After Christian Hartford's right shoulder failed him for the third and final time in the spring of his freshman year at Wake Forest, he begrudgingly accepted a future in which he would never again stand on the football field in pads.

But during his time as a walk-on quarterback with the Demon Deacons in 2008 and '09, Hartford had noticed a particular non-player who gleefully roamed up and down the bench area and influenced the team energy.

That person, Wake Forest sports performance director Ethan Reeve, inspired Hartford to head toward a field that would keep him as close to the athletic action as any walk-on role.

It's your job to take them from top-notch to absolutely superior. It's taking 'very good' and trying to make it 'almost perfect,' which is a really exciting challenge to me.
-- Christian Hartford
Several teams at Northwestern this school year will rely on Hartford as their strength and conditioning coach.

Hartford is in his first year as a graduate assistant in Northwestern's sports performance department.

And with internships at Pittsburgh, Penn State and, most recently, Michigan on his resume, he is hopeful he can grow more involved with major college athletics.

"The part that I like about college strength and conditioning is most of the athletes you get are already top-notch athletes in the country," Hartford, 24, said.

"Now it's your job to take them from top-notch to absolutely superior. It's taking 'very good' and trying to make it 'almost perfect,' which is a really exciting challenge to me."

A different kind of challenge drew Hartford to Wake Forest. Though he lacked accolades as a football player after graduating from high school, Hartford set out to walk on at Wake Forest and succeeded.

When the labrum in his right shoulder, surgically repaired twice in high school, tore again in the spring of 2009, Hartford ended his football career.

Workouts in the team weight room kept him connected to the Demon Deacons and, more importantly, to Reeve.

"It started just as, 'I like working out,' " Hartford said of his interest in sports performance coaching. "But my relationship with Coach Reeve, that's what made me want to become a strength and conditioning coach.

"Seeing the way he got along with the players and the way he ran his program, it really inspired me to take on the profession. The big thing was seeing him on Saturdays during the season on the sideline getting all psyched up. It was like, 'All right, this guy, he has a pretty cool job.' "

At Northwestern, Hartford will handle the sports performance programs for fencing, men's and women's swimming and diving and women's cross country. None of the sports is his forte, though he swam for one season in high school.

But his four-month internship at Michigan, which he completed in April, introduced him to the full spectrum of sports -- the only Wolverines team he didn't help train was football.

Guidance from Michigan performance coaches Mike Favre, Bo Sandoval and Jason Cole gave Hartford the confidence he needed to advise any athlete, from a freshman women's lacrosse player to Wolverines star and NBA first-round draft pick Nik Stauskas.

"I was only 23, and my fear almost was, 'How are these guys going to listen to someone who is 23?' " Hartford said. "The key is making your presence known. Some guys are screamers. Some are very quiet and cerebral. I kind of picked a middle ground. ... Up to this point, it's worked."