Ed Hartwell was away from football for nearly four years, but one thing the veteran linebacker never lost was his distaste for defeat.
“Losing sucks,” Hartwell said Saturday after his United Football League debut with the Locomotives resulted in a 27-20 loss to Florida at Sam Boyd Stadium.
The Cheyenne High School product, 32, played six seasons in the NFL with Baltimore and Atlanta, then dealt with knee injuries that halted his career. But Hartwell played well against the Tuskers, getting credited with 4½ tackles at middle linebacker.
“It felt good to be back out there,” said Hartwell, who last played in a game that counted in 2006 with the Falcons. “I missed the contact, the hitting, the intensity, of being in the locker room with a group of guys. You can’t get that anywhere else.
“That said, I felt I could have done more. But I’m always my own toughest critic. There are some things I can fix. I’m always trying to play the perfect game.”
The Falcons cut Hartwell before the 2007 season. He tried to extend his career with the Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland Raiders, but Cincinnati released him during the 2007 preseason, and Oakland cut him in the spring of 2008.
Hartwell maintained some public visibility through his wife, Lisa, who starred on the reality TV series “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.” But his real dream was to return to the field.
Despite Hartwell’s age and injury history, Locos coach Jim Fassel thought he still had something left. He signed Hartwell as a free agent, and at the June minicamp Hartwell made a clear impact on the Locos’ younger players with his professionalism and attention to detail.
He became one of the team leaders during training camp, and now he’s back doing what he loves in a place that is dear to his heart.
“It means a lot to have your teammates’ respect and have them look up to you,” Hartwell said. “I’ve always tried to be a leader by example, and this is a great group of guys. They work hard, and they’re there for each other.”
When he ran onto the field Saturday, Hartwell said he had flashbacks to his days as a local standout at Cheyenne.
“I walked out of the tunnel, and I could hear my family and friends cheering for me,” he said. “I never thought I’d be able to come home and play professionally. So when this opportunity presented itself, I felt blessed, and I was going to do everything I could to take advantage of it.
“A lot of the people who were in the stands were there when we played in high school. Just driving through the city to get to the stadium, thinking about how much the town has grown, it was a good feeling to be back home.”
Fassel thought Hartwell could help the Locos in many areas, but the coach admits to being surprised by how well he played in camp and Saturday.
“He may have been away awhile, but you don’t forget how to play,” Fassel said. “I love his enthusiasm, his leadership and his dedication. He really wants to be here.”
Hartwell said at this point of his career, his primary goal is not to get back to the NFL.
“My purpose here is to help this team win a championship,” Hartwell said. “We dug a little hole for ourselves (Saturday), but we can bounce back. We didn’t play our best football. We’ll show up and improve.”
Contact reporter Steve Carp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2913.