The first time that I met Justin Hartwig was in the spring of two-thousand six. His best friend from high school and proclaimed “blood brother” had been recording music for an acoustic hip hop group I helped found in Washington DC, www.myspace.com/something2ponder
Through our mutual affinity for all things hip hop, crazy beats and ripe entrepreneurial genes we’d become fast friends. I remember it was the first day (Saturday) day of the 2006 NFL draft, Ujival a massive six five Indian from Iowa had mentioned he had a friend in the NFL arriving in town Friday staying through the weekend.
“You want to meet the starting center for the caROLINA Panthers?” Ujival carried a natural excitement for many things evidently his childhood best friend now starting in the NFL was no exception.
“Are you fucking kidding me?! Come over!” That day you see my roommate and I happened to be having an NFL draft party at our self proclaimed apartment known only as the sky bar. Ujival again was tickled with excitement from the suggestion of an NFL draft party he could roll through with Justin Hartwig, “yeah Eastide, whose going to be there?” I humbly admitted, “just us and Budweiser, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a party.”
And so it began.
The first time I saw Justin Hartwig he carried the surreal glow of anyone that size looking down on a world he’d outworked. He donned a Ride Inc tailor made T, baggy shorts and brand new air force ones emblazoned with J. Wig on the back. My first thought of course was,
This guy could kill my entire family with one hand
And my second thought,
Followed finally by,
I’m so lame
All in a matter of three seconds. “Eastide!” Ujival proclaimed loudly his own nickname he’d come up with for me, excited for the days events.
I jumped into his arms. After being placed back on my own two, “Yo, this is Justin East.”
“Nice to meet you man, heard allot about you.”
“nice to meet you, heard allot about you too.” I froze. I was expecting him to sound like Randy mach man Savage but instead he sounded like a smoothed out pilot gliding at 25 thousand feet like it was Monday.
He was six five, three hundred pounds and at twenty seven in the very prime of his career.
That afternoon he’d be the ultimate in cool, pounding beers he allowed me to be the little kid I have trouble straying from and ask an assortment of questions in conjunction with a hundred inquiries to his life, career and what it was like playing football in the fucking national Football League.
“That was crazy.” I’d tell my roommate (also named Justin) after they had finally left, properly marinated, a half dozen hours later. For myself and my sports crazed roommate also from Boston, we called all of our boys back home and afar and told of our endeavor simultaneously updating our myspace and Face Book accounts.
We just watched the NFL draft at our apartment with the starting center of the Carolina Panthers, we sat drinking Bud’s with him when they drafted a running back in the first round, he was jacked and I ran into a wall headfirst. Partly out of effect, partly out of a never ending need for attention but mostly I was pumped that Justin was pumped. A running back! At least it wasn’t a center right? He’d break down the team, it’s needs, strengths, management And weaknesses. In the American era of fantasy football my roommate Justin sat taking NOTES as my ADD vanished.
This dude was the shit.
“Peace.” And so it began
During my afternoon with Justin Hartwig we had discussed many things and within the vortex of our conversations I had mentioned the project I would begin that winter shooting, my first fray into the documentary film making world and the material was my renowned high school basketball program. A program that gave me confidence, I wouldn’t soon forget, this project was evident. Ujival who through our traverses now worked at the same brokerage firm as me, the next day we had lunch. I was psyched when he said, “Justin really liked you man, he said you were entertaining.” A got a semi, before he added, “He mentioned a bunch of times how cool it was that you were doing a documentary on your high school basketball program.” I went full wood. Through the world of myspace and the internet I’d stay in loose touch with Justin Hartwig. The fall was fast approaching and soon he’d be “in season.” I thought I wouldn’t see him for at least another year, and then as life’s twists and turns would dictate, he was back in Arlington Virginia for dinner with us. The entire time between then and the draft party at our apartment I’d become fascinated with Justin Hartwig, his tone was so unassuming, his vocabulary rock solid, his insight, professional and uncanny, he had basically ripped the seams off what NFL linemen were really like? The wheels were turning. It seemed to me, my stereotype was based on division three linemen in Milton MA eating light bulb’s on a dare after suffering a 53-goose egg knock out, not the grounded demeanor of the great NFL linemen. I began to think how little I knew about the offensive line, the guts and trenches of a sport famous for its barbarian traits and self sacrifice.
These were the guys.
Ujival like Nick from Gatsby would narrate and answer all of my questions, then and now, and it sprinted away with itself, Justin was not all state, Justin was not offered D1 scholarships in his home state, he was a true underdog.
Such a nice kid.
By the time the fourth week of the 2006 NFL season was underway circumstances had changed drastically from the cherry filled optimism he carried with him into the sky bar that day. On that day the ink was barely dry on Justin‘s twenty two million dollar deal orchestrated by none other than Drew Rosenhaus. He’d left the TN Titans where he’d made his mark snapping four consecutive seasons for all pro Steve Mcnair. (go through what happened with the Titans, the whole story, similar to ultimate left guard)
The story tells itself, an only child growing up in middle of the roads America with two hard working parents. His dad, a former college football player who once had a invitation as a player to Vikings training camp shared a simple truth. He bought him a bench press. And much like Dr. Dre’s mother at thirteen buying him turntables, it was a sacrifice, weight sets like turntables were expensive. But Craig saw this as an investment, I’m sure the latter aforementioned parent believed as such.
He put it in the garage and in plain English shared his best lesson he learned from the success of his playing days.. Hard work, a timeless and very American antidote that pervades all walks of profession makes the difference. Far from the NFL Craig pointed to the newly purchased bench and free weights and asked , “do you want to pay for college.” I’m sure he mentioned the expense. I’m sure he mentioned money unfortunately, money made the world money go round and this was a way to help make things easier.
Craig would be a powerful ally guide and fan to his ambitious son. Justin played every sport every season, his father had always been his biggest fan. He attended every game he ever played whether it was little league, youth basketball or pop Warner football. He would work out and together I’d imagine over those many years would discuss and dissect the fine points in the art of run blocking verse zone blocking. The game, the wear, tear, helpful tid bits and I’m sure amazing dad stories to his young son over things he had witnessed formulated his young football education. He played big time high school Iowa football. America’s meat packing district for large milk drinking farm boys that for years have a hallowed place in the O lines of such mid west factories like run happy Nebraska, Oklahoma and of course Iowa. Justin’s high school team would compete annually for state title’s and highest honors but never in his time did they capture their pre season goal, they had always fallen short.
Years later the high school would go on a state title rampage and become unquestionably the states leading power house for a class D. high school football. Success had a way of following Justin every place he left.
In his senior year he’d fall short of all state honors. And now as a senior, a senior that had paid the price, worked as hard as he possibly could, the scholarship offers were just not there. His biggest fan and also dad tells the story of waking up at thre AM to be at the Des Moines paper’s headquarters to get the first batch of daily papers hot off the press. He’d anticipated that his son Justin was a no brainer first team, having started for three years at one of the states best programs. But he had been overlooked, and with the that, state colleges Iowa and Iowa state turned their back on him. A natural dream of putting those hours in the weight room was for someday to play for Iowa, the buckeyes, your home state, Be like Bobby from can’t buy me love, the college football star at Iowa playing out his dreams..
He received mail from Division two schools, but did have a d1 lifeline in the form of Northern Iowa. A smaller D1 program where Kurt Warner played in did stuff of local legend. Those coaches at Northern Iowa had seen the potential in Justin. And when the Northern Iowa guys jumped to Kansas Justin’s senior year, they came out of nowhere and made the offer. Justin signed. D1, next state over, he had made it.
Well Justin had played at Kansas during some of the more storied basketball seasons in Jayhawks folklore unfortunately the same couldn’t be said of his football days there. Justin had red shirted, playing five years for mostly five hundred football teams. He like many college graduates has great pride for his school and the time he spent there. His teammates from college appear in our footage several TIMES, AND AS SPORT SHOULD ESPECIALLY ON THE COILLIEGATE LEVEL INSPIRE LIFE LONG FRIENDSHIPS.
As a college basketball player (D3 Curry College) and football fan it was amazing for me to see his college helmet and Jayhawk emblem in his game room the first time I visited him in Carolina. Kansas! It’s Big 12 and so many never even make it to a small college level.
Justin’s story before the NFL going way back, a poignant piece of the story has to do with the father / son element. One thing that comes across with Justin as you meet, see and watch the footage is this idea of good mid west values. He’s not going to pay eight hundred dollars for sunglasses, which he didn’t in LA, even as his best friend in the NFL Jacob Bell paid $1200. He just couldn’t do it, he was always the underdog and hard worker, through his hard work and upbringing he has a real sense of value. On a very human level, Wig didn’t come from a ton of money, he grew up, and wasn’t a rich kid, wasn’t the most popular, wasn’t some athlete with god given talent that the world bows down to, no, no, no, far from it. His friends, we’re a but goofy, Justin was never the main stream, good-looking pussy crushing beast we know today.
Justin’s story in football starts with his father Craig. Craig was from MN, where he met his wife and Justin’s mother Lori. Craig worked hard, and passed that on to his son. Craig’s father was an abusive alcoholic and often strike his mother. Craig worked hard, he played his way to a football scholarship, it wasn’t big time college football but he did have a try out with the Vikings, who ultimately cut him.
He settled in Iowa, married Lori, and they gave birth to Justin. Talk about dreams of your father. Craig was a sales man, Justin an only child and I’m not quite sure what the mom did, just know that she as well would battle the bottle, causing in the separation from Craig and fueling some major beef from Justin for quite sometime, culminating in Justin, after he had made it to the NFL, that he would have to walk away from her if she couldn’t shake the suds. Lori shared this with me on the sprawling deck of Justin’s colossal mansion in Piper Glenn Carolina after striking it rich via Drew Rosenhaus putting together another monster deal for his client who’d jettisoned from Tennessee Titans where he first made a name for himself in the “league.”
I didn’t film this conversation, but it was poignant in nature as the mom sucked down cigarettes explaining how Justin had essentially saved her, even being so many years her younger. She has remained sober, re-married and is now content to chain smoke.
Invariably growing up Justin as an only child received much attention from both of his parents. Craig especially, he never missed one game, little league, basketball and of course football where his was a zealot when it came to Justin’s career but did it was tact, was as supportive as a dad could be without being crazy, without pu8nching out other parents without the equation of your sons sports career making you nuts and doling out added pressure making your dreams deferred your lot manifest to your son. It happens all the time but that wasn’t Craig.
Where it all started. 9th Grade. The summer before Justin’s first year in high school, west des Moines, big time high school football in Iowa. Craig had saved enough pennies to buy Justin his own weight set, and throughout stories as such weather it’s Dr Dre’s mother buying him a turn table in his early teens, the only kid around him that had something like that, or Tony Hawk discovering drained swimming pools to trick out into skating bowled half pipes, Craig, essential for his craft bought him a free weight set. And to further Craig’s assist Justin’s dad had sent away to the U. of Nebraska football coach and was sent their workout regime.
Craig explained to Justin quite simply, that was a bench set, he could either hit that harder than anyone in West Des Moines for the next four years and have your college paid for or go through the motions, did what’s expected as opposed to what’s not, and spend an entire life paying back college loans stifling your chances of financial solvency from a middle class income where bulls for always fodder for disagreement and through which an appreciation for the dollar was born. College Scholarship, D2, D1, that was all, the NFL NEVER entered into this conversation.
And with Nebraska’s conditioning program and a full weight set at the crib, so it began. Now West Des Moines High school has since in the last decade become the dominant dynasty in big time D1 Iowa high school football netting a half dozen state title over the decade since Justin graduated. In Justin’s years a state title was never in the cards, and while they were good, they were not great, they were a far cry from the success that followed his departure.
Success following Justin is a theme that follows him each and every place he leaves, always falling just short. However in his footsteps places erupt. His next stop, Kansas Jayhawks of the Big 12 was no exception. And how he arrived at Kansas is a story unto itself as well. Justin was never all state not as a junior, not as a senior. You’d think these slights would motivate him, I think they did. As a senior, his dad went to the paper plant, the day they printed their all-state selections. Craig, his dad and biggest fan, was disappointed grabbing that first edition before it even hit the Des Moines street to find out Justin was second team all state. It’s a safe assumption to make the entire all state roster from Justin’s senior year, not one of them made it to the league. For all the scouting, thought and money that goes into the many tools of deployment that surround big time college football Justin had fallen off everyone’s radar.
Both Iowa and Iowa state were not interested. Justin like any kid growing up playing football in Iowa had dreamed of playing football at Iowa, the buckeyes, Iowa state was a safety, the runner up, the fact that both schools fell on deaf ears when it came to the recruitment of Justin Hartwig was a slight.
During the first season of filming Justin for the documentary the Kansas Jayhawks had won a national title on the basketball court, and their football program, no longer the Rodney Dangerfield of the Big 12, had transmogrified into a national powerhouse. Our cameras followed Justin to the Orange Bowl, to watch Kansas take on (?). His super agent Drew Rosenhaus who makes his residence and made his mark in Miami was on hand. Drew Rosenhaus rise to fame was pretty simple when you think about it. He monopolized the kids coming at of the NFL from U. of Miami. Miami, weather or not they have been successful on the field over the past decade; you can’t argue the fact that they have had more NFL first round selections than any other school in the nation. Rosenhaus works hard for his client’s. First his high school and now his Kansas had exploded with success. (also discuss the discus at Kansas and being a captain in his senior year. Discus story goes back to high school and was a good one)
During our first meeting I peppered Justin with questions. I remember asking him very excited, just over the nature of the question, “do you remember where you were when you got drafted?” And instantaneously he smiled and in a real down to earth mid west confident way he chimed proudly, “I was in my dorm room, on the sixth floor in Lawrence Kansas.” Wow. To be drafted in the NFL, and for me those thoughts that everyone that tried and almost always never achieve sport on the professional level, those thoughts of the time, the dedication, those coaches, the voices, the pain, the dream, wow. What a minute, being the storyteller myself, I had goose bumps just hearing it. His diminutive smile and the humbled yet proud nature he encompassed saying it so fresh like it just happened the other day, it was amazing, I fell in love with the guy.
See I’d met Justin or has his agent Just-O calls him at the absolute crossroads of his professional career. It appeared to be the twilight of his career and there was a vast amount of uncertainty and heightened expectation. He was unsure of his body and was under the radar attempting to come back from an injury that no offensive linemen had ever come back from. Under the weight of a gigantic contract he signed just one year before and after missing almost the entire season his young career was in jeopardy. With the average NFL lifespan shorter than a few years careers in this most popular league in America are typically short. But before we get to all of that, let me take you back to Tennessee, the Titans formerly the Oilers, where he was first drafted and shot to stardom. The NFL: beginnings before our cameras started rolling our some of the best stories he had (until we get to Pittsburgh). But those first seasons, the come up, how you got so big (NO PUN INTENHEDED) ARE always the most distinct for anyone. The end the pain, the gain, the why the who are all intangible elements that envelope any story worth telling, but the rise, when things really start popping off to me is always the stupid dope illmatic hot shit.
Unlike his college and high school teams Justin joined the Titans the year after they’d fallen literally at the buzzer to the Rams at the Georgia Dome XXXIV. By the time of Justin Hartwig’s arrival as a sixth round career underdog, the Titans were already on the map. Steve McNair was a star and if it wasn’t for that one half an inch at the buzzer, Justin would’ve entered the league playing for the Super Bowl champions. The Titans to this day have never been back to the Super Bowl, you enjoy it when it comes cause as any seasoned veteran will tell you, you never know if you’ll ever get back. But TN was a young organization and Nashville point blank was a fun city to be a rookie professional football player in.
IN HIS ROOKIE YEAR, JUSTIN SPOENT NEARLY THE ENTIRE SEASON INACTIVE MAKING THE LEAGUE MINIMUM. He played in the last three games of the season primarily on special teams, the true mark of a late drafted rookie in the NFL. Special teams, talk to some players that make their living primarily on special teams cause the can’t crack a starting gig, and it’s hell. In TN there was a real sense of camaraderie, he had friends , good friends on the team even as a rookie, they hung out, trusted and generally had a great time together. And for Justin, things in TN were only going to get better. Like sliding doors, or Wally Pipp (great reference), Justin would soon get the chance of a lifetime, an opportunity would surface early in his second season that would change the course of his entire career, and life.
(commercial break. Hahahaha).
Early in his second year with the Titans an injury happened to their then starting center (name) and in a weird numbers game his number was called to play a position he had never played before in his career. And it was here that he’d never look back. Not to mention, the center position is like the point guard, entails much more than any other position on the O-line, you are the shot caller, and you handle the balls and make the calls and lead the men. For Justin although he’d never played center, this was a natural transition, speaking both to his repertoire as an athlete and not just a football player. Also it spoke to his inherent skills as a solid dude and leader.
Justin as a rookie and sixth rounder signed the usual mutli-year contract for low dough. His stint at starter would become permanent. He started almost every game and soon would become a fixture in Tennessee with his scalped head and narrow blond mo hawk. He’d switched agents, blocked for the NFL’s MVP in Steve Mcnair and twice saw through to plow the way for Eddie George in back to back thousand yard seasons. Within this time TN would also make another run at the SB, falling just short in the AFC championship game up in a battle tested snowy New England falling to Tom Brady who was en route to his second of three Super Bowl rings and the building of a modern day NFL dynasty.
Justin would earn the coveted game ball, even in loss for that championship game in New England. It would sit in his game room on one of his mantels the first time I visited his house in Charlotte. He’d tell me a story about Eddie George going up to Ohio State and being big timed by Maurice Claret, whom he’d heard prior was excited to meet him, describing his as his mentor. He’d been in the league long enough and with enough success to fire his home town smaller time Kansas agent for the likes of Drew Rosenhaus. He pimped the mo hawk and was making quite a name for himself as a TN starter under Mcnair’s guidance never experie3nced a losing season.
He’d crafted a style as a technician on the line rather than a brute force. He was never the strongest, never lifted the most, going back to high school, not the cool crowd most popular kid. And in making that career shift to center, he’d found a true mentor in the TN O line coach Mike Munchek. A former Houston Oiler and hall of fame Offensive linemen Munchek was instrumental and bringing out the best in Justin’s drive and ultimately on field performance. Justin would constantly referenced Munchek throughout the project, the teacher that taught him the skills to survive in the NFL. Taught him everything he knows, he speak with the highest of praise for Munchek both as an individual as well as an O line coach.
Also within this time he’d play with the best of teammates for whom he’d have the highest of praise. Benji, other guy that told the great Wig rookie story of him being the spokesman for one game), Zach Pillar, another name and of course Jacob bell. Jacob and Justin would become the best of friends even as their paths in the league diverted. Jacob appears in the documentary almost as a supporting role for the many times throughout the two years of filming that got together and kicked it. And for all of those guys most notably Jacob because we know so much about him, Munchek is the guy that allowed them to quote “blow up” when they eventually left for to die for contracts.
Justin end time in TN is covered in our initial footage right away. He’d watch as the organization handles in extremely poor fashion the end of Steve Mcnair’s days. The famous story of Air Mcnair the face of the franchise and former MVP of the league being locked out of the weight room and being told by a general runoff the mill employee that locks had been changed didn’t settle well with anyone in the organization. And as Justin’s contract came up, Drew finally had a chance to do what he does and Justin got to see it. Instantly he’d talk on film about the difference.
“The guys a beast, he works harder, has more contacts, get’s more offers, his the best at what he does and I’m happy he’s working for me.” And as Justin began to test the exciting free agent waters, offers were being made, Drew was driving his price up, and the Titans sat idle. He loved his time in Nashville, but also with Mcnair’s departure, new offers coming in and Titans not being on top of it, he slipped away. By the time they came back with an honest offer, the damage was done, their timing soured and Justin Hartwig was gone after five seasons with the TN Titans and one AFC championship game ball and start albeit in a losing effort. That game was another snow classic in Foxborough.
It was a bitter sweet ending to his time in TN his teammates he so adored and the city and organization where he’d become a fixture were all being left for the promise of a new start and more money than he ever dreamed possible when he first starting hitting that weight bench his freshman year of high school. He was off to the Carolina Panthers who, just like before he got to TN, were just coming off a super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots. The Panthers were a sound and str4ong organization, Rosenhaus had just made Justin one of the richest O linemen in the game at the time, definitely a top ten contract with a huge signing bonus. Rosenhaus ended up netting Justin a 5 year $20 million contract with a 3 million signing bonus.
In addition to Justin the Panthers also made a further investment in their O line signing pro bowler Mike “the Ultimate Left Guard” Wahle away from the Green Bay Packers for a whopping sum of cash. Expectations in Carolina for both Mike, Justin and the organization could not have been higher. Sporting one of the premier defenses in the “league” Carolina now looked to bolster their O line to compliment their commitment to the running game as well as accentuate Steve Smiths ability to make big plays. At the time of Justin’s ti9me in Carolina Steve Smith stood alone as the best receiver in all of the NFL putting together back to back RIDICULOUS seasons of Sammy Koufax type of statistical swagger. IN addition to their Super Bowl QB Jake Delhome everything pointed to the sky by the time Justin settled in with his then girlfriend Paige into palatial mansion in the something section (Piper Peke) of Carolina. Paige was much younger than Justin, still in college they had met, fallen in love in TN and now with all of the good vibes and tons of money she’d agree to further the journey as they made their way to Carolina and super stardom. All of his experience in TN with his friends, teammates, city and organization were the best of the best, a bit goofy at the end but nothing but well wishes and good vibes when he left, they both had no reason and or indication to think Carolina would be any different. IN fact the purchase of mansion on golf course right across the way from wrestling legend Rick Flair, they had reason to believe the good times were just beginning and about to go serious rock star. The house he was moving into was occupied formerly by NBA analyst and basketball legend Hubie Brown (that right?).
First Season in Carolina.
This is where it gets murky, and the story really evolves, this is still a fresh whole year before I’d met him.
In the spring before turning his new leaf in Carolina, Justin had experienced a hernia. Now I’m no doctor but my understanding is that hernia’s can be very significant injuries. Their precarious nature calls a vigilance surrounding the rehab and work expectations as hernia’s have the potential to create far greater problems if not dealt with properly. I say this only because this is where the best becomes the worst, the unexpected crossroads that for all of us prove the only certainty of life. For in Justin’s second game of his first season with the Panthers he tore his groin. In the meat market known as the NFL an interesting pattern emerges regarding a trainers conflict of injury measured against what’s best for the player vs. what’s best for the organization. It’s quite a pickle when you figure this is the athletic trainer where talking about. The healer, the trainer, diagnosing their vehicles, their bodies, millions of dollars spent on investments do not fall on deaf ears when it comes to research and knowing everything little fact surrounding the players health.
They knew about the hernia. J. Wig as aforementioned came in with a litany of expectations both for himself and the organization as a whole. He got paid the big bucks for the charming Carolina franchise with the tell uniforms and warm weather fans. He had the mansion he bought from Billy Packer and lived across the green from Rick Flair. He was 26 when he signed, the world was his oyster, alls he had to do was simply use the correct dinner fork.
The head coach in Carolina and to this day is John Fox, a Cali guy that paradoxically against the culture from which he was spawned is a throw back hard ass. He was cut from the cloth more of a Bill Parcells (whom he coached for in New York as a secondary coach during one of their Super Bowl victories) than a Pete Caroll. Justin and his new head coach had some front and back similarities with the destinations they’d be and eventually wind up. Coach Fox got his start in collegiate football as the secondary coach for the Kansas Jayhawks, where Justin Hartwig played his collegiate football. Fox would soon jump into the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team and city Justin would eventually earn his true fame in.
Back to Carolina and in just his second game (might have even been the first) he tore his groin. Justin knew something was off. No one knows a person’s body better than that person we should all be pro choice, but Justin had felt something “pop.” John Fox he runs a hard ass training camp, full pads, double bunk, back to reality for the big pampered pros so goes the philosophy, football is a grimy business and Coach Fox ran a hell ass training camp. And because of the contract, Justin was rushed back on the field two weeks later, because of the money and because Coach Fox didn’t want “soft” players. In that spirit, and with the coach having way too much influence over the trainer Justin was back in the starting lineup a week later, just the 2nd or maybe 3rd week into the season.
Against his instinct, young and wanting as an employee to meet the massive expectations that come in this league for young players cut big checks, he was injected back in, starting center, week 3 (or 2?). The organization had made a grand bluff, for a hobbled Wig at fifty percent and a shoddy groin on the heels of a spring hernia, ripped his groin, it had come fully off the bone, just like that Justin’s season was over, and after a few more tests from team specialists, it was severe. Justin trying to conduct his own private tests, which Carolina had a legal right to be in the room with him at all time (how fucked up is that?) his NFL career was suddenly in jeopardy.
One thing was certain right away; Justin inaugural season in Carolina was over. The Panthers message boards ate him alive, and all of a sudden in a different culture, city and organization he was all alone in his big house. Him and Paige, gone were the fun playing days, team spirit and flexing ownership of an entire city. Carolina was a different city, a banking khaki one half culture and some dirty south shit on the other side. Justin’s enormous house, pool and golf course, a trophy to his hard work and success on the professional level was fifty minutes outside downtown Carolina. He was removed, he was new, he season was over before it started and so began the long year of recovery, depression and uncertainties. For Justin and his young girlfriend Paige whom with him were transplanted from the bliss of TN, this would be the hardest year yet. And the very worst part, that know one would tell or talk about was the fact that Justin knew in his heart something was serio0usly wrong with him, their was mutual bad taste and heated emotion from forcing him hobbled back into the starting lineup, fresh in the trenches so early in the season. Ion the NFL, the investment is treated different than say the NBA, in the NBA Justin would never be out there in that condition, but because in the NFL, the money is not guaranteed, the trainers and organization can be more gangster. They often don’t give a fuck, if you die; they’re not on the hook paying you years after your playing days our done. Point blank BECAUSE THE STAKES ARE SO HIGH AND THE MONEY IS NOT GURANTEED THE ORGANIZATION IS MORE APT TO ROLL THE DICE. THE ONLKY PROBLEM IN THAT EQUATION FOR THE ACTUAL PLAYER IS THE MINEFIELD THAT IS THE MODERN DAY NFL, IN A snap of the football where one can inflict damage he may not necessarily walk away from.
And knowing Justin as a homeboy, not a stat or a mass of energy and weight it’s a bitter reality to digest. Justin had a five year deal and the first year was a bust. If they cut him, they’d lose only the money he earned in his few games the first year with the signing bonus. The teams trainers expected him to come back and play the next season, but in the back of Justin’s mind for the first time in his pro life, he wasn’t so sure. His air of invincibility had been poked, air was coming out and there was doubt even if he returned the level he could play at. Of course this was all on the hum bug, all to himse3lf, he put the face on for girl, city and friends that he would return, nothing more than a mere flap that all players, if they are fucking lucky enough to get that far undoubtedly come across.
And so it was, under those auspices and back-story the very first time I met Justin Hartwig in April of 06 incidentally the day of the NFL draft. He had missed the entire rest of his first season, a disappointing season in which the Panthers failed to make the playoff’s.
Ujival his childhood best friend as mentioned at the tip-top had been recording music for me and we’d become fast friends. When we first met it was safe to say he was one of the biggest men I’d ever seen in my life. And for that afternoon, we went back to high, drank buds, smoked buds, chopped it up about football the “league, dreams and life stories. I’d inform Justin about my basketball documentary, my boy Keebs and his filming history with a one DJ Premier. I think during that first meeting I found his story very interesting as he discussed his injury, expectations and the life of an NFL offensive linemen. I think he found me, well, entertaining,
Through it all a quick friendship was found, close to home through Ujival, shit was contining to move along. Justin LOVES basketball and kept an eye towards our hoops documentery, he confided to Ugy that he thougtht it was pretty dope that we were doing it. The idea to ask him for us to be allowed to film him and tell his story came a couple months down the road. But during that first time a story had already jumped off the screen. As Justin was expolai9ning his transition to Carolina, the injury, he was on his way to Pittsburgh to meet aworld reknown groin specialist, I’m a sports fan and I was lolving it. Though Wig was chillest guy ever.
The NFL Draft.
And as the draft starts, we naturally FLOW INTO THE TV ROOM FROM THE BALCONY AS WE’RE ALERTED TO CAROLINAS ON THE Clock. Myself and my roommate Justin another Boston kid and sports fanatic and cracking Budweisers loving that their center is there with us during that moment. ‘Great story for the bar later tonight’ I’d muse to myself
TV Commisioner: With the (#12th?) pick the Carolina Panthers draft Deangelo Williams, University of Georgia. Justin was psyched, everyone in the room was rooting for this mutha fucka to be amped up over the pick, he was psyched. Good times roll on and then in the second round, the Panthers drafted a center, Ryan Kaliea out of USC, owner of two national titles. It shook the sky bar a bit, Wig the consummate professional was upbeat about it, the best player available. It did speak to the perceived severity of Justin’s Groin injury.
It’s the scariest thing in the world for a player. Your body is your vehicle your shrine what you know, how you collect checks. A couple months later visiting his own special aforementioned with uisual Panthers observation officials. God forbid they know something about this horrendous situation that they got him into before Justin, no, doesn’t work that way. It’s the mutha fucken NFL and dialogue is cheap. At Duke the prognostication had come through and it confirmed what we feared. (describe injury again).
And as I was pushing Wig on the phone more and more about the idea of us, fresh off filming an entire high school season, film him. And just like Coach Farias, the question of why could not have been heard more, why? And it’s a good question. Beyond my enthusiasm and pitch of inside story of an NFL linemen, never told! Beyond a full length pitch realistically of what we can do for a little with an underground team in place, there was still more.
Hearing about THIS INUJRY, THE CONFLICT OF INTEREST IN THE JOB OF THE ONE GUY THAT’S SUPPOSED TO KEEP EVERYONE HEALTHY, and now this verdict. His groin was gone. He was a center. No Offensive linemen at that point had come back and played a full season in this situation much less the Super Bowl. With the sobering loss, we finally had a story. And with everything it would take both mentally and physically from this reality / type of news ceded his consent. And from there it was on.
Justin is the softest spoken big man you’ve ever seen. And to see this hulk mentally adjust to the new realities facing his loss of push, the odds against, it was scary. He needed the mechanics and mental skull that Munchek had taught him more than ever.
“The force is strong with this one.” Vadar. (speaking of Luke in the X-Wing about to blow the Death Star Episode IV)
And so it was an August of 2006, both Keebler and myself (masterminds of aforementioned hoops documentary) flew down to Carolina with the cameras, boom mike, and myself to break the ice for their last season pre-season game vs. our hometown Patriots.
The first interviews to me our priceless. Him in the hotel, the night before, sneaking around a corner to a vacant part of the empty bar because Wig didn’t want his coaches to seer him filming this movie about him. They were hard asses, he was coming back, facing odds with the big contract, whatever, he’s not guy, so it was on the low, just breaking the ice to in his words on film, “see how it goes.” Kid is gold.
Plus we got to be on the field. And in the locker room, free reign. One thing about the footage, who knows if we can use most of it, although I suspect the locker room and non during the shit, can be worked on the little licensing tip if any. Point being made, Carolina from the moment we stepped in there gave us unfettered access. It was a personal moment being on the field when all my hero New England Patriots strolled out.
Funny moment filming during that game came when, late second half, we walked across the field and were behind the Patriot’s bench. Brushci, Cassel, Brady, Harrison, legend after legend, we were silently smiling after I’d whispered a few minutes earlier, ‘let’s get some Pat’s footage for our personal.’ Anyway, as we’re not even half way across the back of the bench, a coach walked up and before he could say anything Keebs piped, “I know, keep it moving , keep it moving.” And the Patriot’s coach said, “no you can’t film this” And pause and as Keebs tried to response he was clipped by the Pat’s and more NFL official guy than us saying, “Put that down now! You can’t film this.” Quickly I interjected the two, and said, “come Keebs sorry sir, peace.” Walking away Keebs replied, “Dream, that’s good, they usually take the tape.” The old pro said, had me laughing.
And on that first visit and first day iof footage, us seeing the ridiculous mansion and shrine to hippest mutha fuckas under thirty club blowing up in the US, had settled a few scenario’s. One training camp, it was a contested battle for the right to start at Center. Kalie was paid top dollar, no qualms, Wig beat him out. While he complained about camp, and the junior high level Fox forced even the veterens to go down to during the “hell week”… And with the precarious nature of his severely strained and recently repaired right leg. He won at the job at center, he played the first quarter with the rest of the starters in the final pre season game. 5:32 PMypical time for last pre-season game, and Kaliel was back up.
What I love about Justin Hartwig, is the competitor, it’s contagious, it was naturally an odd relationship, the hot shot kid from LA, second round center, and you the now vulnerable high priced veteren, and it brought the beast out. Not only did the Wig win the spot, and in my estimation throughout the season set a great example to LA LALA land kid what it meant to be a pro, he also made a bet. It was an instant story line to his injury and pre-season battle. It was a classic Seinfeld NFL, NHL type of bet, simple in math true in test. Beard growing contest, he ever shaved first , lost. So funny, really taking advantage of the awkwardness as well as letting the rookie know you can’t hold me!
If Carolina was lifestyle of the rich and famous, laced but depressed, with Pittsburgh was defiantly back to basics, Rocky street shit, remember why you got the taste. Just a side note, an interesting a metaphor and perhaps a glance into why some franchises are more successful than others despite similar financial tools at their deposal.
Point being I LOVED the beard contest, the press in Carolina got a hold of it and it served as a quirky little side game to the real game to the life game in season one. Justin ultimately triumphed. We have priceless footage of his victory shave before the Orange Bowl (Kansas). He won and Kaliel later said he shaved cause he freaked out a little kid at a Carolina charity event and “didn’t want that type of reputation around Charlotte.” And we were like, “Pussy!” (Me ands Keebs) and he lost a sweet G.
Every game we filmed, \after every game I spoke with him, worse than Jerry Maguire cause this was real life, he’d on the EL (lower than the DL) talk to my about the concern and trepidation he had but couldn’t have surrounding his groin. The whole story.
I’d sit with his wonderful mother Lori aND FOR THE FIRST TIME REALLY UNDERSTAND A FUCKING MOTHERS CONCERN. It was a minefield out there. He’d hit me with shit, ‘I don’t even know if it’s worth it.’ “I still want to be able to have a normal life after football.” After football BTW is a monster conversation in this piece in the footage you’ll hear echoed time and again.
But he forged on and after a rough year before and still the fragility of both knee and mind and relationship ceased to exist. We filmed, it was fun, and in a way we were all getting through a shitty situation together and the best main line of the those days were we were getting through it, Justin was getting through it, we were getting dope footage every time we were able to come through and cop.
(to be continued. clips of Justin and his dad to follow)