Mike Hartmeier spent a long couple of days in the hospital about a month ago. Pain aside, it was sheer torture. He had too much time to think and worry.
What if his eye never did heal correctly? What if it did sink down into the broken socket? What if he had to have eye surgery? What if it cost him his entire senior football season? What would that mean to a pro career?
"I had to get out of there," Hartmeier said the day he made a surprise appearance at a UCLA scrimmage. Pacing the sidelines was better than lying in that hospital bed.
But, then, the big offensive lineman had to spend most of his time at practice explaining his freak injury.
Now, he's an old hand at telling the story. In the first drill on the first day of practice in pads, Hartmeier collided with linebacker Ken Norton Jr. Hartmeier's helmet twisted around so that the impact of the hit was absorbed by the bones around his left eye. The bone plate on the inside, under his eye, broke. It has been described to him as a "blow-out fracture."
At first he thought his nose was broken. But when he sat down and concentrated on where he was feeling the pain, and when he realized that he had double vision, he knew it was his eye.
"It is scary when you think something might be wrong with your eyes," he said. "And I sure didn't like what the doctors were telling me about how long I would be out."
He consulted several doctors--team doctors, plastic surgeons, ophthalmologists--and the consensus was that he would be out for at least three weeks. He was told that he would miss the opener at Brigham Young for sure. He was told that he might not be back until the conference opener at Washington this Saturday.
Coach Terry Donahue was visibly troubled by the loss of Hartmeier. "In all my years of coaching, I've never seen that injury," Donahue said at the time. "He's our starting left guard and also our backup center, so it's like losing two players."
Hartmeier has played guard, center and tackle for UCLA, and against Cal last season he played all three. In 1984, he started nine games at tackle, but now he is back to his natural position, starting at left guard.
The thought of playing BYU without Hartmeier was not a pleasant one for Donahue, but he did manage to control himself when Hartmeier told him, the night before the team was to leave for Utah, that the team doctor had cleared him to play.
Hartmeier said: "He told me it was my decision. He even told me that he wanted me to call my parents and discuss it with them before I made the decision. . . . My dad is from a big farming family. He's pretty tough. He told me that if the doctors said I could play, I should go ahead."
So the UCLA coaches asked the San Francisco 49ers to send down one of the tinted shields that Keith Fahnhorst wears on his face mask, and Hartmeier was all set. He was so set, in fact, that he played a great game against BYU.
The next Monday, Donahue said, "Having Mike Hartmeier surprise us by playing was a big help to the team. It helped to have him playing, of course, but it was a big morale boost, too."
Hartmeier is one of the team captains. said Don Riley, his position coach: "He's big and strong; he's smart, and he loves football."
None of those things would have helped the Bruins a bit if Hartmeier's eye had sunk.
"The ironic part about this whole thing is that over the summer I did an independent study for an engineering class on the design of football helmets and the economic impact of all the lawsuits against helmet companies," Hartmeier said.
"Helmet companies are constantly being sued for injuries not caused by the helmet--and then I get an injury that might have been. I think that's ironic."
Hartmeier is not an engineering major. He's an economics-business major. He's proud of that because just 250 students a year are allowed to take that major. To get in, he had to have a 3.0 average overall--his was 3.3--as well as a 3.0 in his economics classes. "And once you get in, there's a lot of competition," he said.
Hartmeier was a second-team academic All-American last season. If he keeps playing the way he's been playing in the first three games, he should make the first team this season. Ideally, he would go on to a lucrative pro career and use all that good economic and business knowledge to manage his own money.
"That would be great," he said. "You know, a lot of our lineman are playing pro ball now. There is a serious misconception about UCLA not having big, good linemen. All that 'gutty little Bruin' stuff. Look at our line now and look at who we have in the pros."
The line includes Hartmeier, maybe gutty but certainly not little at 6-5 and 265; tackle Rob Cox at 6-5 and 258; center Joe Goebel at 6-6 and 260; guard Jim McCullough at 6-5 and 262, and tackle Russ Warnick, at 6-5 and 255.