for him around the corner beneath the tall pines outside.
But first, Hartman stopped for one more quick visit with his old friend Eddie Gardner.
“I don’t know if you remember this, but a year ago we spoke at this very same spot,” the longtime N.C. State employee told Hartman. “I said, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen with you next year, but I love watching you play.’ “
Gardner, 64, spent 32 years as the equipment manager for the Wolfpack. After taking early retirement a decade ago, he found his way back into the gameday mix.
“I take care of the visiting team and the officials now,” said Gardner, who started here as a student trainer in 1977. “I still get to come to this on Friday and Saturday. I call this fishing.”
Despite four knock-down, drag-out battles with his alma mater, three of them at Carter-Finley, Hartman has always been one of Eddie Gardner’s favorites.
“What a class person he is,” Gardner said. “He took some shots last year.”
That 30-21 loss for the Deacons last Nov. 5 included three interceptions and four sacks for Hartman. He passed for 397 yards that day on 48 attempts, but he still walked away in defeat.
“At the end of that game last year, he threw a pass in this end zone,” Gardner said as he pointed to the green grass peeking through the low-slung concrete tunnel. “If it gets caught, they win. I mean, it was there.”
Sam Hartman moves up in the record books
Listening a few steps away, N.C. State grounds crew member Wes Walser nodded and smiled at his mentor’s description of Hartman’s heroics.
“He got beat to death last year,” Walser, 49, said of Hartman. “He was the only reason that game stayed any semblance of a ballgame. If he’s not in that ballgame, they lose by 30.”
Without Hartman on this particular Saturday, Notre Dame might have been in trouble as well. Even after absorbing four more sacks, making it 17 in four career games against the Wolfpack, Hartman found a way to counterbalance that pain with four touchdown passes.
Now 2-2 against the Pack and 30-18 overall as a college football starter, the four-time team captain has climbed to 10th on the Football Bowl Subdivision’s all-time list with 120 career touchdown passes. Hartman moved clear of Matt Barkley (USC), Timmy Chang (Hawaii) and Luke Falk (Washington State) on Saturday.
Hartman, averaging almost 12 yards per attempt, passed for 286 yards against an experienced secondary that included the proud owners of half of the six career interceptions he’d thrown against N.C. State.
Now 11th all-time with 13,698 passing yards, Hartman passed five accomplished quarterbacks in a single afternoon: Corey Robinson (Troy), Brett Rypien (Boise State), Sean Mannion (Oregon State), Mason Rudolph (Oklahoma State) and Philip Rivers, the former Indianapolis Colt and future NFL Hall of Famer who starred at N.C. State from 2000-03.
Didn’t that make this day even more complicated for Gardner and his fellow stadium staffers?
“Philip’s the same class person as Sam,” Gardner said. “Philip is an awesome guy. If Philip was here, he’d be shaking his hand.”
Walser, who got his start as a student manager for Gardner three decades ago, nodded in agreement.
“Records are made to be broken,” Walser said. “If they’re not, what’s the point of the record?”
This time it was Gardner’s turn to nod.
Philip Rivers is much more of a vocal competitor; he had a tendency to get in people’s heads on the other side a little bit more,” Walser said. “You don’t see Sam do that so much. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. He’s a different kind of leader. But they’re both leaders.”
In 17 NFL seasons, Rivers made eight Pro Bowls and passed for 63,440 yards and 421 touchdowns. Rivers ranks sixth all-time in those final two categories.
“People are better because they’re around somebody like them,” said Walser, who teaches at West Davidson High School in Lexington, N.C. “That’s the point of being an athlete and being a teammate: You make people better around you.”
Mutual respect is easy with Sam Hartman
Lifers like Gardner and Walser try to do the same thing in their gameday realm. That’s why it’s so easy for respect to flow both ways when they encounter someone like Hartman.
“We’re here for these guys,” Walser said. “Somebody from Notre Dame asked me yesterday: ‘Do you care who wins?’ I said, ‘I’m pulling for State, but we want these people to have a good experience.’ “
Late Saturday afternoon, that meant sharing a few last jokes with Hartman above the din of the bus engines a few steps away.
“I told him on XM Radio this past week they were saying, ‘That beard, does he darken it up?’ “ Gardner said. “And the other guy on that college sports channel, he goes, ‘No, man, that’s natural. That’s got to be natural.’ “
Hartman smiled and confirmed it was.
And then Gardner leaned in close and shared one last humorous exchange with one of the ACC’s legendary competitors.
“I said, ‘Are we going to see you again next year?’ “ Gardner said. “I meant go to another (college) team and play another year. He said, ‘If so, put me down because I’m done.’ “

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