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Northwestern fullback deals with cancer, death of mom

August 28, 1997

EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) _ Matt Hartl knew he’d play football again. After all, one of his best coaches _ his mom _ had guided him through an experience that no game could ever match.

He had fought for extra yards and threw big blocks as the starting fullback on Northwestern’s 1995 miracle team, helping the Wildcats to a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl appearance.

Then, a year ago, everything changed: Doctors discovered a tumor in his chest. At age 20, he was fighting for his life against Hodgkin’s disease. He began chemotherapy and radiation therapy, endured nausea, melancholy and hair loss, and lost 40 pounds from his muscular 235-pound frame.

He needed advice, direction and guidance. And it was just a phone call away. His mother, Eleanor Hartl, had battled the same cancer more than two decades earlier.

``She was the only one I really looked to for advice because she’d been through it,″ Hartl remembers. ``And if anybody else would tell me how I was feeling, I’d go, `How the hell do you know?‴

Hartl was right about playing football again. He was in the starting lineup for last Saturday’s 24-0 season-opening victory over Oklahoma. He caught a pass for a 13-yard gain.

In a way, it was his biggest victory ever. But his mother wasn’t there to see it.

She died in May at age 45, her heart fatally weakened by the radiation treatments that helped cure her cancer years ago. She died just as her son’s cancer went into remission and he began to regain his strength.

She left her son with a different approach to life, to football, to just about everything he undertakes.

``I don’t think I take anything for granted anymore. I used to take a lot of things for granted, playing football and putting pads on and being able to go out and play,″ he said.

``As you can see, it’s not like that. Any given moment, things can be taken away from you.″

When Hartl took the field against Oklahoma, nearly 40 relatives were in the stands sporting ``I’m back″ T-shirts. His father, Bill, was in tears.

His team kept oxygen available on the sidelines, since Hartl still has difficulty breathing. A nerve controlling his diaphragm was damaged by the tumor, restricting the function of one lung.

He got winded a couple of times and left the game when needed. Just being on the field was something he won’t forget.

``It was overwhelming,″ he said. ``I was just excited to be out there again.″

And as he played, his mom was on his mind.

``I think about her all the time,″ he said.

It’s almost exactly a year since Hartl began experiencing shortness of breath and heart palpitations after preseason workouts. Tests revealed the tumor in his chest.

Eleanor Hartl insisted that her son maintain as normal a life as possible while undergoing treatment, staying in Evanston and attending classes instead of returning home to Denver.

``She didn’t want him to drop out. She knew the pain wouldn’t last forever,″ Bill Hartl said.

``He called her daily to talk to her about the stuff he was going through with the cancer she had gone through 26 years before.″

Matt’s sister, Beth, said there was more to the bond than a shared disease.

``They had the same personality, too,″ she said. ``Pretty stubborn and real fighters.″

After three months of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation, Hartl’s tumor had shrunk to the size of a pea, so small that doctors figured it was just scar tissue. He will have to be examined and take blood tests periodically. But those are minor inconveniences after what he’s been through.

Hartl’s football family has been there for him, too. They marvel at how he’s handled the last 12 months.

``You start with the chemo, and it was such a tough deal on him. And then radiation and you have to wonder if he’s going to be able to come back,″ said Northwestern running backs coach John Wristen.

``There have been so many downs, but he’s just been able to climb that mountain back up. He’s gone through so many emotions ... and yet he’s able to keep an even keel.″

The 21-year-old Hartl has a mature look about him. Maybe it’s the goatee; maybe it’s what he’s endured. He measures what he says and speaks thoughtfully.

``When you have this happen to you, you do mature,″ Northwestern coach Gary Barnett said. ``Most of us don’t go through in a lifetime what he’s gone through in one year.″

Senior receiver Brian Musso said Hartl is an inspiration to every player on the team just by being on the field.

``I don’t think we can really understand,″ Musso said. ``But to see him out there again with his burning desire and passion to play football again, it makes you appreciate how lucky you are.″

End Adv for weekend editions, Aug. 30-31

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