Hartings thinks about retirement

Jeff Hartings is no longer a man who's looking at football in his long-term future. <br><br>The Steelers' starting center the past two years, Hartings struggled through the 2002 season with torn knee cartilage that forced him to miss five games and have arthroscopic surgery during the season.

And considering Hartings turns 31 when the Steelers open the regular season at home against Baltimore Sept. 7, he realizes the end of his football career isn't too far off.

"If my knee feels good, then I'll be able to play pretty long," said Hartings, who has been named first alternate to the Pro Bowl in both of his seasons with the Steelers.

"If people keep falling on it, or if it continues to deteriorate, then obviously you retire earlier than what you expected or wanted to."

Hartings first injured his left knee during the season opener last year at New England when somebody fell on him.

"I think, as a result of that, I tore the cartilage a few games later," he said. "It's like anybody – if you have injuries, you never come back to the point where you used to be."

Hartings tried to play through the pain, but he aggravated the injury Oct. 21 at Heinz Field against Indianapolis, missing the next two games. He returned for two more games, but again aggravated the injury again in a loss at Tennessee.

Unable to put off surgery to repair the torn cartilage, Hartings went under the knife following the Tennessee game and returned to the lineup three weeks later in a loss against Houston, replacing backup Chukky Okobi in the fourth quarter.

He didn't miss any more time after that, but his knee hasn't felt right since, aggravating the knee again in May.

"I think I just overworked it before it was totally healed," said Hartings, who was held out of the team's run test last Saturday as a result.

"Basically, the last eight weeks, I haven't run hardly at all and did a lot of rehab on it."

Hartings hasn't missed any workouts so far in training camp and is wearing a brace on the knee. Considering starting right guard Kendall Simmons, who was recently diagnosed as a diabetic, is currently sitting out practices while attempting to get his blood sugar under control, and the Steelers' upheaval at both tackle positions, they need a healthy Hartings now more than ever.

"You can't underestimate how good it is going to be to get Kendall back hopefully he is able to go so that he can get his rhythm back with the right tackle, either Oliver Ross or Todd Fordham," said head coach Bill Cowher.

In the meantime, Hartings is taking things slowly, realizing that the deteriorating condition of his knee doesn't allow him to look past this season.

"I'm fortunate to play this long," said the eight-year veteran who is signed through the 2005 season. "And I'm just taking it one year at a time now."

Hartings earns an average of $3.725 million per season, which would obviously give him a lot of incentive to continue playing. But when the pain sets in, he's not so sure.

"I'm hopeful that I won't have to (play with pain this season), but I'm resigned to the fact that I probably will," said Hartings, who added that the pain he played with last season was the worst of his football career.

"It feels as good as it can feel. It's not 100 percent like it was a year ago or two years ago or three years ago, because I've probably had it fallen on five or six times since I came here. Each time, a little more cartilage has been scraped away."

Dale Lolley

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