When Jeff Hartings retired from the NFL, he didn’t have a plan for the rest of his life.
He started working with an inner-city ministry on the north side of Pittsburgh called Urban Impact and saw a lot of fatherless kids getting into a lot of trouble.
The fathers were falling short. And the kids weren’t on the path toward becoming responsible men.
Hartings recalled his post-football experience in Pittsburgh during his speech at the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame Central Pennsylvania Chapter scholar-athlete awards banquet Sunday.
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“When I thought about today and I thought about what did football mean to me,” said Hartings, who was a guard at Penn State from 1992-95, “it actually occurred to me that, that period in my life helped me realize how important football was in my life, and the things that I learned from all of the coaches along the way and what it means to be a man because when you play football, a lot of times you’re forced to either become a man or to go find something else to do.”
The former Penn State All-American and NFL lineman spoke about his football career and discussed what he thinks it means to be a man — admitting he didn’t always live up to his own definition — as he relayed his message to the 57 scholar-athletes honored at The Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center.
Bald Eagle Area’s Jarrett Shreffler, Bellefonte’s Zachary Stephens, Penns Valley’s Lucas Bitsko and State College’s John Weakland were among the high school football players recognized along with Penn State’s Ryan Keiser. Weakland received the Nittany Media Scholarship given in memory of Harry Hain.
John Hayes, who has coached 34 seasons at Bellwood-Antis, received the Lifetime Achievement Award in Coaching; George Salvaterra, who was Penn State’s head athletic trainer for football for 27 years, was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award in Athletic Training; Ron Bracken, who covered Penn State football for 40 years at the Centre Daily Times, received the Fran Fisher Media Award, given for lifetime achievement in journalism and media; Ed Conklin was recognized with the Lifetime Achievement Award in Officiating.
Bishop Guilfoyle’s Sam McCloskey received the Joe Sarra Community Service Award.
Hartings, who was the featured speaker, looked back on his football career.
He was a Notre Dame fan growing up in Ohio and helped lead St. Henry High School to a state championship his senior season. He chose to play at Penn State, where he’d get the chance to play for coach Joe Paterno at a program that felt like family.
“I came to Penn State to have an opportunity to win a national championship and an opportunity to go to the NFL,” Hartings said at a press conference before the banquet. “And to be honest with you, when I came here, there were chicken houses next to where we were gonna live and I grew up on a chicken farm so maybe that gave a little comfort.”
Hartings was a member of the 1994 Penn State team that went 12-0 and won the Rose Bowl. Hartings was then drafted in the first round of the 1996 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions.
It was his dream to play in the NFL, and he helped the Pittsburgh Steelers win Super Bowl XL in 2006.
But his career also affected his life at home as he said football consumed his thoughts during each season.
“In 2006, I probably wasn’t even a man really,” Hartings said during his speech. “I was a father, probably not a very good one. I was a husband, not a very good one. I don’t know about you guys. Being a father of eight children is definitely more challenging than being a father of probably just two, but it’s still very challenging. Being a husband, we all know, it’s very challenging.”
That’s why he started to think about what it meant to be a man when his career was over.
He spoke about what he learned after his football career, saying it means to be responsible, respectful and thankful while “leading courageously.”
Hartings recalled a moment at training camp in 2001 when Steelers coach Bill Cowher addressed the team.
He told the players it was a privilege to play in the NFL and they have a lot of people to be thankful for.
“The thought that came into my mind and — I’m ashamed to say it, I was 30 years old — thinking who do I got to be thankful for?” Hartings said. “I worked my butt off to get into this place, to sit in this chair. That’s what I mean like you evolve as a person and understand that you don’t go anywhere without the help of a lot of people. That was a very humbling experience for me to walk out of there and realize that I thought that to myself.”
Hartings believes those lessons can be learned through football and remains an advocate of the game despite the health risks.
“I wouldn’t change anything,” Hartings said before the banquet. “I wouldn’t be retiring early. I feel like I might go to the grocery store and forget something, but is that because I had a concussion? I don’t know. But I know football has provided me a great lifetime of experiences and it’s still providing me a lot of comfort with my family.”
And he reiterated that belief during his speech, saying he encourages his kids to play football.
“My prayer for you guys is that you get to play football for as long as you can,” Hartings said. “It is an unbelievable experience.”