Fueled by doubters and loss, Sam Hartman has made it his mission to finish the job

·13 min read

When the Zac Brown Band came to Charlotte not too long ago, back in mid-October, the Hartman house became something of a “staging ground,” Mark Hartman said earlier this week. His son, Sam, is the starting quarterback at Wake Forest, and the Hartmans live just outside of Charlotte — close enough that several of Hartman’s Wake teammates gathered there before the show.

There were a lot of early-20-something college football players there, and their girlfriends, as college kids comprise a significant part of the Zac Brown Band’s target demographic. As showtime approached, the house began to clear, Hartman’s teammates headed off to the concert. Mark made his farewells and took a look back inside and noticed that one of the players hadn’t moved.

“There was Sam,” he said, “watching three televisions.”

He was studying, more or less. Watching football. Trying to learn something new.

“You’re not going?” Mark asked.

“No,” Sam said.

As Mark remembered it, Sam provided a simple explanation for snubbing Zac Brown and his band:

“The job’s not done yet.”

“The job,” for someone as driven as people close to Sam Hartman say he is, could mean a lot of things. It could mean some sort of higher-level academic pursuit. It could mean turning himself into a player capable of one day playing in the NFL, if Hartman hasn’t already done that. It could mean, in the greater and more philosophical sense, maximizing his potential and ability, which is something people close to Hartman say he is motivated to do.

In this particular case, though, “the job” most likely meant winning a championship — and winning an ACC championship, in particular. The Demon Deacons on Saturday in Charlotte will play against Pittsburgh in one of the more unlikely ACC title game pairings in the 16-year history of the event, and certainly the most unlikely over the past decade or so.

None, or at least very few, of the so-called experts ever thought that the college football regular season would end with Wake Forest and Pittsburgh atop their respective divisions. In the Atlantic Division, Wake Forest received exactly zero votes to finish first in the ACC’s official preseason poll, based on predictions from the 147 (very incorrect, it turned out) media members who voted.

In the Coastal, meanwhile, Pitt received a single first-place vote. Back in August, several ACC teams were thought to be better than the teams that wound up in Charlotte, including: Clemson, North Carolina, N.C. State, Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech. On the surface, the ascension of Wake and Pitt to league championship contenders is as surprising a development in college football this season.

Upon closer examination, though, both teams were in fact built for this sort of thing. It is not a surprise that Pitt, an experienced team with the perhaps under-appreciated quarterback Kenny Pickett, emerged as the best team in its division. Further, it is not a surprise that Wake, an experienced team with the perhaps under-appreciated Hartman, emerged as the best team in its division.

Hartman success is no surprise

Before the season, the ACC players who received the most attention were Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei and UNC quarterback Sam Howell. Both became commodities in the early free-wheeling days of name, image and likeness rights, and both were thought to be potential Heisman Trophy candidates. Meanwhile, Pickett and Hartman became the two best quarterbacks in the league — Pickett finishing first-team All-ACC and Hartman second.

In the case of Hartman, few players anywhere personify their teams better than he does. As Wake Forest rose through the national rankings this year, going undefeated until a late collapse in a defeat at North Carolina in early November, a lot was written and said about how the Demon Deacons overcame their significant limitations to achieve their success.

Wake, after all, is the smallest of any school, by enrollment, among the so-called Power Five conferences. Its football budget does not compare favorably to big spenders like Ohio State or Texas or, in its own conference, Clemson and Florida State. Dave Clawson, in his eighth year as the Demon Deacons’ head coach, has often talked about the need to do things differently in Winston-Salem, for he knows that his school is not winning any spending or recruiting wars.

“I don’t remember the last time that we stole a recruit from Clemson or Florida State,” he said earlier this season, offering a memorable line in an answer about how he’d built his program. “If we did, the recruit lied about their offer.”

In that moment, Clawson was describing the importance of player development, which is significant everywhere but especially at a place like Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons are good this season not because they’ve put together a run of recruiting classes that would make headlines and create Internet buzz on signing day, but because Clawson and his staff have excelled at identifying more lightly-recruited prospects with potential to surpass their modest high school reputations.

In other words, prospects like Hartman.

In the world of college football recruiting, a prospect’s so-called “star” rating is everything. People outside of that world, folks who might not pay any attention at all to college football or recruiting, would likely find it a strange phenomenon, indeed, to organize still-developing 16- and 17-year-old football players into classifications described by the number of astrological symbols behind their names.

Nonetheless, the star system dictates recruiting rankings and, therefore, it decides the happiness of fanatics who spend their days toiling on college football message boards, devouring every morsel of information about their schools’ pursuit of the highest-ranked players. A five-star prospect is the best of the best, and places like Ohio State and Clemson and Alabama often fill their rosters with these players. A four-star prospect is still very good, but not quite as good.

Three-star players, meanwhile, are something like the prepackaged deli meat of the recruiting world. Everyone’s been there, hungry without better options, and they’ll do in a pinch, all things considered. But no one is fired up to sit down to a sandwich filled with an Oscar-Mayer concoction that has been sitting in plastic for who-knows-how-long, just like fans are never all too excited by the news of a commitment from a three-star prospect.

Hartman, who excelled at Davidson Day School before following his coach, Chad Grier, to Oceanside Collegiate Academy outside of Charleston, South Carolina, was a three-star prospect.

He was the 767th-best player in his class, according to 247Sports, and the 32nd-best “pro style” quarterback prospect in his class — “pro style” being football-speak for “kind of slow” and “not all that athletic.” Yet the average rankings (“average,” relative to a typical major-conference college football recruit) belied the intangibles that are far more difficult to measure than, say, weight or speed.

“I think part of what makes Sam go is he always plays with a chip on his shoulder,” said Grier, Hartman’s old high school coach. “And people always doubted him: ‘Oh, you’re too small, you’re too slow, you’re too this, you’re too that.’ Whatever. And he’s like, ‘Oh yeah? I’ll show you.’ ”

Hartman has grown into a sturdy 6-foot-1 and 208 pounds, according to Wake’s official listing, but he was not the most imposing player during his high school years. Grier, whose son Will was a high school All-American quarterback and is now in the NFL after playing in college at Florida and West Virginia, has vivid memories of a Hartman who always stretched his body’s limitations.

One of Grier’s earliest memories is of Hartman as a boy, maybe 9 or 10, arriving for little league baseball games with his uniform already dirty, as if he’d already been playing in it or practicing or who knows what.

“That red clay all over him,” Grier said, “and crew cut, and sweaty. And he was just such a grinder. I mean, he just was the intense, competitive, again, playing up over his head with kids that were just proportionally just bigger and older, stronger, faster, whatever — but you never could tell him that.”

One time in high school, after Hartman attended a seven-on-seven passing camp, he couldn’t wait to show Grier the tape of how he’d done. Hartman was “really proud of it,” Grier said, but Grier spent the review session picking Hartman apart, showing him what was wrong, telling him after this pass or that, “That’s never going to translate to Friday nights.”

“And man, I think I set a fire in him that he’s like, ‘Oh yeah -- I’ll show you,’ ” Grier said.

At that point, still early into his years at Davidson Day, Hartman weighed around 130 pounds, Grier said, before he began consuming “an ungodly amount of calories.” The weight gain came, little by little, and eventually Hartman received some attention from colleges, though Wake Forest was the only ACC school that offered him a scholarship.

According to 247Sports, Hartman’s other two offers came from Charlotte and Elon. Other schools came around by Hartman’s senior year of high school, Grier said, but by then there was no wavering from his commitment to Wake. He enrolled in January 2018, a semester early, and won the starting quarterback position later that fall, wasting little time asserting himself.

“The success he’s had really doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Mark Maye, a longtime family friend of the Hartmans, who coached Sam’s Pop-Warner team. Maye knows a thing or two about quarterbacking, having played the position himself at North Carolina in the 1970s, and he knows modern college athletics recruiting, too, what with the success of his sons.

Luke Maye exceeded his recruiting ranking in basketball and went on to a memorable four years at UNC, where he made one of the most dramatic shots in history to help lead the Tar Heels to the 2017 national championship. Another Maye, Drake, is a freshman quarterback at UNC, which beat out Alabama and others in his recruitment. By comparison, Hartman was barely recruited at all — though Mark Maye and others back home knew better.

“I think a lot of times with recruiting, maybe sometimes you get a little caught up with size and just maybe just the physical attributes,” Maye said. “Look what happened — I mean, shoot. Went up there as a true freshman, ended up starting — really had a good year that year.

“It doesn’t surprise me a bit, what he’s accomplished. Shoot, it’s a matter of really just getting the opportunity.”

After starting his freshman year, Hartman played in four games in 2019, which allowed him to receive an extra year of eligibility. Given the additional year of eligibility that all college athletes received because of the pandemic, Hartman still has two years of college eligibility remaining after this year, if he chooses to use it.

It’s a game, but more than that

For Hartman and his team, though, the time is now.

Clawson believed this kind of season was possible, given the returning experience, and he believed it so much that he built his faith into the team’s motto for 2021: “Good to great.” At its best, Wake was merely good a season ago, and at times it was not even that good, or all that close to it — such as during a three-game, season-ending losing streak that culminated in a two-touchdown defeat against Wisconsin in a bowl game in Charlotte.

There, back home, Hartman threw four interceptions in the defeat.

“Since that bowl game disaster, he hasn’t taken a day off,” said Mark Hartman, a spinal surgeon, who described Sam’s usual daily routine like this: up at 4 a.m. to do Pilates, study film, eat, go to class, go to practice, more film, more eating, then to bed at 8 p.m. During a brief phone interview, the elder Hartman said he needed to check with Sam and see if it’d be OK to talk to a reporter. A couple hours later, Mark called back.

“He doesn’t trust me,” he said with a laugh, adding that Sam is a “private person,” solely focused this week on the task at hand, without any patience for distraction. Indeed, Sam didn’t have time to talk for this story, either, with a Wake Forest spokesman turning down an interview request with a polite, “He really just wants to focus on the game and his academics.”

It makes some sense, considering the stakes. Saturday represents the biggest game of Sam Hartman’s life, though he knows a thing or two about where football stands, too. In November 2015 he lost his older brother, Demitri Allison, to suicide. Allison, a football player at Elon, jumped to his death from a high floor of a dorm on the campus at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Before he’d gone to Elon, Allison had lived with the Hartmans, who’d taken him in because Allison needed a place to go. His family life was difficult and unusual, and at first he began staying with the Hartmans a few days at a time and then it became all the time, the Hartman boys becoming Allison’s brothers and Hartman’s mom and dad becoming his parents. Hartman and Allison might not have been related by blood, but they were brothers, as close as any relatives can be.

Grier, who was also close with Allison, got a call that November afternoon that Allison was missing and, later, that he’d been found and that he was gone. Grier immediately headed to the Hartman house, where he said Sam was sitting at the kitchen table. Davidson Day at the time was a couple days from playing for a state championship.

“We’re here for you, we love you,” Grier told Hartman, and Grier began to tell him that he didn’t have to play in the upcoming game, that nobody expected him to, that it was OK to take time away and grieve. “I got about two words into it and he just looked at me with steely eyes and said, ‘I’m playing.’ ”

Since then, Hartman in many ways has played for Allison, and his memory and spirit continue to be a kind of fuel behind Hartman’s motivation. Allison, one of his former Elon teammates said earlier this week, was proud of his relationship with the Hartmans, proud to call Sam his brother.

“I know if he was here today,” said Demetrius Oliver, one of Allison’s close friends at Elon, and a member of the same incoming football recruiting class, “he’d be sitting front and center with the Hartmans (on Saturday), cheering Sam on like no other.”

The ACC championship game, Oliver said, “is not only just a moment for Sam” but for those who miss and love Allison, too. A lot of Allison’s old Elon teammates will be watching Saturday, and cheering for the grown-up version of the smaller teenager they remember from years ago; the guy Allison loved and knew as his little brother.

“We’re all cheering for him,” Oliver said of Hartman, “As if he’s our little brother.”

Now, for Hartman, there’s just one thing left. It’s about finishing the job.

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