Sam Hartman was off his game. Not his football game, but Monday's media availability was chock of full of cliches. Low key. It didn't reveal much insight into what might qualify as the biggest game of his life Saturday against No. 6 Ohio State.
"Everyone in this room, when you have a big due date, you feel the nerves. You feel the excitement. A lot of it is the want to be the best, to have success and prove people right or wrong," the quarterback of No. 9 Notre Dame told the media.
That's a window into why Hartman chose to extend his career for a sixth year, which will be his one and only at Notre Dame. He has been around so long his career spans two eras. From the dawn of the transfer portal era at Wake Forest in 2018 to having total control of his life, ability and future.
From overachiever to the face of a program that is not ever allowed to underachieve. From the smallest Power Five program (Wake Forest) to one of the largest brands in American sports (Notre Dame).
Not to overrate Saturday, but this is why Hartman came to Notre Dame -- to play in games like this. For all he did at Wake Forest -- 13,000 career yards passing, 11 wins and an ACC Championship Game berth in 2021 among his accomplishments -- transferring to the Fighting Irish reflected that desire to be the best.
Before those two eras commenced, Hartman lost someone he considered his brother to suicide in 2015. (The Hartman family took unofficial custody of teenager Demitri Allison when his grandmother endured health issues.) A leaking thyroid gland in 2016 caused fluid to gather in Hartman's body. Doctors went through his neck to repair the damage, and he made it back in time for his high school season.
A thick beard that deserves its own NIL deal now hides the details.
"There is a big scar across his neck," Hartman's former high school coach Chad Grier said. "They slit his throat open, found a leak, closed him back up and pulled an abscess the size of a baseball out of his chest."
Hartman's freshman season at Wake was interrupted by a leg injury in 2018; he had won the starting job. After throwing four interceptions in the 2020 Duke's Mayo Bowl loss to Wisconsin, Hartman began seeing a psychologist. College athletics has been slow to come around to the realization that such self-help should not only be welcomed but encouraged.
Prior to the 2022 season, blood clots were discovered that required the removal of one of Hartman's ribs. It was revealed before the season the bone had been made into a necklace.
Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson's "Slow Mesh" offense made Hartman a star and the Demon Deacons a national curiosity. The variation on the run-pass option and the spread offense then made Wake a national story in large part because of a fully formed Hartman.
"People wrongly assumed he was in a gimmick offense at Wake with the Slow Mesh," Grier said. "He's not 6-foot-4 but he's at the line of scrimmage with Power Five [defensive] linemen throwing downfield concepts.
"Who else does it? Obviously, it works for Wake."
Now it works … better at Notre Dame. Start with Irish offensive coordinator Gerard Parker, who was elevated from tight ends coach after Tommy Rees left for Alabama. That's after Hartman arrived. While the quarterback and Parker have gotten along nicely, the Ohio State game is their biggest test yet.
Last year, it was C.J. Stroud vs. Tyler Buchner. Stroud was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, now starting QB for the Houston Texans. Buchner eventually transferred to a clouded quarterback situation at Alabama.
This year, the quarterback roles have reversed. Kyle McCord will make his fifth career start for Ohio State. Is there any doubt Notre Dame has the edge at quarterback?
Marcus Freeman was a rookie coach last year. The season opener at Ohio State reflected his defensive prowess in a 21-10 loss. This season, the Irish are more well-rounded offensively. Junior running back Audric Estime is second nationally in rushing. The offensive line sports an All-American (Joe Alt). Freeman's defense -- he was Notre Dame's coordinator in 2021 -- is ranked fourth nationally.
"Our objective isn't just to hold the ball and huddle every single play," Freeman said. "[That's] kind of what my mindset probably was last year [against Ohio State].
"Going into last season, you have some questions, 'What was our identity on offense?' Similar to Game 1 this year, you don't know until you face an opponent. But we know what we can do offensively after four games."
Hartman enters the Ohio Stage game with 14,028 yards passing as the returning career leader in that category. Assuming a bowl game (at least), he will need to average 3.7 touchdown passes per game to become the all-time FBS leader in that category. With 52 yards passing against Ohio State, he will leave college among the top 10 in career yards.
Those kind of numbers are largely un-Notre Dame. But when Hartman arrived, he was projected as that difference maker at a position that hadn't had enough of them over the years in South Bend, Indiana.
Notre Dame went to the 2012 BCS Championship Game with Everett Golson (backed up by Tommy Rees). Brian Kelly took the Irish to the 2018 College Football Playoff with Ian Book replacing Brandon Wimbush after three games.
Hartman might be the best Notre Dame quarterback since Jimmy Clausen. Some may forget the much-hyped Clausen in 2009 finished second nationally in passer rating. The two bonded in the offseason. If not Clausen, then Brady Quinn (2003-06), who is the Irish's career passing leader with almost 12,000 yards.
"It's something if you start buying into it and really selling your soul to … that fame and that spotlight it will go pretty quickly and pretty fast," Hartman said. "Playing for six years, you can get caught up in it. You can get lost in it. … One of the biggest things in my head is how much fun it is to be out here and part of Notre Dame's team."
The difference being Hartman's Notre Dame legacy will be considered in this one season -- maybe one game. After Saturday, there are still three games left against teams currently ranked in the AP Top 25: Duke, USC, Clemson. Hartman will also play his old team, Wake Forest, on Nov. 18.
But the Ohio State result might be the difference between a major bowl and a playoff berth for Notre Dame.
"It's a clash of two football greats that, growing up, you kind of think about and look at those games -- Ohio State and all those other big games -- would be cool to play in," Hartman said. "To shy away from that is foolish."
Hartman knows the spotlight. He was willingly featured in Season 2 of "QB1: Beyond The Lights", a Netflix documentary on rising high school quarterback stars. That exposed him to the fishbowl that Hartman embraced -- at least when he allowed such access at that time.
"I would go out and people would say, 'Aren't you the coach on QB1?'" Grier recalled. "I had no idea I was going to be mic'd up from 7 in the morning to 7 at night. Eventually, you forget it's even on."
Grier also knows the spotlight. His three sons were all icons in one way or another. Nash was once a social media sensation recognized around the world. Hayes was the youngest competitor on "Dancing With The Stars." Will Grier played quarterback at Florida and West Virginia. He is currently with his third NFL team, the Cincinnati Bengals.
Hartman bought into all of it following Chad Grier from Davidson Day School in North Carolina -- where he was "5-foot nothing, 130 pounds in 10th grade," according to the coach -- to Oceanside Collegiate Academy in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.
"He wasn't very big, he wasn't very strong, he wasn't very fast. He couldn't throw a long way," Grier recalled of a young Hartman. "There was nothing physically redeeming about his game to say this kid is going to be a Division I quarterback someday and set records."
But as a nature took over and Hartman grew, so did his character. Two days after Allison leaped to his death from the 10th floor of a North Carolina residence hall, Hartman played in the state championship game for Davidson Day. The Hartman family had grown extremely close to Allison, who went on to play football at Elon. He was basically a member of the family whose issues the Hartmans said they never noticed.
"I told Sam, 'Nobody expects you to play,'" Grier said. "Before I could finish saying the word 'play,' he looked at me -- looked through me, through my soul -- and said, 'I'm playing.'"
For that game, Hartman changed his number to 10, the same Allison had worn. He still wears it to this day.
Six years into the college experience, Hartman isn't done. At age 24, he is older than eight NFL quarterbacks. Perhaps that's a sign. There is another era to the Sam Hartman saga.
"The kid has been through so much," Grier said. "He can play at Ohio State. He can play at Notre Dame. Nothing is going to faze him."