Colts Rookie Running Back Hart Has Overcome Odds Before
INDIANAPOLIS - Mike Hart learned long ago not to listen to the opinions of outsiders.
And he sure learned not to let what he does hear bother him.
Hart, a running back from the University of Michigan and one of the Colts' four sixth-round selections in the April 26-27 2008 NFL Draft, said he learned the lessons by necessity. He learned, too, that football – particularly the opinions of analysts and observers – is not real life.
That, Hart said, helps explain why he enjoys meeting fans, and helping others. And it helps explain his work in the community. And why he usually is smiling.
Football, Hart said, is fun. It's something that creates opunity. Always has been.
And he said that won't change now.
"Football is my outlet," Hart said during a recent interview for this story, the seventh of a nine-part series on the Colts' 2008 draft class that will run on Colts.com in the coming days.
"I love football. I have fun with it."
In one sense, football should be fun for the Syracuse, N.Y., native.
Hart (5-feet-9, 202 pounds) has experienced success – big-time success – at every level of football. He holds national high school records for touchdowns in a career (204), most consecutive 100-yard rushing games (47), career 100-yard rushing games (27) and career points (1,246).
His high school, Nedrow (N.Y.) Onondaga Central won three consecutive state titles and Hart was a three-time New York Class D and C Player of the Year.
At Michigan, he rushed for 5,040 yards and 41 touchdowns on 1,015 carries, finishing his career as the school's all-time leading rusher.
A four-year starter, he was the third true freshman to lead the Big 10 in rushing, gaining 1,455 yards with nine touchdowns on 282 carries in 2004. He rushed for a career-high 1,562 yards and 14 touchdowns as a junior and 1,361 yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior.
That's big-time success, yet Hart said throughout his career few believed in him.
"In Pop Warner, I had to ask to play varsity in the ninth grade," Hart said. "They thought I was too little. It turned out good. Then everyone was like, 'You're not going to make it in college.'''
"I had a bunch of scholarship offers, but I went to a small Class D school in New York. There were 80 people in my graduating class. And I was small. It was like, 'This guy didn't play against anybody. He's too small. He's not going to be able to hang in the Big 10. They're going to move him to corner.'''
Hart said the opinions have been relatively the same regarding his chances to make it in the NFL, opinions that were solidified in the minds of many when he ran a 4.7-second 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis in late February.
"The 40 time scared a lot of people away, but in the end, we just have so much respect for his playing ability," Colts President Bill Polian said after the Colts made him the 36th selection of the sixth round, the 202nd selection overall. "We said, 'Hey, we'll forget about the 40 and go on the rest of it.' . . . He ran a bad 40. Everything else is very much in line with all of the backs we've had here.'''
Hart said during the Colts' recent rookie camp he wasn't surprised he lasted until the sixth round. He said he knew his 40-time and his size made that likely.
Same story, new level.
"I see the situation as going into the same thing," Hart said. "It's the thing of, 'I can't make it in the NFL. I'm too small. I'm too slow, this and that.' It's kind of like the same challenge to me. It's like the story keeps repeating itself, going into high school, college, then going into the NFL.
"It's just a story – Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3. I'm excited to get the chance. This is like that last barrier to say, 'I can make it.' We'll see.
"I have to go out and try to prove myself again. I don't know what's going to happen yet."
Whatever happens, Hart said he will enjoy himself. And not just on the field.
While at Michigan, Hart worked extensively with community groups. He helped feed homeless with church groups and read at local schools. On the morning of the Virginia Tech shootings, he walked Michigan's campus collecting money for the families of victims.
He and a teammate, safety Jamar Adams, headed a program called "A Call to Manhood," which studied the role of African-American men in society. He also worked with Make-A-Wish Foundation and was a member of a Michigan honor society known as the Order of Angell, a group made up of 25 of the school's top student leaders, a group with alumni that included former President Gerald Ford.
"I have fun doing it," Hart said. "I like working with inner city kids who don't have good role models. It gives them something to look up to. I can be a good influence. They don't just see me as a football player, but as someone who's successful and someone who treats them good, someone they can look like.
"If didn't like doing it, I wouldn't do it. It's just something that when I do it, it makes me happy. Football, then doing that, makes me happy."
As for the next few years, Hart said he doesn't know how he will fare in the NFL. He said he is confident his ability will translate into the league, and confident he can contribute at a high level. He said what he mainly knows is that if it doesn't translate, if he can't contribute, effort or desire won't be the issue.
"It's just my work ethic and not wanting to let myself or my family down," Hart said. "I'm the person my mother brags about, my brothers look up to, my sisters brag about. I have a small family. I don't want to let them down. And myself, I don't like to fail. I can't say, 'No, I quit.'
"I'll work hard. I'm a good person. The only thing that's going to stop me from playing in the NFL is if I'm not talented enough. At the end of the day, if I don't make it, it's not going to be because I didn't know the plays, or I had character issues, or because I wasn't trying hard enough. It's going to be if I wasn't talented enough.
"If I look back and say, 'I wasn't good enough,' then I wasn't good enough, but I'm going to do everything I can to make it. If it doesn't work, 'Hey, I did my best.'''