Less than a year after getting released by the Carolina Panthers, Justin Hartwig is in the Super Bowl.
He’s the starting center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, hiking the ball to star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
‘It’s really been a fairy tale year for me,’ he said. ‘We’re 14-4 and playing for the world championship. It doesn’t get any better than this, especially after the things I dealt with in Carolina.’
Hartwig signed a five-year, $17 million contract with the Panthers in 2006, joining the team as an unrestricted free agent after being a three-year starter for the Tennessee Titans.
But he suffered a torn adductor tendon, near his groin, and played in only two games in 2006. He started 15 in ’07, but still wasn’t at full strength.
‘Leading up to the ’07 season, I couldn’t do a whole lot with my legs,’ said Hartwig. ‘I just lost a lot of my mass. Physically, I just wasn’t in the shape I needed to be in to be playing at the level I had been used to playing before I got to Charlotte.’
The Panthers overhauled their offensive line after the ’07 season, and made ’07 second-round draft pick Ryan Kalil their center of the future.
When Hartwig was released, he said he ‘didn’t know what was going to happen or where my career was going to go.’
He was contacted by the Steelers and said he told Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin that he needed to spend the offseason working out to get healthy again.
‘I worked my butt off and got my (strength) back,’ he said. ‘I came into this season in the best shape of my life because I had that opportunity to finally recover from injury.’
Hartwig said he wasn’t promised a job by the Steelers, but he quickly became the starting center.
He has started all 18 games this season, serving as a constant in an otherwise injury-riddled season for Pittsburgh’s offensive line.
‘He’s been a great asset to us,’ Roethlisberger said of Hartwig. ‘He’s really picked up the offense fast and helped those guards, the young guys, around him, and (he’s) helped me. We’re glad to have him.’
Hartwig took on a leadership role, hosting the offensive line at his home for extra film sessions_with munchies, of course_away from the Steelers’ facilities.
‘My place is usually a mess afterwards when everybody leaves,’ he said, ‘but I’m the leader of the group and I’ll take it on my shoulders.’
Hartwig, 30, said he’s impressed with Roethlisberger, who chartered a private jet to take the Steelers’ offensive linemen to Chicago for a mini-vacation in November following a Thursday night game.
‘We’ve got a good thing going here,’ said Hartwig. ‘We have good team chemistry. We have a really tight locker room. I really feel like us doing stuff together off the field commutes to what we do on the field because we play for each other.’
Hartwig carried a palm-size video camera this week to record his first Super Bowl week. It’s the culmination of a season to remember.
‘I’m definitely playing the best football of my career right now,’ he said.
‘copy; 2009, The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.).
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