August 7, 2017

LONG READ | The Other Side of Jermarcus Hardrick

Jermarcus Hardrick (51) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the game against the BC Lions at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, BC., on Friday, July 21, 2017. (Photo: Johany Jutras)

This is the Jermarcus Hardrick we all know…

He is the Winnipeg Blue Bombers massive right tackle, the man who enthusiastically jumps into the end-zone crowd after a touchdown, lifts a teammate over his shoulders after a score, and fuels his squad daily with a passion for the game that is truly unmatched.

He is the man who tells quarterback Matt Nichols he loves him almost every day. He is the happy, smiling, behemoth of a man who is quick to hug and/or offer a firm handshake.

But it’s the Jermarcus Hardrick we don’t know – the hard road he travelled, the mother who gave him everything, the birth father he didn’t know and how he landed here in Winnipeg – that makes him not only one of the most compelling figures in the Blue Bombers locker room, but across the Canadian Football League.

This is Hardrick’s story in his words – a look at the places he’s been and the people in his life – and it offers a glimpse into a man with such a fighting spirit…

Winnipeg Blue Bombers OL Jermarcus Hardrick and QB Matt Nichols celebrate Nichols’ TD against the Saskatchewan Roughriders during second quarter CFL action in Winnipeg on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016. (CFL PHOTO – Jason Halstead)

Courtland, Mississippi…

Located about halfway between Memphis and Jackson in Panola County, Courtland is a town of about 350. A recent census revealed the median income for a family is about $38,000, that 12 percent of families – including 17.4 per cent of those under the age of 18 and 24.2 percent of those over the age of 65 – live below the poverty line.

“The closest city is Batesville, about five miles away,” began Hardrick. “And where I’m from, there’s no traffic lights. We have a gas station, but we have nothing else. We just got pavement on the highway, but everyone else has gravel roads. And that’s all I knew.

“I grew up around a lot of love, a lot of football, a lot of family. It’s a tight-knit group in Courtland. Everyone knows everyone. A lot hard-working, loving people, but there’s not a lot of diversity. Only black and white. And there’s a cycle not a lot of people get out of, they get help from the state and are just OK with living like that.”

“I guess I didn’t really know I was poor until I left Courtland. I go back about two or three times a year to see my mom and my friends. The crazy thing is, every time I go back it seems like another friend is dead or has gone to jail.”

“If I’m at home for more than two days, it feels like too long. I tell my wife I’m so glad I made it from there. I understand everything about there… sometimes I go back and it seems like I get penalized for being successful. There’s that cycle of staying home and they’re stuck in that. I can’t be around it anymore.”

Jermarcus Hardrick (51) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the game against the BC Lions at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, BC., on Friday, July 21, 2017. (Photo: Johany Jutras)

His mom, his birth father and the man he calls ‘dad’…

Hardrick’s birth father went to prison when he was three years-old, leaving his mom Delores and James Calvin – the man he calls his father – to raise him and his brothers in a trailer in Courtland.

His mom worked tirelessly to provide, and her impact on Hardrick’s life resonates to this day. When asked to describe his mother, Hardrick begins, pauses for a moment to control his emotions, and then begins to paint the picture of a woman he surely considers a saint.

“My mom… my mom is everything. She is everything,” Hardrick explained. “If it wasn’t for the things my mom did, the sacrifices she made and the way she attacked every day… I don’t know, man.

“It was never about her. It was about making sure everybody else in the house had food. I’ve seen her not eat, not pay for gas and find a ride to work for a month just to make sure we could have lights on at home. She didn’t tell us she loved us a lot, but when she did, we listened. Me and my brothers would be like, ‘Hey… mom just told us she loved us.’ It was powerful.

“Her loving came through her hard work. She’d have two or three jobs. When I’d be getting up in the morning, she’d be getting home from work and then when I was at school it was her time to rest.

“She worked at nursing homes and hospitals, and every day she’d come home and her back would be all scraped up because she had been picking people up and changing people all day. She did that all day, always caring for people. And then she’d get home and care for us.”

Clarence Denmark (89), Jermarcus Hardrick (51), Patrick Neufeld (53) and Travis Bond (60) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the locker room before the game against the BC Lions at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, BC., on Friday, July 21, 2017. (Photo: Johany Jutras)

“We didn’t get a lot growing up with toys and shoes and everything,” Hardrick added. “What was big for me was once in a while I’d come home and see some new socks or a white t-shirt on my bed… that was our gift for the month. That was big.”

“I didn’t get time with my mom like most. I didn’t get her helping me with homework or telling me about the things I was going to need in life. I asked her one day when I got older, ‘Mom, why didn’t you talk to me about life? Why didn’t you help me get prepared? Why didn’t you tell me life is bigger than Mississippi?’ She said, ‘I just gave you all I had. I had to work three times a day and that’s what I could give you.’ When she said that, I felt bad, but I respected her even more.

“And now that I have my own kids, I understand more about the sacrifices she had to make for us. She was unbelievable.”

Hardrick’s birth father was a man who passed away two years ago named Ricky House. He had 17 children with different women in the Courtland area, but was seldom in Jermarcus’ life.

“I’ve only got one real memory from my dad, my biological father,” Hardrick explained. “When I was 15, he gave me seven dollars. I’ll never forget that. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve seen him in my life.

“I didn’t meet him until I was about 15. I heard people talking my whole life that I had a real father that wasn’t the father that was raising me… I finally saw this guy, and after a year or so we got a relationship, but then it went away because he stayed in trouble. But that’s how I got to know some of my other brothers and sisters.

“He passed away two years ago and that’s when I saw pictures of my brothers and sisters and my whole extended family. I just wanted to be closer to him and the rest of the family, but… it was rough.

“James Calvin, he helped raise me since I was three months old. He works for the City of Batesville doing odd jobs like cutting grass and stuff. He stayed in my life. I call him every weekend.”

Mario and ‘Yoshi’ and leaving Mississippi…

One of Hardrick’s best friends growing up was a boy named Mario Lewis. They hung out so much together they became known as Mario and ‘Yoshi’ – the name of the dinosaur character in Nintendo’s ‘Super Mario World.’ The Yoshi nickname still stands, FYI.

“It turns out we’re half-brothers,” said Hardrick of Mario Lewis. “We met at the Boys and Girls Club and I just knew, because there was something about how we were bonding, that we were related. It turns out he was my brother through my biological father.

“I tagged along with him everywhere he went because my mom worked all day. I was just with Mario all the time and people started joking it was Mario and Yoshi.”

Jermarcus Hardrick (51) in game action during the preseason game vs the Edmonton Eskimos June 15, 2017.

Hardrick, now 6-7 and 320 pounds, starred during his days at South Panola High School in Batesville, where the school won three 5A state championships. He had committed to Auburn University in Grade 11, but in his senior year, had the offer yanked for academic reasons.

“It’s no fault to my high school counsellor or my academics, but I was a senior and I didn’t even know what a GPA was,” said Hardrick. “So Auburn called me and said they had to pull my offer because my GPA wasn’t high enough and I said, ‘What’s a GPA?’ I was told all I had to do was pass this class and play football. All I knew my whole life was 69 was failing so I just had to make a 70 to be able to play football. My teachers helped make sure I passed and we never lost a game in high school, but it didn’t help me in the long run, it just hurt me because I had to take a longer road to college.

“After high school, my coach told me I needed to get away and see that the world was bigger than Courtland and I took his advice.”

From Fort Scott Community College to the University of Nebraska…

Academically ineligible to play at Auburn, Hardrick landed at Fort Scott Community College in Kansas. He had initially committed to Louisiana State University after his two years at junior college were done, but ultimately chose Nebraska instead.

“At junior college that town was smaller than my hometown,” said Hardrick with a chuckle. “It was a town of 200-300 people with a college at the back of it. But it was great. All football, all school. Things happen fast. I went from a nobody after high school to after my first year in junior college; I was ranked in the Top 10 players in the nation. I was like, ‘This is crazy.’”

Bruce Johnson (25), Sukh Chungh (69), Stanley Bryant (66), Travis Bond (60) & Jermarcus Hardrick (51) during the preseason game vs the Edmonton Eskimos June 15, 2017.

“When I got to Nebraska I had never even really seen a big building before because everyone has trailers where I’m from… we all live in mobile homes on gravel streets. I got my first car when I got to Lincoln. I was happy and I’d pull up anywhere and I was getting towed every day. I was wondering why I was getting towed, but I didn’t even know what a parking meter was. I didn’t know you had to press a button to walk across the street. We didn’t have any of that where I’m from. There were just a lot of things that were happening that I wasn’t used to.

“Lincoln is a town of 200,000 people. That was huge to me. Everyone else was saying how small it was. And when I saw that stadium… it was the biggest thing I had ever seen in my life.

“Nebraska was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.”

Meeting Samantha Morabe, surviving then thriving as a Cornhusker…

Hardrick is married now to his wife Samantha and together they have three children: Jermarcus, Jr. who is four; Santana, who turns two this week; and Lyla, born last November. Samantha Hardrick (née: Morabe) and Jermarcus met at Nebraska – he, a big-time recruit from junior college; she, a track and cross-country star of Filipino-Mexican descent from California.

The family is together in Winnipeg during the football season, but return to Lincoln in the winter. Hardrick is close to completing his sociology degree, referees and coaches basketball at the YMCA in the winter, and would like to give back after football as a coach, a counsellor or both.

His first meeting with Samantha, it turns out, was hardly the stuff of romance novels.

“When I met her, it’s the first time I had met anyone of her race because Mississippi is only black and white,” Hardrick said. “I asked her ‘What are you?’ and she was offended. She dodged me and did everything to stay away from me because she had never seen anybody as big as me before. I was just trying to get her attention. Finally, we got cool about eight months later and we started talking.

“She made my life easier and we helped each other. She was struggling at track an I was struggling at football… we were both at a low point. I was a top player coming out of JUCO and had to sit first year. I went from a nobody in high school to a big shot to sitting at Nebraska. I was broken. My confidence was all messed up. She was a big shot at high school and she got redshirted her first year. We both helped each other out. She’s been there ever since.”

Finding a football home…

Hardrick became a starter for the Cornhuskers as a junior, and in his senior season emerged as one of the team’s leaders. He had shots with five different NFL teams, including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints and a stint with the Arizona Blaze in the Arena Football League before coming north to Canada with the B.C. Lions.

He made his first CFL start, ironically, against the Bombers in September of 2014, played eight games with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2015, and landed in Winnipeg as an unheralded but experienced tackle last season.

It’s all of this – his upbringing, his struggles to find a place he feels comfortable – that keeps Hardrick so hungry. And it’s a huge part of the emotion and passion he brings to the field every day.

“My mom… she’s still in that trailer in Courtland,” said Hardrick.

“It’s part of why I run out there and play the way I play and do what I do… because my mom lives in a trailer.”

“And this team… that’s my other family. I only had one kind of emotion growing up: I was mad or hating or angry. I didn’t love. Football was the first thing I loved besides my family. I love coming to work with the people I work with. They make it so much fun. And Matt Nichols… he’s a fearless quarterback. I just want to thank him every day and make him know I love him. I tell him I’m willing to do anything for him because I know he will for me. I love everything about him.

“I know this is a short-lived career. Every day I walk on egg shells. Every day I walk in and look at my locker and say, ‘It’s still there.’ Sometimes I make jokes about it, but it’s not a joke. I’ve been on three CFL teams, tried for five NFL teams, two Arena teams… I’ve come in plenty of times and my locker hasn’t been there. That’s why I walk on eggshells, that’s why I write little notes and do all the little things I didn’t do when I was getting cut. I want to keep that. If that goes away, it would scare me. I guess I need to be on that edge. We have a lot of good guys here and anything could change at any moment. And I know that. I have to stay hungry.

“Growing up, a lot of people told me I wasn’t going to make it and that I was wasting my time,” Hardrick added. “But I knew football was the only thing that was going to get me out of Mississippi and I ran with it. So for me to be here now…

“I’m blessed, man. Blessed.”