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Lobo linebacker Hart grateful to be on field again

UNM linebacker Alex Hart, shown in preseason, came back for one more season and for games like Saturday’s matchup at No. 7 Notre Dame. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Just like that, a meaningful college football career appeared to have come to an end for University of New Mexico linebacker Alex Hart.

Hart’s body awkwardly contorted, as his right knee went one way, his hip went the other. He crumpled to the ground during the game at New Mexico State on Sept. 15, 2018.

The Lobos feared the worst and it was confirmed: torn ACL. Out for the year. Surgery came Oct. 17.

Hart, in his senior year, and a few months from earning an undergraduate degree in business administration, could have called it a Lobo career.

No way.

“I was not satisfied with how last season was, and how my season ended,” Hart said. “I love football way too much to give up that opportunity to come back for another year.”

Hart is back.

Now a three-time team captain, the middle linebacker was second on the team with 10 tackles in the 39-31 season-opening win over Sam Houston State on Aug. 31.

Hart is excited to play again with the Lobos. And here comes Saturday. This is on a higher level. UNM at No. 7 Notre Dame.

FAMILY: Football and competition are central in the Hart family.

Hart’s father, Pat, was a defensive lineman for the University of Minnesota in 1984 for coach Lou Holtz. But Pat tore his left ACL, prompting a move to the offensive line, and he played center his final three seasons.

Alex’s brother Nick injured his hip during his senior year at Minnesota in 2016. With a new coach, P.J. Fleck, coming aboard, Nick decided to be content with what football had given him to that point.

Athletes who suffer season-ending injuries are sometimes viewed as common to each other. But in reality each has his or her own journey. Alex clearly wanted to restart his.

“Alex’s situation was very different,” said Hart’s mother, Nancy, when comparing the men in her family. “Alex still wanted to play. That was never a question. From Day One of the injury, it was: Let’s get back. He’s a very self-disciplined kid. He was born with that in him.”

Nancy met her husband while swimming for Minnesota, where she was the Big Ten champion in the 100 backstroke in 1988.

There’s one more Hart in the family, Alex’s “little” brother, Sam, who like Nick, plays tight end.

Sam is a junior at Cherokee Trail High School in Aurora, Colorado. He is an elite prospect with scholarship offers from Notre Dame, Ohio State, USC, Washington, LSU, Utah and Penn State, among others, including UNM.

Sam will be at Notre Dame Stadium to watch his brother play for the Lobos on Saturday, but it will not be an official visit.

“He’s super inspiring to me,” Sam said of Alex. “We always have talks. He told me to focus on the football season and go ball out. I took it to heart.”

LOVE: Alex Hart said people and the relationships established while with the Lobos are what he’ll remember the most.

Among the friendships, one stands out, with a fellow athlete, Jen Muñoz, a former UNM women’s soccer player who is now a pro in Mexico City.

They began as friends, then started dating. Now they are having a long-distance relationship, doing their best to remain close, as both maintain busy and active schedules. Alex hopes to earn a master’s degree in business this spring.

“She’s been my rock for a lot of things, especially because she’s an awesome athlete, a great leader and a great person overall,” Alex says. “That keeps me going. Makes me a better person every day. That’s why I love her.”

Muñoz has always enjoyed Hart’s positive perspective. It’s why she knew he would come back from his injury.

“He’s very genuine,” Muñoz said. “He’s there for me and I’m there for him. I’m the first one he calls after a game and before a game. And I do the same.”

Through the injury and rehab, Hart said he learned a great deal, making him a better player and leader.

“It was just a big wake-up call,” Hart said of the injury. “It felt like, from my perspective, I didn’t always take advantage of the opportunities that were in front of me as best as I could. That’s what I was working on this whole offseason.

“Those opportunities can come from myself, improving individually, as a leader, and as a teammate. I’ve been trying to do my best with that because I love this team and I love these guys. I just want to be the best player for them.”

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