Big kick redeems Saints' Hartley

Southlake's Garrett Hartley, who began the season on suspension, worked his way back into the good graces of the Saints and lifted them into the Super Bowl. Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Garrett Hartley made one of the biggest field goals in New Orleans Saints history.

And to think, Hartley thought his career was over at the start of the 2009 season.

The Southlake (Texas) Carroll graduate converted a 40-yard field goal in overtime of the NFC title game Jan. 23 in New Orleans, sending the Saints past the Minnesota Vikings and into Super Bowl XLIV. Not bad for an organization with memorable kicks that include Tom Dempsey's league-record 63-yard field goal to beat the Detroit Lions in 1970.

"It's kind of funny," Hartley said. "Sometimes I'm at a restaurant, and whenever I'm walking out now, I get a standing ovation, and I'm over here like, 'For what?' I don't understand what's going on. I think we're at Outback the other night and a 70-year-old man busts out a harmonica from his coat pocket and starts playing 'When the Saints Come Marching In.'"

The tune wasn't always a happy one for Hartley. At the start of this season, he was suspended for four games by the NFL for violating the league's drug policy.

Hartley said he took Adderall, which is a banned substance, to stay awake while making a 12-hour drive from Dallas to New Orleans for an offseason workout.

When he tested positive, the team signed 45-year-old kicker John Carney to replace him.

"I honestly thought my NFL career was over," Hartley said. "I never failed a drug test in my life. I don't associate with that type of off-the-field activities. It was an honest mistake."

Before the test results became public, Hartley called his family and friends to let them know he had made a mistake. He even called his high school coach, Todd Dodge, now the coach at North Texas.

"I knew he would be able to," return from suspension, said Saints backup quarterback Chase Daniel, who played high school football with Hartley.

After high school, it was a stunning rise for Hartley who played for a highly regarded team and believed he was going to get a soccer scholarship. But Oklahoma liked his leg, and he got one for football instead.

The Saints, who had problems at the kicker position, signed him toward the end of the 2008 season because of his strong leg. New Orleans used four kickers in a two-year stretch before settling on Hartley.

He made all 13 of his field goal tries in the last eight weeks of the 2008 season, tied for the third-longest streak by a rookie in NFL history. Things were starting to look up for him until the failed test.

Special-teams coordinator Greg McMahon said Hartley's proactive approach in terms of his apology to the team and his work ethic allowed the team to keep him around.

"If they wanted to release me, they could have done it then and there," Hartley said. "After they told me they were going to keep me and bring me back, it meant a lot to me. It was like a little boost as far as training, and it gave me an extra itch."

When Hartley returned from suspension, he was inactive for seven more weeks as Carney kicked.

Carney made nine of 11 field goal attempts and was 10-of-11 on extra points.

When the organization moved Carney into a consultant position, it turned to Hartley for kicking duties.

"It was a unique situation," McMahon said. "He comes in with a mentor like John Carney. He's been good whether he's a consultant or if he's kicking. He feels good in his own skin; that's been great for [Hartley]."

Hartley returned Dec. 6 and made four of five field goals, missing only from 58 yards in an overtime win against the Washington Redskins.

He would make his next four field goal tries until missing a 37-yarder in an overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Dec. 27. Since then, Hartley has been perfect, but the biggest kick of his career is one he can't really remember.

"I just let it go," he said of the game-winning kick against the Vikings. "But I am going to hold on to the feeling and preparation before the kick and if I'm put in that situation again, I will understand the pressure, but I have to go out and have fun."

Calvin Watkins covers the Dallas Cowboys and the NFL for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.