The quarterback who comes under center Friday night at Truist Field might not be one you recognize, but don’t be alarmed. He’s still Sam Hartman, but he’s not the same Sam Hartman who walked off the field in 2020 flustered and fuming, having just thrown four interceptions in the Demon Deacons bowl game loss after compiling a combined seven across his past two seasons. This Sam has an air of confidence about him, a mental fortitude one can’t attain through any number of broken tackles or perfect spirals. So, what’s changed?
“I started going to therapy,” Sam said. “Therapy is good.”
A redshirt junior, the quarterback’s been around the game long enough to know exactly what excellence demands — weights, practice, film, repeat — but therapy was never a part of that equation. Until now.
Frustrations abound down the stretch of the Deacon’s 2020 campaign — injuries to key players and COVID-19-induced hiatuses, among others. Though beyond the quarterback’s control, these challenges were so valuable because they illuminated exactly that: you can only control so much.
“[I’m coming to realize] that life isn’t going to be perfect,” Hartman said. “There are those ups you see on Saturdays, but there’s a lot of downs, too.”
He continued: “People look at my life and say, ‘It must be nice, it must be easy,’ but honestly it’s not. What I go through is hard. I see it on social media — classmates making fun on Yik Yak — it’s not fun.”
The old Sam would have laughed the comments off, chalked them up to nothing. That’s what we’d expect from him — the 21st best quarterback in the nation according to Pro Football Focus — right?
“I used to say, ‘No, it doesn’t bother me, I’m a big macho man.’ But it does, it affects me,” Hartman said.
Through the nearly 20 sessions he’s attended to date, therapy is teaching Sam a better approach.
“I take it for what it is. I breathe. I let it go,” he said.
Hartman is no stranger to the stigmas surrounding sports and mental health. He’s well aware of the experiences of Naomi Osaka at the French Open, and more recently, Simone Biles at the Tokyo Olympics. But by no means was deciding to attend therapy sessions on a regular basis a spur of the moment decision or an attempt to fit a trend.
No, Hartman is not dedicating time and energy towards his mental health for the optics — he’s doing it for himself, and for the guys that line up beside him, too.
“I’ve taken it upon myself to get better for the team,” he said.
Hartman continued: “When I’m in competition and things go wrong, I would tend to bottle everything up — in my therapy we call it jail — I put myself in jail. My coaches and teammates noticed that, that I wouldn’t communicate or be as energetic. But people feed off me and my energy, so one of the biggest things I’ve been working on is [understanding] when I’m putting myself in jail and being able to work out of that.”
In the heat of the moment, it’s easier said than done.
“Being able to take a step back … it’s hard,” he said. “Coach Clawson and Coach Ruggiero and my teammates, too, they can tell me when I’m going to that place and help me get out of there.”
Now that the Demon Deacon’s opening matchup is just days away, a new challenge awaits QB1. He’s spent months applying these lessons from therapy sessions to his work on the practice field, but when Old Dominion’s defenders approach the line on Friday night, it’ll be another game entirely. Moreover, beyond their Week 1 matchup, the expectations for Wake Forest Football in 2021 are as high as ever. No one shoulders more of that than Hartman.
But, our quarterback has never been prepared like this before, either.
“Water always finds its level,” Sam said. “You’re gonna’ have ups, you’re gonna’ have downs, but it’s about learning from the mistakes, understanding yourself, your inner-self, and having [that confidence] to know it’s going to be okay.”