In His Sixth College Season, Notre Dame QB Sam Hartman Is Embracing His Locker Room Grandpa Status

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Photographs: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte

Trying to remember anything from 2018 can be a struggle. The names, the faces, the events, they all start to blend together at a certain point, making it hard to discern what happened when. With a global pandemic lodged between the present day and 2018, those six years are even stranger. Throw all that together and add college football, and you’ve got Sam Hartman, the long-haired, 24-year-old heartthrob currently playing his sixth year of college ball.

The quarterback spent the first five years of his career at Wake Forest, but his transfer to Notre Dame before this season elevated him to a different level of notoriety. Notre Dame football has one of the most long and storied histories in all of college athletics—the type that they literally make movies about. Hartman (who was able to play six years because of a redshirt year in 2019 plus COVID granting an extra year of eligibility) is now part of that Fighting Irish lore forever.

Along with 37-year-old head coach Marcus Freeman—who draws a lot of attention himself—Notre Dame has earned some cool points this season. They’ve been pretty good, too, sitting with a 7-3 record as they prepare for a game against Hartman’s old Wake Forest squad this Saturday. It’ll be an emotional night for the oldest guy on the Irish roster, and in many ways the culmination of a college football journey that predates Lady Gaga’s A Star is Born.

You have obviously had quite the college football journey. Do you ever think about 2018 Sam Hartman, just a freshman at Wake Forest, and go, That kid had no idea what he’d go through?

Sam Hartman: That’s probably the best way to describe it. I think the funniest thing is that I played Notre Dame my freshman year and we got, just, obliterated. That was one of those times where I didn’t know if this college football thing was for me. I didn’t know if I’d be good enough. I never really understood the preparation aspect and the commitment it took to play at this level. There were a lot of things on the outside that I was focused on.

Now being at Notre Dame and being more in a national spotlight, it seems like the attention is more off the field. But I would say the big, drastic difference is that I’m way more focused on my performance and the different things that go into being a really good quarterback at this level. In 2018, I was focused on being the guy and trying to fit in with everybody. Part of that is, when you start as a freshman, you don’t really know. I can start as a freshman? No way! This is sweet! I’ll go out there and just figure it out, let it rip. You realize that doesn’t work. That kid had no idea what was ahead of him. You kind of get this fixation—you know, three or four years then I’m out of here, going to the NFL—but six years later I’m still slinging the rock in college!

I’m interested in freshman Sam not thinking he was good enough.

That really goes back to my freshman year of high school. I was slotted as the starting quarterback in the summer. We had about three weeks of camp or whatever. By the end of those three weeks I was the fourth-string quarterback, and I was running with JV as a wide receiver. I threw too hard for the guys on JV! So, my football career was not illustrious. I’ve always been able to throw a football, but I’ve never really been that big. I’ve never been super highly touted. There were a lot of different variables in my career that have kept me in the conversation, but never the conversation.

But yeah, freshman year of high school all the way to freshman year of college, I guess I’m maybe different than a lot of other quarterbacks. It’s not, Oh I knew from when I was 10 years old that I’d be in the NFL. I wanted to play in the NFL! I wanted to play in college! But I only had three offers out of high school: Wake, UNC Charlotte, and Elon. I went to Wake because of the idea that they weren’t this big school, and they have great academics, so if football didn’t work out…

That first year was rough. I think I was 4-5, just got worked. We played that 2018 Clemson team. You’re watching a freshman quarterback just like you—Trevor Lawrence—take them to the national championship. There’s always different doubts that creep in. Part of [improving] was figuring out what was important, creating a daily routine, and continuing to grow on that as the six years rolled on.

Six years is a long time in life too, not just football. How do you think you’ve changed as a person since those freshman days at Wake Forest?

One of the things I’m proud of is my leadership ability and how I’ve handled different situations. As a quarterback, you’re always kind of looked at as a leader, but I don’t think everyone is. That takes time and experience. You learn what battles to fight. I think the relationships I’ve been able to build from being around so many different people—being on six different college football teams!—that’s every dynamic and every type of person you can imagine. That’s shaped who I am and what I value as a person.

When I was younger I would get so caught up on little things. You have a bad game or a bad practice and you want to hold on to it. The realization that everyone’s looking at you and feeding off your energy—and also that a mistake is, in the grand scheme of things, just part of the game—you’re not going to win every football game. That’s a tough challenge to learn and process, but those were the main growth for me as a player and a person.

So are you just terrified of getting a real job? Is that why you’ve stayed in college for so long?

That honestly might be it.

How often do you hear Van Wilder jokes?

I’ve heard it, but that’s a little outdated for me.

Your game this weekend is against Wake Forest. What do you think that’ll be like for you?

It’s like playing your brother. My best friend and roommate for five years is their starting right guard. You can go up and down that entire roster. The relationships that I’ve built here, you just multiply it by five. It’ll be challenging, we were joking about pregame warmups and how I might not even go out. I can’t imagine the amount of people I’ll have to talk to! That won’t be very productive for me. It’ll be surreal. Once the foot hits the ball, as we say, that emotion will be gone and I can just go out and play like another game. It’ll be weird not throwing it to the Wake Forest helmets! Hopefully they were black and we wear gold.

You mentioned that 2018 Clemson team. Some of the guys from that team—Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, Hunter Renfrow—they’re veterans now! They’re in their fifth year in the NFL! Do you ever think about that?

All the time. You see other people running their race. Trevor Lawrence is a great example. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime, generational talent. To compare yourself to him is kind of dumb. But also, he’s your age! He’s playing your position! All those guys that I went to camps with are in their fourth year or fifth year [in the NFL]. Again, those are the cards I was dealt. Destiny, whatever you want to call it. To end my college career at a place like this, with such a historic program, is something that I never thought would be possible. But I’m forever grateful and will always look back at it like, That was pretty cool.

You have played 58 college football games. Do you have a sleeper choice for favorite one of your career? Maybe one that doesn’t necessarily stick out to the fans but is important to you?

The Duke one this year was one of those. We just kept battling. The odds were stacked against us and we put together a really unbelievable two-minute drive to kind of make it happen in the last seconds. At Wake, it wasn’t a crazy win, but when we clinched the ACC Atlantic Division at Boston College [in 2021]. It was like 18 degrees. I remember looking at each other like, Remember when we were freshmen and we used to say that we’d play in the ACC Championship? When it all hit and you can say, “Holy cow, we really did it”, especially with the teammates from that year and what we went through during COVID, that was a special one for me.

You’ve also seen a very interesting evolution of college football. Can you even compare the pre-COVID, pre-NIL days to now?

It’s completely different. And, I am old, so it makes sense. But the freshmen on this team had to grow up so much faster because of NIL, the money flow, and the business decisions they had to make at 17 years old. That presents a challenge, but also an opportunity for people to really change their lives, create wealth, help their families at home.

I also think it can somewhat change the locker room. At Notre Dame, we do a really good job. Nothing is about money. Nobody talks about the NIL world. People will say, Hey, that’s a sick deal! For me, I always try to give back to my teammates because I know I’m in a special position as a quarterback at Notre Dame. Not all my teammates will be able to go out and get a deal with this brand, or try to get this.

I have a partnership with Under Armour. All my stuff is, You do a deal with me? You gotta do a deal with the O-line. You gotta do a deal with the whole team. A lot of that has been really cool. The NIL part was an influence on the decision to come back. It’s a changing landscape that we’re all a part of in college football. At a place like this, with our culture, it keeps the younger feel. It’s not like the NFL where it’s a business and people think, I got my money, I’m good! That’s the only fear I have for college football is that it becomes a business. It is, and always will be somewhat. But the locker room is the one place that you hope stays about the love of the game. There have been big changes, like you said. Trying to keep it as pure as possible is the one thing I wish for for college football.

Are you grandpa in the locker room? Gather ‘round, kids.

One hundred percent. I did a gift thing—Beats headphones gave us some custom Notre Dame ones. They were all like, “Thanks, grandpa!” The young guys have a lot of fun with it. They make sure to remind me that I am the old guy in the locker room. I’m older than some of our coaches! We have two GA’s [graduate assistants] that I’m older than. Even my quarterback GA is just a year older than me. I’ve been around for a while. I’ll know the person who opens the door for us when we walk in at certain stadiums, know every head coach really well. All the other quarterbacks will be like, “How do you know them?” Dude, I’ve been around for quite some time.

Do true freshmen look like children to you now?

Yeah, most of them. A kid will walk in and I’m saying, “Dude, whose son are you?” But no, a majority nowadays come in bigger than me. It might be time for me to start getting going.

One thing you accomplished during your Wake Forest career was setting the Atlantic Coast Conference record for passing touchdowns. Do you ever look at some of the other names—Lamar Jackson, Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson—on that list? We’re talking Heisman winners, Hall of Famers, Super Bowl champs!

With that, I look at how many years it took them to get there and how many years it took me! I’ll probably at some point step back and look at it. All that stuff has been really cool. I’d definitely trade some of those touchdown passes for some wins here and there. If you called me in 20 years, I’d probably be able to list off all those names! I’m going to hold off on reminiscing until my playing days are over.

How has it been for you becoming more famous? I imagine being the big man on campus at Notre Dame hits a little different than being the big man on campus at Wake Forest.

Social media was pretty big when I was a freshman, but it’s taken off with TikTok. Everything just seems like a constant feed. When we play those 7:30 night games, prime time, that's the game that’s on. The percentage of households in America that have that game on, every bar in America—if it’s 7:30, that game is going to be shown throughout the entire country. We had four in a row against undefeated teams.

The only challenge for me was trying to have my teammates still see me as the old man, the normal guy they saw show up in January. Like any locker room, they make fun of me for it, sending stuff in the group chat. When I was a freshman in 2018, I would have been all for it. Give me the attention! Now that I’m older, it’s great for the brand, great for recruiting, great for Notre Dame to have. They can sell this! Look at all these followers, look at all this attention he gets. Do you want to be this? If it pushes Notre Dame’s brand forward and helps me in the long run? I’m here for it. But again, I still see myself as the 2018 freshman who doesn’t belong on the field. Nothing really changes for me, you just stop for a picture every once in a while.

Do you feel the weight of Notre Dame immediately upon arrival?

Yes and no. The speed in those first couple practices, the lifts, that part I did. But it’s so quiet around here—in the sense that it picks up so much during game week—I didn’t understand how big of a deal it is when Notre Dame is winning and on the map. The guys were like, “Yeah, you know, we’ve had some good years.” But they judge it off our tradition of walking from the Basilica to the stadium. They’d say it gets full for the really big games but it starts dying off. Our Pitt game was—the whole time it’s at least five people deep. You start getting closer to the stadium and it’s ten people deep, then 20. Some of the guys who have been here six years were saying, “Dude, even when we were going to the playoffs it wasn’t looking like this.”

That didn’t really hit me until the season was going and you’re making that walk. It’s two hours from kickoff and there's thousands of people standing out here just to watch us walk by! That’s when I started feeling that magnitude. As the season rolls along, you just feel that stadium. Almost 80,000 people every game! This is a cool place to play, and what you always dream of as a football player. I would say it’s cool to come to Notre Dame again.

Growing up, I knew about Notre Dame. Everyone knows about Notre Dame! But it wasn’t a place to go. Partially for me, that was because it was so far-fetched. But it wasn’t like, Imagine going and playing at Notre Dame! That’s something I take pride in, putting Notre Dame back in that, It’d be really cool to play there. That starts with Coach [Marcus] Freeman. He’s done such a good job. Hopefully it continues.

Does being the Notre Dame quarterback open some new doors for you? Does Joe Montana ever hit you up?

Yeah, I actually met him! He was in Ireland when we played the Shamrock Series game there. I got a thumbs up from him as he was walking by, which was surreal. I got to sit and talk with him before the USC game, and after the game he was on the field. The cameras caught us in a big hug. That’s just crazy. That memory, that moment, it’s Joe Cool! That’s what Notre Dame can do for you. Not every school in the country can say they have Joe Cool on the sideline.

Do you like, have his phone number? Who’s the most famous person in your phone?

Probably Peyton Manning. I went to the Manning Camp, that’s the only real reason. I mean, Coach Freeman. I have his number. He’s up there right now with all the TikToks and what not. He’s actually unbelievably famous as well.

You guys are basically the same age. Do you view him as a peer?

He’s both. It’s probably closer to a big brother. We’re closer [in age] than a lot of the other coaches. When the program is doing really well, we’re the most popular people. When the program is doing really bad, we’re the least popular. That quarterback-head coach relationship is really valuable. When you have the connection that we have—we meet every week to sit and talk, most of the time not about football—there’s an open door policy. Credit to him for having that ability to be a head coach but also a big brother to some of the team. That’s given me all the confidence in the world.

Is he your first hot coach?

When he does the walk, he makes a dent with the ladies for sure. He knows it! He’s a good dude, though. Great dad, too. He’s got six kids! Superman.

Your hair and beard combo commands a lot of attention too. Do you have any grooming tips for us?

I keep it pretty simple. I don’t really put anything in it. I wash it very rarely, which sounds bad. Don’t get me wrong, I shower! But I don’t condition and shampoo very much. The natural look is probably the best thing for me. When I wash it, my hair poofs out and gets really big. This keeps it somewhat tightened.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Originally Appeared on GQ