It took two sessions and five hours for the tattoo artist to ink a tiger coming out of Demetrius Hartsfield’s chest. The finished product: an animal bursting from the linebacker’s skin, claws clutching Hartsfield’s ribs, like his sternum is birthing a jungle cat.
Somewhere along the line, as the Maryland senior linebacker grew up in Raleigh, N.C., and became a three-year starter in College Park, Hartsfield became enthralled with tigers. Eyes glued to programs on the Animal Planet television network, he saw himself stalking through that tall savanna grass. The stealthy prowl, the silent hunt, the unsuspecting prey. Pounce once, and it’s game over. All other creatures fear the tiger.
So he began watching more shows, documentaries on Netflix about cheetahs, lions and tigers. Fast, prideful and just plain awesome, respectively. He bought a tiger skin for his MacBook Pro and a tiger case for his iPhone. And after his redshirt freshman season at Maryland in 2009, Hartsfield walked into a tattoo parlor, sat in a chair and got a tiger for himself.
Since then, Hartsfield has started all but three games for the Terrapins. This season, he was named a preseason all-ACC selection and a team captain after leading the team in tackles per game and tackles for a loss in 2011. Coach Randy Edsall calls him a de facto coach on the field.
Hartsfield was raised by his mother Tracy, a former medical assistant who showed him discipline. Pickup basketball and touch football played second fiddle to homework, chores and dinner. She saw temptation and marijuana consume kids while she grew up in Raleigh’s bad neighborhoods. Creating a safe haven for her son became a top priority.
“She kept me grounded, kept me away from all the drugs and the stuff that were going on around the area,” Hartsfield said. “Everybody has somebody who keeps them narrow-minded and straight. She was definitely that person. She did everything she could to make sure I stayed on that path.”
Hartsfield didn’t care much for organized sports until his mother gave him a nudge out the door, and Hartsfield fell in love. In high school, he played football and basketball and ran track. Hartsfield can count the games his mother has missed on his oversize linebacker hands.
Most of the time, Tracy Hartsfield is cheering in the stands, “wild and crazy,” as her son puts it. Sometimes, she wears T-shirts that proclaim she’s Demetrius Hartsfield’s mother. Knowing he wants her there — and that he’s kept a straight head, followed the right crowd and built a strong foundation of friends — makes her prouder.
These days, the experience has become surreal, seeing her child play college football. Last Sunday, Demetrius Hartsfield appeared in the local paper. When Tracy opened the page, she almost didn’t recognize him.
“It has been so exciting to watch him grow from a little middle-schooler just starting out, not knowing the game, up to this great student-athlete,” Tracy Hartsfield said. “It’s just overwhelming at times to know that you’ve steered your child in the right way and that he’s doing the right things.”
Before games, Hartsfield listens to mellow R&B music. Alicia Keys — not “Eye of the Tiger,” not the “Tiger Style” kung-fu rapped about by Wu-Tang Clan — calms him down. Lately he has started reading, in the hotel and on the team bus before games. He has more free time since he received his undergraduate degree in May. As a child, he loved mysteries such as the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Last week, he downloaded “The Hunger Games” onto his iPad, and started reading it the day before the Terrapins beat William & Mary, 7-6, in their season opener, when Hartsfield had a team-high 13 tackles and recovered a fumble.
He’s also ruled out owning a real tiger, though having a cub could be cool, he figures. The images, the ones he watches on television and had inscribed onto his chest, are enough.
Above the tattoo, just below the neckline, is the first line of a poem. Hartsfield’s high school coach used to always quote it to him. Only the first stanza would fit onto his body, like a halo framing the tiger’s snarling head:
“Just a small-town nobody, that’s what they all say.
And I asked myself how my life turned out this way.”