Thursday, February 8th, 2007
Hartings concludes stellar NFL career in Pittsburgh
By Robb Hemmelgarn
Week after week for 11 seasons, Jeff Hartings battled some of the best defenses the National Football League had to offer.
In the end, however, it wasn't the likes of John Randle, Bryant Young, or Casey Hampton - but rather a pair of battered knees - that forced the former St. Henry Redskin to announce his retirement from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"At the beginning of this season, I felt outstanding from a health standpoint," pointed out the 6-3, 299-pound center. "As the year wore on, though, my knees began to take a beating, and it just became harder and harder to recover following the game on Sunday. I felt throughout my whole career I was able to compete, but in the end it was so much harder to heal. When you get older you can only control so much, so I decided that it was time for me to retire."
While headlines and bright lights generally shine elsewhere during the life of an offensive lineman, Hartings closed his career with experiences beyond what he ever expected in the trenches.
His short list of personal accomplishments includes opening holes for two future Hall of Fame running backs, selection to a pair of Pro Bowls, earning a Super Bowl ring, scoring a touchdown, and he recently co-starred in a Campbell's Soup commercial with several of his Steelers teammates.
"It has been a lot of fun and a great experience," he recently explained from his home in Utah. "To be able to do what I have done and have as much fun as I have had is truly a blessing. I wish I could keep playing, but eventually you face the fact that when it's time, it's time."
Hartings' career kicked off when he was a first-round selection by the Detroit Lions in the 1996 draft. Fresh off of two All-American seasons at Penn State University, the Joe Paterno product found himself as a primary blocker for one of the NFL's best running backs ever - Barry Sanders.
Although seasons in Detroit notoriously concluded in despair and disappointment, Hartings will never forget his time in the Motor City.
"Blocking for Barry Sanders for those years was a great privilege - he is a super guy and to play a part in that was something that is very special to me."
Following the 2000 season, Hartings tested the free-agent market and ended up signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers - an acquisition that turned out to be spectacular for both the lineman and the organization.
An offensive guard through college and a half-decade on the turf of the Pontiac Silverdome, the Steelers converted him to a center. That is a position that was the bedrock of the Pittsburgh offensive line since the 1960s where just three men had played before Jeff, all of who earned All-Pro status.
"I have had many coaches in my career tell me that I would make a good center, but when the Steelers suggested it, it was definitely intimidating," he commented. "There were a lot of great centers who previously played for Pittsburgh and to replace Dermontti Dawson was a very special experience. Another great thing about going to Pittsburgh was blocking for Jerome Bettis. He was one of those great running backs who made my job much easier by the way he ran."
As Hartings grew comfortable in his new spot on the line, success began to roll the Steelers' way within a couple of years. Beginning with drafting a young gunslinger from Miami University named Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers were playing for the AFC Championship in 2004 and a year later, Jeff was living every kid's dream - ending the season with a Super Bowl victory in Detroit.
"I definitely watched the draft a little closer the year we drafted Ben," Hartings admitted. "In the NFL, the key to winning a Super Bowl depends a lot with the quarterback position, so we were really excited when it was our pick and Ben was still there. My brother played with him at Miami and kept saying he was the real deal, and fortunately it worked out to be a great pick up for the organization." Last week, Jeff quietly confided in those close to him that he was hanging up his cleats and walking away from a game that he played for over half of his life.
By the time he informed the rest of the coaching staff and organization, he realized he was completely at peace with the decision.
"I guess in a way, I knew this year would be it for me during the last few games of the season," said Hartings. "I still love the game of football and wish I could still play professionally, but now it is going to just have to be in the back yard with my kids, and I am really looking forward to that."
Although he is removed from his hometown by more than 15 years, Hartings' time there still sits close to his heart.
"My coaches in St. Henry have meant a lot to me over the years and so do the guys I played with and spent so much time with in the weight room in high school. Football has meant so much to me for a very long time, but the time is right to move on."
Although he will no longer be playing football, retirement will offer little free time for the 34-year old, as he and his wife Rebecca are the proud parents of six children under the age of 10.
"I know ultimately that God has a plan for me, and I'm very excited to get started on a few ideas I have for the future, but for now I just want to spend time with my wife and kids. I have been blessed to do something I love for 11 years, but now it is time to start a new chapter in my life."