Saints 31, Vikings 28, OT
NEW ORLEANS (AP)
Garrett Hartley got suspended earlier this season for taking a drug that helped him stay awake.
On the night before the biggest game of his fledgling NFL career, the 23-year-old kicker wanted to sleep, but couldn't.
It was 2:15 a.m. on Sunday when Hartley lay awake, having a premonition that he was going to kick a winning field goal from the right hash mark, about 42 yards out in the NFC title game.
He wound up being off by a mere 2 yards. His 40-yarder from the right hash in overtime lifted the Saints to the biggest victory in the 43-year history of the franchise, 31-28 over Minnesota. The win sent New Orleans to its first Super Bowl.
``It was funny, just the whole game, how things played out and I just kept thinking about, 'Is this really happening?' It was like never-never land,'' Hartley said. ``Honestly, it's a very surreal thing. ... I've never believed in stuff like that before. It was fate for this team to head to Miami to play in the Super Bowl this year and I'm just honestly honored to be a part of it.''
Suspended for the first four games of the regular season for using a banned stimulant, Hartley didn't win back his job until December.
Then he overcame his nerves against the Vikings - not to mention bad memories of a missed 37-yarder that could have spared the Saints an embarrassing loss to Tampa Bay - and split the uprights.
While he was mobbed by teammates, the Louisiana Superdome erupted in earsplitting cheers, then watery-eyed fans hugged one another.
Hartley's thoughts drifted back to a phone call he made to his father, Bill, in east Texas, while awake in the early morning. He'd told his father about the vision that was keeping him awake.
``He said, 'You know what to do. You've been doing it your whole life,''' Hartley recalled of his father's calming words.
For coach Sean Payton, the Super Bowl berth that the kick clinched was a reward for the patience the coach showed with the young kicker.
``I just told him there's a little fleur-de-lis up there right between both uprights and I said, 'Why don't you see if you can hit this fleur-de-lis dead center,'' Payton said, referring to the symbol of both the team and the city adorning the facade of the second deck of the stadium. ``He has just been real consistent for us.''
Hartley signed in October 2008, seemingly solving a run of problems in the Saints' kicking game by making all 13 of his field goal attempts during his rookie season out of Oklahoma.
During the summer, however, Hartley tested positive for use of a banned stimulant and said it was because he used Adderall to stay awake on a long drive from Dallas to New Orleans.
The Saints then signed veteran John Carney, who held the job through the first 11 games of 2009. Still, Payton put Hartley back on the roster as soon as his four-game suspension ended and kept monitoring his progress in practice.
Hartley finally saw his first action against the Washington Redskins in early December - a game that ended with Hartley winning it with a short field goal in overtime. Hartley came into the NFC title game 10 of 12 on field goals this season, making all but one attempt under 50 yards.
As for Carney, the Saints released him, but rehired him as a kicking consultant to work with Hartley.
Carney was instructing him on kicks during warmups on Sunday night, the pair unable to know then just how big a role Hartley's success would play not only in this game, but in the history of a franchise that never had a victory of this magnitude before.
Carney thought back to Hartley's miss against the Buccaneers in late December, and said in the long run it might have been beneficial.
``All kickers sooner or later go through growing pains,'' Carney said. ``You learn from them and you become better and stronger mentally and emotionally. And next time you have an opportunity, you've made your corrections and you're excited about having that opportunity arise again, and you come through in the clutch - and that was what Garrett did.''