Sitting next to his beautiful blonde fiancee, photos of his torn-up knee laid out on a long wooden conference table in front of him, former NFL punter Brett Hartmann faces more TV cameras than he likely ever saw during his brief tenure with the Houston Texans.
Punters do not get much attention in the football world.
But now a punter is trying to shake up the establishment with a rare lawsuit based on field conditions. Hartmann and his legal team argue that Reliant Stadium's field is "simply unsafe and unsuitable for its purpose, professional football" in a lawsuit that charges SMG, the management company that operates the stadium, and the Harris County Convention & Sports Corporation, which owns the stadium, with negligence and seeks monetary damages for the player.
"When Tony Dungy and Bill Belichick say it's an unsafe playing environment, that's pretty compelling."
Hartmann's attorney — Gene Egdorf of the Lanier Law Firm — says the goal is loftier than that as well. Namely, pushing the stadium's overlords to make playing conditions safer.
"I just hope they do something about the field," Hartmann says.
Egdorf brought up Patriots all-pro receiver Wes Welker's knee injury at Reliant (suffered in the last regular season game of the 2009 season) when talking to reporters and the lawsuit itself also cites injuries suffered by Texans linebacker Brian Cushing and wide receiver Andre Johnson as instances when field conditions caused harm.
Hartmann himself suffered an anterior cruciate ligament tear and a fracture in his left leg in a Dec. 4, 2011 game against Atlanta. On the play, Hartmann went down without being touched and says his foot got caught in a seam in the grass turf.
The grass in Reliant Stadium is brought in for games in eight by eight foot trays, a process which the suit alleges creates "innumerable seams and uneven partitions" that are easy for players' feet to get caught in, creating injuries.
"There are 1200 squares on the field," Egdorf says. "What's that? Three to four thousand seams . . . That's crazy."
Texans coach Gary Kubiak found himself being asked about the suit at his daily post-practice press conference. " “First off, I’m not going to comment on that," Kubiak says. "But I will say this, I think our field is great.
"I think our guys do a great job. That’s all I’ve got to say."
The suit references comments that both Patriots coach Bill Belichick and former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy have made about Reliant's playing conditions in the past.
"When Tony Dungy and Bill Belichick say it's an unsafe playing environment, that's pretty compelling," Egdorf says.
Texans Not Named
When Hartmann first went to Egdorf — who is known for representing athletes in injury cases — he told the lawyer that he did not want to sue the Houston Texans in the legal action.
"He has no ill will toward the Texans," Egdorf says, noting that team is not legally responsible for Reliant Stadium's upkeep and conditions.
With Houston a finalist to host the 2017 Super Bowl at Reliant and with numerous other sporting events held there regularly, this suit could have far-reaching implications.
Still with Houston a finalist to host the 2017 Super Bowl at Reliant Stadium and with numerous other sporting events held there regularly — including college and high school football games — this suit could have far-reaching implications.
The 25-year-old Hartmann is looking at a smaller picture — and arguably a rapidly shrinking window to ever play football again. He's had two knee surgeries and has been told he needs another. Getting suspended for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy after the injury is also not likely to help any comeback attempts for Hartmann.
Rookie punters have little leverage in the league to begin with.
As Hartmann answered additional questions from reporters, his fiancee Lizzy Burkwald (the two were high school sweethearts in Wisconsin) and her father Dan Burkwald moved and stood in the back of the conference room, waiting.