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Life without football is next for Butler grad Hartung

| Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013, 6:05 p.m.
Nate Hartung (64) spent two seasons at Winston-Salem State, completing a lengthy football journey for the 27-year-old Butler High School graduate.
Nate Hartung (64) spent two seasons at Winston-Salem State, completing a lengthy football journey for the 27-year-old Butler High School graduate.
Nate Hartung
Nate Hartung

Nate Hartung's football playing odyssey might be over, but he's looking forward to his life journey continuing.

Hartung, a 2005 Butler graduate, wrapped up his college football career at Winston-Salem State, an NCAA Division-II power. And what an adventure it was for the 27-year-old guard.

“I have learned to endure,” he said. “There's very little left to surprise me. I have definitely gained a wealth of experience.”

At 6-foot-3 and 375 pounds by the end of his senior year with the Golden Tornado, Hartung was a highly recruited lineman and played in the Big 33 Classic. Instead of heading directly to college, Hartung, a Mormon, elected to fulfill his two-year mission requirement. He headed across the globe to New Zealand.

“That was an excellent assignment. I enjoyed it. It benefited me as a human being,” he said. “I expected that to be a stepping stone to coming back and having a good career. I can't imagine if I hadn't done that. I am thankful for that opportunity.”

When he returned home in October 2007, Hartung had an opportunity to join the Brigham Young football program, where he redshirted in 2008.

“It was a fun experience, but I crippled my lower back really bad during that year. I was out for six months and couldn't work out or anything,” Hartung said. “I came back (in 2009) and was weak. I had fallen too far behind. When I played, I was so far behind.”

Hartung transferred to Eastern Arizona College, a junior college with a strong football program.

“I went there and thought I'd be one (year) and done and I'd play somewhere else with three years of eligibility left,” he said. “I broke my right ankle in the first game. It wasn't going to get worse or better. I tolerated the pain and played the next 10 or 11 games. I had surgery after the season and it went well.”

The Monsters finished ranked 14th in the final 2009 NJCAA poll. The next year, the squad wound up 20th. Hartung concluded 2010 as a first-team NJCAA Football All-American.

“My weight was high after surgery, though, and I hurt my back,” he said. “I was 400 pounds with a hurt back. I was too big and too hurt. No one wanted to take me. I couldn't find a spot (with another program).”

Thinking his football career was over, Hartung returned to Butler and went to work in a steel mill.

“It was a terrible year, but I enjoyed the people I worked with,” he said. “I was probably the only JUCO All-American sitting at home.”

With his health improved, Hartung wanted another shot at playing college football. He had two years of eligibility remaining and programs were interested, but leery. His coaches at Eastern Arizona helped him get a scholarship to Winston-Salem State.

With Hartung anchoring the line, Winston-Salem advanced to the 2012 NCAA D-II national championship game, but dropped a 35-7 decision to Valdosta State. Again, injuries caught up with Hartung, who earned all-conference honors.

“In Week 6, a player rolled up on my leg and broke my ankle,” he said “I kept playing and still had a decent year.”

Hartung underwent offseason surgery on the ankle. An infection in the ankle forced him to miss the Rams' first three games this fall.

“When I run, it's bone on bone. It made for a pretty minimal practice schedule and a very painful game experience,” Hartung said. “We did the best we could with a rough hand. Doctors tell me I am a candidate for ankle replacement surgery. They can't believe I was able to play on it.”

Nevertheless, he helped Winston-Salem reach the NCAA D-II tournament again. The Rams beat Slippery Rock, 27-20, but were eliminated by Shepherd, 7-0.

“By the time we reached that playoff game, there wasn't much left,” he said. “I like playing. I wish it was different. I wish I could have done a better job for my team, but we did what we could.”

Hartung will graduate in May with a degree in history. That'll be around the one-year anniversary for Hartung and his wife, Michelle. They are not sure where they'll go after that.

“We're both working and surviving,” he said. “Some people have tried to talk me into coaching. I am thinking I'd like to work for a little while and try to get in the business world. I'd like to get my MBA, too. I've been a football player for so long, I am learning where I belong. I want to graduate and figure out how to live a real life.”

Joe Sager is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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