MIAMI (Reuters) - With one swing of his leg, Garrett Hartley rose from relative anonymity to the toast of a city known for throwing the best party in America.
Hartley’s 40-yard field goal in overtime lifted the New Orleans Saints to a 31-28 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC title game, giving the once-downtrodden franchise its first Super Bowl berth.
”I’ll be at a restaurant, and when I walk out I’ll get a standing ovation,“ the 23-year-old told reporters as the Saints prepared to face the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl on Sunday. ”It takes me a while to understand what’s going on.
“The other day I‘m leaving a restaurant and this guy, he must have been 70 years old, busts out a harmonica and starts playing, ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Hartley, who sports spiked hair that makes him look more like a snowboarder than an NFL player, insists he never saw the kick go through the uprights. He didn’t need to.
The Superdome, the scene of such despair during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, erupted in a way not seen since the Saints played their first game in 1967.
“I saw it for a split second, it was going straight,” Hartley recalled. “I turned to Mark (holder Mark Brunell) and said, ‘We’re going to Miami.’ I remember that vividly. I’ll always remember that.”
Bourbon Street, just blocks from the Superdome, exploded in a spontaneous celebration that in many ways rivaled the craziness of Mardi Gras.
Despite being the city’s newest celebrity, Hartley is aware that “a kicker is only as good as your last kick.”
“It tickles me to death, people and how they perceive me,” the Texas native said. “At the same time, how would people perceive me if things didn’t work out that way? That’s how I keep myself on an even playing field.”
Hartley was not on any field at the beginning of the season, serving a four-game suspension for using an amphetamine he did not know was on the NFL’s banned substance list.
His transgression paved the way for 45-year-old veteran John Carney to take over the Saints’ kicking duties. Though he was cut two weeks after Hartley returned from his suspension, Carney continues to mentor the young kicker.
Hartley played in only five games this season and not all of them went smoothly.
He kicked the game-winner in a 33-30 overtime victory over the Washington Redskins, yet sailed a 37-yarder wide left at the end of regulation in a game New Orleans ended up losing to Tampa Bay 20-17 in overtime.
Hartley, who earned the Saints’ job by connecting on all 13 of his field goal attempts a year ago, knows being a kicker can be a humbling experience.
He hit nine of 11 this season but knows he is always one bad kick away from being jeered off the field.
”This game teaches you to stay on an even keel,“ he said. ”Throughout every kicker’s career they have highs and lows. You can’t ever let yourself get to low during the bad times.
”I’ve been there this year. It’s been a roller-coaster ride. I have to come out Sunday and perform to the best of my capabilities and do whatever I can do to help my team win.
“I can’t wait for Sunday. This team means so much to New Orleans. I am just so happy to be part of it.”
Editing by Justin Palmer and Alison Wildey