Sports was supposed to save James Hardy III. His death reminds us that it takes more. – For The Win
James Hardy III, one of the best football players in Indiana University history whose NFL career was cut short by the sort of routine injury that cuts hundreds of NFL careers short each year, was found dead in a river near his Fort Wayne, Ind., home on Wednesday.
The cause and manner of death are still under investigation.
Hardy lived a haunted life, but also one that is far from unusual — in the United States, or the highest level of sports. His father spent most of Hardy’s formative years in jail, for selling drugs. His mother struggled to care for him. At age 13 he left, living with an uncle who’d just gotten out of jail for a time. He told me he bounced between houses of relatives and friends in the Ft. Wayne area until a cousin took him in, but he almost always had to find his own food.
Between his sophomore and junior seasons — both of which would end with him leading the Big Ten in receiving touchdowns — he told me this about his childhood for a story in Bloomington’s Herald-Times newspaper:
“I’d ride my bike through the snow to the grocery store and then go home and cook,” he says. “And then it was just me in the living room with my air mattress and my little TV.”
As he grew older the lure of the streets was difficult to ignore. Many of his friends turned to selling drugs, giving them money for cars and new sneakers and food that didn’t come from a can. Hardy was able to stay on the other side, partly because he grew to be 6-foot-6, a jarring combination of quickness and power. Coaches made sure he stayed clean and eligible. A college scholarship beckoned.
Which is why I wrote this:
Sports saves boys like James Hardy, though. It finds and cradles the biggest and fastest and strongest.
But it also too often dumps them out on the other side, unprepared for whatever might be next when they are suddenly not quick or strong or lucky enough to keep playing.
Not that people at Indiana did not try. Hardy actually committed at first to play basketball for Mike Davis, and did so for parts of two seasons. He also joined the football team under Gerry DiNardo. He forged a close bond with the next coach, Terry Hoeppner, who backed Hardy after an arrest for abusing both the mother of his child and their infant boy. Hardy came to regard Hep, as he was known, as a father figure, and spoke at his memorial service after the coach was killed by brain cancer. Hardy finished his career under Bill Lynch.
Bill’s son, Billy, was the receivers coach who forced Hardy to evolve from basketball player into a football player, drilling him relentlessly on footwork and technique. I reached out to him yesterday as soon as I heard the news.
Billy, now the receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator at Rice, recalled Hardy as one of the most driven players he’s ever been around.
“He came to me at some point and said, ‘I want to be the best receiver in the country.’ And I said, ‘Ok, I’d like that.’ And he said, ‘But I’m gonna have to work harder than anybody else in the country to do it.’ And I said, ‘Yes, that’s true.’ And he said, ‘Which means you’re gonna have to work harder than any coach in the country.’ And I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”
Billy is the most intense football coach I have ever seen, by some distance. While I was on the Indiana beat (from summer 2006 to summer 2010) we would pass the hours of practice by predicting the number of times he might throw his practice plan to the ground in disgust, or pull at his own hair, cartoon-like, in sheer agony.
One day Hardy took him aside after practice.
“Coach,” he said, “do you really think we aren’t trying to do everything you’re asking of us? Do you really think when we fail it’s about effort?”
Billy admitted that it was not.
“Then relax, man,” Hardy said. “We’re all working for the same thing.”
“With that,” Billy told me, “he really changed me.”
Hardy often seemed wise — and hardened — beyond his years. At other times he seemed impossibly immature. He talked both like a coddled athlete and that boy whose parents couldn’t give him a home or meals. He often seemed like two different people living in separate worlds, and maybe he was. Not long after being drafted by the Buffalo Bills, he pulled a gun on his father during an argument. Police were called but charges were never filed.
Hardy was the 41st overall selection in the 2008 draft, and caught just nine passes in his rookie season before tearing a ligament in his knee and requiring surgery. He played only two games the next year and was released (though his teammates awarded him the Ed Block Courage Award). A short stint with the Ravens led nowhere; he never even played a game. He dealt with repeated hamstring injuries, even while trying to make it in arena football.
“Once he had the knee (injury), he never got the chance to show he could get that quickness back,” Billy Lynch said. “He was a big, powerful guy with great straight-line speed, but at the next level was going to need every bit of quickness he had to deal with better corners and press coverage and things like that.”
Hardy eventually went to Hollywood, hoping to work as an actor and model. In April of 2013 he told the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel that he had signed with an agency, shot commercials and been on several auditions. In May 2014, he resisted arrest when three police officers showed up to reports of a disturbance. He never faced trial on those charges; a judge found him mentally unfit.
It is fair to wonder whether football played any part in Hardy’s mental deterioration. We are at that point now, right? Hardy was so powerful and so graceful that I don’t remember him taking huge hits; in fact he took thousands. His brain should be sent to be studied for signs of CTE.
Billy Lynch admitted to me that he felt guilty for losing touch with Hardy; they hadn’t talked in years, not since before the troubling arrest and revelation of mental health issues. Billy — and his father — have repeated a line that goes something like “We got into this business to make boys into men and help them become good husbands and fathers” multiple times, and I take them at their word; they are two of the most decent people I’ve met in sports. Billy’s kids — and the other assistants’ — were constantly around after practice. It felt like family, and James often brought his son, doting on him, talking about parenting with the much older coaches and on the surface it all felt like family — and certainly approximated that more than Hardy’s real family ever did.
But the onus for helping James Hardy was most certainly not theirs alone; they’ve worked with hundreds of players. Billy is in a high-pressure job now. Recruiting takes hours, every day of the year. He must also coach his current players. And be a father to his own four children.
Yet Billy can’t help but feel hollow now, as do I, because in truth I, too, am part of the machine that is college and pro football, a cog that whirls and whirls and creates the narrative around what happens on the field. We all like when the game means something more. Sports is an escape from everyday life, many people say, and so it feels all the more uplifting when it serves as literal escape for a man like James Hardy, a real person plucked from the abstract things our politicians say, one who waded through a world wracked with poverty and addiction. Once vulnerable, he was made strong by the games we play and launched, with plenty of velocity, toward a better life.
Only he wasn’t, and we missed it and now James Hardy III — father to James Hardy IV — is gone.