By Gary R. Rasberry
With a week between the conference title game and the Super Bowl itself, it leaves plenty of time to reflect.
For Jeff Hartings, it's been a week not only to get travel plans to Detroit for the 40th edition of the Super Bowl, but also to think about what got him there.
The St. Henry native, All-American at Penn State, and starting center for the Pittsburgh Steelers plays in his first Super Bowl this Sunday at Ford Field against the Seattle Seahawks.
Calling from Detroit shortly after arriving on Monday to prepare for the game, Hartings said one emotion really stood out.
"I think the emotion I've had more than anything is gratitude and thankfulness to God and my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," said the 10-year veteran, who will head to Hawaii after the game to play for the AFC in the Pro Bowl. "With anything in life, we have to do our part, but God is ultimately in control of our destiny. I really felt that overwhelming emotion." Like most young boys growing up in St. Henry, football was a big part of the fabric. Watching the Redskins play on Friday nights, watching college games on Saturday and pro football on Sunday.
"To be able to experience this has been a dream of mine growing up as a kid, when I was 10 and watching Super Bowls," said Hartings. "I watched every single one. I was looking forward to and dreaming of playing in one. Now I'll get to do that."
The way the Steelers got to the big game was one for the record books. Before the playoff run this year, only the 1985 New England Patriots won three playoff games on the road to make Super Bowl XX. Things looked rough as the Steelers fell to 7-5 after losing three straight games. Just to make the playoffs, Pittsburgh needed to win all four final regular season games and take the sixth and last playoff spot.
"There's no doubt. There's so much amazement that we were able to do that. But the team was not really lost in that because we always felt we had the ability to win a Super Bowl this year. That was our goal coming into this season," said Hartings. "When we were 7-5 and lost three in a row, I don't think there was a guy on the team that didn't feel that we were underachieving. That's a credit to every single guy on the team that we refocused and practiced hard. We wanted to see if we could turn that thing around. The practice, hard work, dedication and focus, especially the mental part, was what has helped us win four in a row in the regular season. Then we had the confidence that if we just continued to do that, we could beat anybody."
The Steelers followed up the four straight regular season wins by beating the top three seeds -- Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver -- on the road to make the franchise's fifth Super Bowl.
"We took it as a challenge to win three in a row and make history, go to the Super Bowl and win that," said Hartings. "Now we have to finish it."
Hartings, for one, is glad for the week off before heading to Detroit.
"It almost an absolute necessity for the teams involved. TV, fans, I don't think it matters as much because they're not involved in the day-to-day planning," said Hartings. "Lining up hotels and tickets, travel arrangements, it would be very difficult playing a game without having a bye week for the Super Bowl.
"I think for a football sense, in any competition as long as things are equal, then I don't think it matters. The Seahawks have a week off too. After the game, I don't think you can say the week off affected us or them more. It will be other things to affect the Super Bowl, that being the team being able to focus, step back and separate yourselves from how big the game is in the world and treat it as another game. ... That team is the one who comes out successful."
Hartings believes that the location of the game was something of a sign of good things.
"I think the thing that has made it so special is being in Detroit. Before the season," said Hartings. "I didn't really think about it being special. It's not a hot and sunny place to take your family, but in hindsight, God revealed that this is the perfect place for me to play in a Super Bowl in making plans for family and just even traveling here and after the game, getting home right away.
"Being only three hours from St. Henry, there is a closeness. Being able to reflect on my high school coaches, my mom and dad for letting me go work out, my friends that I worked out with. Also, part of it is the town of St. Henry and the excitement that they feel on Friday night football, and that motivates young high schoolers to do well, and it motivated me to succeed. Not only on Friday nights, but also go to college and try and excel in football. Without all of that happening, I wouldn't be in the Super Bowl."
The fact that Detroit was where he started his professional football career was also on his mind.
"On top of that, having played here, I'm comfortable here," said Hartings. "Practicing in the Silverdome, where I played and practiced in for five years, I'm very comfortable in there. It's a great week to be able to reflect upon my past. Part of what has gotten me here is those five years in Detroit. (It's) a big part of me being able to appreciate being in the Super Bowl is coming from where I was, playing five years in Detroit and not having a realistic chance to go to a game like this. Practicing in the Silverdome, sitting, probably, in my old locker, and reflecting on all the people who helped me get here."
Hartings also reflected on the only other former Redskin to play in a Super Bowl. Jim Lachey was a stalwart on the line for the Washington Redskins that won Super Bowl XXVI.
"I haven't thought about that, but it would be a good idea," said Hartings. "Probably, more than anything, I would want to get ahold of him is to thank him for making me realize that it was possible for a small-town guy to make it to the Super Bowl."