It was 28-28 with almost no time left in the fourth quarter. Brett Favre was driving the Minnesota Vikings down the field, closing in on a winning field goal, when the New Orleans Saints made a key interception.

But to win the NFC title and punch their ticket to Super Bowl XLIV in Miami, the Saints would need another hero.

That January night nine years ago, Garrett Hartley was that hero, nailing a game-clinching field goal in overtime that eventually sent New Orleans on to its first major sports championship.

Sometimes, delivering in such a crucial moment leads to a lengthy, lucrative career. Think kickers Adam Vinatieri or Jason Elam, who have both helped teams win Super Bowls with clutch performances.

Other times, the hero kicker captures a brief moment of glory, only to have a small, inexplicable rise in misses bring their career to a quick end.

That's what happened to Hartley.

Within a few seasons, he lost his spot with the Saints — his last full-time NFL job. Soon afterward, his newborn daughter died, and her mother nearly died as well.

He later needed neck surgery to avoid paralysis, but he has since settled into a job in medical sales.

As the Saints make their return to the NFC title game Sunday, Hartley, now 32, said he knows things could be worse.

Still, for someone to reach the heights he has can be dizzying. And if it weren’t for two friends he made along the way, it might have been too much.

“Just like anyone else, there’s things you would like to change,” said Hartley, who plans to be there when his former team clashes with the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday.

“But at the same time, I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t gone through the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows. Being knocked down and being able to stand up to face yourself in the mirror is the most important thing.”

Short in stature but taut in physique, the blue-eyed Texas native first made a name for himself in high school, setting a state record for extra points made. He played his college ball at Oklahoma University before entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2008, when the Saints signed him midyear to replace a struggling kicker.

He made all of his 13 field goals as a rookie, but in 2009 he was sidelined for most of the Saints’ historic campaign, in part because he was suspended for using the banned stimulant Adderall.

Veteran John Carney, then 45, handled the Saints’ kicking duties for the first 11 games. But Hartley, then 23, came in for the rest of the season, the Saints favoring his stronger leg over Carney’s experience.

The Saints kept Carney around to help Hartley — a decision, Hartley says, that proved pivotal late in the fourth quarter of the NFC title game at the Superdome.

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'Down to you'

The night before the big game, Hartley remembers a dream that shook him from his sleep: a football field, the ball near the 40-yard line; Hartley kicks and it sails through the uprights.

He called his father and told him about his vision before he could doze off again.

Yet, as regulation time ended and Minnesota was almost within Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell’s range, his dream didn't appear prophetic.

On the sideline, Carney noticed Hartley was watching the action. The mentor approached, told Hartley to grab his helmet, and had him start kicking into the practice net.

“It’s going to come down to Longwell or you,” Carney recalled telling Hartley. “We need to prepare for that.”

Carney then flooded Hartley with pointers about technique and tempo. He didn’t want him thinking about what was on the line: ending more than four decades of misery for the Saints, whose city had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina less than five years earlier.

Carney was right, of course. Tracy Porter intercepted Favre — and in sudden-death overtime, the Saints set Hartley up for a try on the right hash mark from 40 yards out.

Hartley had never heard the Superdome quieter than when he lined up and drove his foot through the ball. Many believe it’s never been louder than when the ball glided through the uprights.

Two weeks later, against the Indianapolis Colts, Hartley became the first player to kick three field goals of 40 yards or more in the league’s championship game, and New Orleans, at last, "partied with the Lombardi."

After that, Hartley was a hero. Strangers would approach, reveal themselves as Who Dats and recount how he had made them, their spouses, or their children weep with joy.

‘The past’

One of those eternally grateful Who Dats was Josh Galt, and little did he know he would one day speak words to Hartley that became as meaningful as Carney’s.

Galt’s wife Ashton met Hartley, an avid outsdoorsman, when they were both roaming Puglia’s sporting goods store in Metairie.

Ashton Galt found out that Hartley knew few locals who hunted or fished at his level. So she put him in touch with Josh in case he ever wanted company.

The pair became fast friends and ended up becoming neighbors in a subdivision in Belle Chasse. Hartley was there when Galt's mother died a few years later, taking the day off from practice so he could be at his friend's side for the funeral. Galt would soon be there for Hartley.

In 2010, Hartley was benched for a time. He missed 2011 with an injury. He had a solid 2012 campaign, when the Saints missed out on a fourth straight trip to the playoffs in the wake of the so-called bounty scandal.

He looked to be in control for the start of 2013, when the Saints ultimately returned to the postseason. But things started to get dicey for him when he missed four kicks during a three-game stretch in the middle of the season.

Then, in week 15 against the then-St. Louis Rams, Hartley had a kick blocked and was wide on another from chip-shot range. 

Two days after the Rams game, coach Sean Payton summoned Hartley to his office. Payton told Hartley he would forever own a stake in the Saints' championship and had etched his name in New Orleans history.

Hartley would get another chance to kick, Payton said — it just wouldn’t be in New Orleans. Payton cut him and replaced him for the playoff run.

Hartley had dreaded the meeting. He asked Galt to be at his house when he returned from the Saints facility.

When Hartley made it home, Galt dug deep for the right words, as Carney once did on a much happier night.

"Nothing in life is guaranteed," Galt told him. "It’s not about how hard you get hit but how hard you hit back. If you want to kick, keep kicking."

That day was painful, but nothing compared to what came next. The following autumn, Hartley called Galt in a panic. Something was wrong with his girlfriend, who was seven months pregnant with their child.

Galt rushed to Hartley’s home and found her unresponsive. He called paramedics, who took her to a hospital to undergo an emergency C-section.

The couple's daughter died that day.

Doctors prepared Hartley for the likelihood that his girlfriend would die as well. The stressful seconds, minutes, hours of waiting were tougher than those before any kick.

She survived.

Hartley had to eulogize his baby. During that time, Carney's voice was in his ear, counseling him.

“Be safe. Make good decisions. Be patient — God has plans for us, and we don’t always understand them, but we have to move forward with faith,” Carney would tell him. “In due time, you’ll enjoy the good times that are around the corner.”

After his girlfriend had recovered, Hartley and Galt went hunting.

“You can’t change the past,” Galt told his friend. “All you can do is prepare for the future, and be ready to capitalize on it.”

‘Looking forward’

That hunting trip had barely started when Hartley received a phone call from the Cleveland Browns, who wanted him to try out.

Galt drove Hartley to the airport and put him on a plane to Cleveland. Galt's wife found Hartley's cleats and sent them up to the Browns' facility. Hartley picked them up at the front desk.

Hartley impressed the team, and the Browns signed him.

In Cleveland’s final three games that year, he connected on all three of his field-goal attempts — two of the tries came less than 48 hours after his eulogy for his child.

But after participating in offseason workouts with the Browns, the team cut him. The Pittsburgh Steelers invited him to their preseason training camp, and he nailed four kicks in exhibition games. However, he tore his hamstring in the preseason finale.

To this day, Hartley said, he will hold his resumé up against anybody’s. His career field-goal accuracy rate is nearly 82 percent — in the top fourth of kickers who qualify for the NFL's all-time leaderboard.

He was perfect on all eight of his postseason attempts and went 4-for-4 in the two biggest games of his life.

Hartley hasn’t officially retired and continues to stay in playing shape. In itself, that’s an achievement. After he realized his legs would suddenly start feeling numb, doctors determined a herniated disc was causing painful pressure on his spine.

Untreated, it could lead to paralysis. Hartley said he underwent surgery in May and now has an artificial disc in his neck.

He has rehabbed and still hopes to stage a comeback.

But he realizes his career may be over.

He hasn’t gotten the chance to kick in a regular-season game since his brief stint in Cleveland, and now he has a California-based job selling medical equipment to assist hip- and knee-replacement patients.

He said he enjoys the work because he knows firsthand how injuries can throw somebody's life out of balance. And if his future reality is in a white-collar career, he is confident the experience he’s accumulated on his journey will serve him well.

“I’m just so blessed for the opportunities I’ve had, and I’m looking forward to the opportunities I’ll have,” Hartley said.

A recent one had him and several of his fellow Super Bowl champions leading the pre-game "Who Dat" chant before the Saints beat the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday.

Galt and his young son, Tucker, were with their dear family friend that afternoon when Hartley met a fan wearing a Hartley No. 5 jersey. Hartley signed the boy’s jersey, exchanged a hug with him, and realized his night had been made.

Hartley holds no ill will toward the Rams, he says, his last opponent as a Saint. Yet he’d love for one of New Orleans’ current stars to become the city's next hero at their expense.

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

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