THE LAST PASS Sam Hartman threw in his hometown was an interception.
That also was the last time he threw a ball in the month of December. It was Wake Forest's 2020 bowl game against Wisconsin. With the score tied midway through the third quarter, Hartman threw his first pick.
Then he threw another. And another. And another.
Four straight drives ended the same way, and that tie score turned into a 42-28 Badgers' victory.
A few months later, Hartman was in Los Angeles, staying with former Wake quarterback John Wolford, now with the NFL's Rams. The two trained together, worked with Wolford's QB coach and spent time talking about football and what Hartman could do to follow in his mentor's footsteps.
Eventually, the conversation turned to the Wisconsin game. Hartman wanted to put it behind him, of course, but the offseason leaves a lot of time for a quarterback to think about a performance that ugly.
Wolford interjected with a suggestion: Had Hartman ever tried therapy?
In the seven months since, Hartman has cracked open the door to an entirely new perspective on himself, on football and on his life. He's developed a coping mechanism to handle failure, dug deep on the root causes of his stress and anxiety, and he's taken the lessons learned in therapy and applied them to his relationships with teammates.
"I always think, man, imagine if I'd started going to therapy when I was in eighth grade," Hartman said.
On Saturday, Hartman will return to Bank of America Stadium, in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, this time with an ACC championship on the line as 16th-ranked Wake Forest takes on No. 15 Pitt. The game could easily be painted as an opportunity for the local kid to erase the bad vibes from his last trip there, but he already exorcised those thoughts in weekly Zoom sessions with his psychologist. Now, a new Sam Hartman is ready to take the stage, and he is better prepared for it than ever.
HARTMAN WAS IN high school when his brother died by suicide.
Demetri Allison was a receiver at nearby Elon University. He'd moved in with the Hartman family when he was 15, and Sam was in elementary school. The two were virtually inseparable. Hartman idolized Allison, who had run routes in the backyard so Hartman could practice his throws.
In November 2015, none of the Hartmans knew Allison was struggling. They'd gone to dinner as a family after Allison's Nov. 5 game, and he laughed and joked and seemed entirely happy. A few days later, he was gone.
Looking back, it's still hard for the Hartmans to process, but Sam's mother, Lisa, can't help but wonder how the stigma around mental health may have played a part in Allison's death.
"If that stigma didn't exist, maybe Demetri would still be here with us," Lisa Hartman said. "Nobody had any idea he was suffering or for how long."
For years, Sam Hartman operated in much the same way. When hard times hit, he'd wander down to the dock behind his house, cast a line into the lake or just sit and stare out at the water. A few hours later, he'd return home having pushed his concerns into the deepest recesses of his mind, ready to move on.
"He turns the page and moves on," Lisa Hartman said. "And I would think, where is that page? Where did it go and when is it going to come back? But that was the way he did it."
Lisa had always told her kids about the importance of mental health and touted the merits of therapy, but Sam largely shrugged off the advice. He was a football player, a tough guy. Therapy was soft.
After that miserable loss to Wisconsin, Hartman again returned to the dock. It was simply understood, his mom said, that no one should bother him. Let him deal with his disappointment, and then he'll be OK.
And perhaps he would have been, for a while. But by that point in his life, Hartman was beginning to understand the weight of all those loose pages he'd crammed into a corner in his mind. The bowl game may have been the ultimate catalyst to seek help, he said, but looking back, his reaching out seemed inevitable.
"It was to a point where I knew something needed to change," Hartman said. "I'd always done a good job of hiding it. Growing up, that's what you're taught to do. But I was finding it tougher and tougher to push through the mental side of anxiety and stress. It was kind of a point of no return."
Hartman began talking to a psychologist once or twice a week. Often, they'd talk about football, but they also delved into the triggers for Hartman's anxiety and discussed ways to cope with the pressure he felt to be successful. Slowly, he began to understand that turning the page wasn't the same as finishing the story. The conflict required a resolution.
Hartman said he has seen the fruits of his labor often this year. In perhaps the worst game of his season, a 48-27 loss to Clemson, Hartman was rocked by the Tigers' pass rush routinely throughout the first quarter. In the past, he said, he might have crumbled -- started pressing, skipping out of the pocket too quickly, hurrying throws, beating himself up before the Clemson line had a chance to do it to him. Instead, he kept his composure. Wake lost, but the Deacons didn't quit.
"It's a victory in my own head," Hartman said. "I'm not satisfied with a loss, but normally I'd beat myself up about a bad throw or a bad game, and in the grand scheme of things, that was one of those instances where, mentally, there was a positive to push in the right direction."
A week later, Hartman shrugged off the loss by leading his team past Boston College to wrap up the regular season and secure Wake's place in the ACC championship game.
This focus on his mental health is still new, Hartman said. He doesn't have all the answers. But simply acknowledging that fact has helped. And now that he's returning to Charlotte to play another big game -- perhaps the biggest of his career -- he's not thinking about his past failures. Mostly, he's thinking about his brother, and how, in a world where it was easier to find help, Demetri Allison would be in the stands Saturday, cheering on Wake Forest.
HARTMAN WON THE starting QB job at Wake Forest as a true freshman in 2018. He performed well, albeit with his share of typical freshman mistakes. On Nov. 5 -- nearly three years to the day after his brother died -- Hartman went down with a leg injury. It ended his season and handed the starting job to Jamie Newman, who quickly blossomed into a star.
When the 2019 season kicked off, Newman was entrenched as Wake's starting QB, and Hartman had been relegated to the bench. It was a tough pill to swallow. Hartman mulled a transfer, and he grew increasingly distant from his teammates. Head coach Dave Clawson took notice.
Clawson pulled Hartman aside after practice one day, and the two drove to a nearby park and took a walk. Clawson asked if Hartman was committed to the program. He said the team saw how Hartman carried himself, took note of his attitude. Hartman would get another chance to play, Clawson promised, but only if his demeanor changed immediately.
"The only way the rest of this football team is going to view you as a leader is if you handle this adversity the right way," Clawson told him.
That week, Newman left Wake Forest's game against Louisville with an injury in the second half. Hartman came on in relief and completed 9-of-15 passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns.
When the regular season ended with a game at Syracuse six weeks later, Hartman sat in an auditorium at the team's hotel and listened to the seniors talk about their time at Wake Forest -- about all the hardship and struggles, and how it would one day pay off when the program truly turned a corner.
Hartman left the room and found his parents in the hotel's lobby, waiting on a couch.
"I just told them, whatever it takes, I want to play at Wake Forest for as long as I can," he said.
Newman had a terrific 2019 season -- so good, in fact, a buzz developed around his NFL draft stock. He thought he could be a first-round pick, but Wake's offense was too quirky, its profile too low. At year's end, Newman announced his intentions to transfer to Georgia.
Hartman, the quarterback who refused to leave, was once again the starter, and he was determined to be the best leader he could be.
It's no surprise then that Hartman has refused to go through his mental health journey alone. He talks often with teammates about his therapy sessions, about the lessons he's learned, about how they too might benefit from therapy. He wants to erase the stigma within his own locker room.
More importantly, he said, he's learned the value in simply asking the guys around him if they're OK.
Hartman has started taking teammates out for dinner each week. They don't talk ball. It's about family, school and relationships. "Real world stuff," he said.
"We're taught to train and suppress," Hartman said. "So you always want to make sure when a guy says he's good that he's really good. As much as I'm trying to work on myself, I'm checking in with guys and take them out to dinner and leave the football aside. That's been one of the big takeaways, that when I say, 'I've got your back,' it's not just a clichéd saying. It's the truth."
Clawson said he's seen firsthand the impact Hartman has made on emerging stars such as receiver A.T. Perry.
A year ago, Perry was a backup with 19 career receptions. Clawson remembers Perry throwing up on the practice fields because he wasn't in shape. That could have been a source of frustration for Hartman, who gravitated toward the guys with a work ethic and mentality that mirrored his own. The time in therapy, however, gave Hartman a new perspective -- a better understanding of what drives people and why they may not always react the same way he does.
During camp, Hartman took Perry under his wing, embracing his teammate not for what he could do on the field but for who he was off it. Now Perry is Wake's leading receiver (56 catches, 1,112 yards, 13 TDs) and is a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award.
Much of that success, Clawson said, is about Perry's own hard work, but there's a piece that comes courtesy of a QB who learned success isn't just earned through reps and weights.
"Guys have improved and are performing better because they feel like they have a relationship with their quarterback," Clawson said. "And that their quarterback invested time in them, not just as football players, but as people."
HARTMAN WONDERS WHY his approach to mental health isn't standard practice for every athlete. It seems like common sense. Football players monitor their diets and exercise, talk to a trainer if a hamstring is tight or an elbow is sore. But stress and anxiety? Most guys just want to bottle it up and set it aside.
Instead, Hartman said, athletes should see the relationship between mental health and physical health. The two are inherently intertwined.
"The compound interest of the work you can put in to both your body and your mind," Hartman said, "it's jaw-dropping to think about how they work together."
Hartman joked that if someone could figure out the right approach to sell the rest of the world the same philosophy he's adopted, they'd make millions. In the interim, however, he's just hoping to share as much of his journey with others as he can -- free of charge.
"It's something you think, 'Why isn't everybody doing this?'" he said. "But it's stigmatized in the football community and, really, in a masculine culture. It's something you don't do. It's soft. You suppress your emotions and how you feel and bottle it up. And there's a side to that that's gotten me where I am. You can't be soft on everything. But there's a line you have to create in your mind of, enough is enough of the hardness on yourself."
Hartman is certainly taking Saturday's showdown with Pitt seriously. He desperately wants to win, to carry Wake to its first ACC title since 2006, to secure a New Year's Six bowl bid and atone for last year's interceptions. He wants to thrill his family and friends who will be in attendance and give Wake fans something to cheer about. He wants all of that, and he's willing to give all of himself to get it.
It's just that, when it's over, he'll view the game through a different lens, win or lose.
He'll still likely go back to his parents' house and wander down to the dock, drape his legs over the wooden boards and throw a line out into the lake. He'll be alone with his thoughts, piece together where they should be properly filed in the cavernous aisles of his psyche.
And then he'll emerge, a better version of Sam Hartman, and he'll sit down with his mom and dad and tell them all about it.
"People can call me soft," Hartman said. "That's fine. Go watch the tape. If you're calling me soft, you probably need to do it too. Everybody has demons. Everybody has stuff they need to talk through. I've got this platform, and if I can impact one person's life, that's a job well done."