HAMILTON – The traffic was constant, with one media type after another – some with TV cameras and the accompanying bright lights, others with old-school notebooks – all pit-stopping at Jermarcus Hardrick’s station during Grey Cup media day.
And during it all, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers all-star right tackle couldn’t wipe the grin from his face that was as wide as Lake Ontario.
It wasn’t too long ago that Hardrick – Canadian Football League All-Star and a finalist for the league’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman honours Thursday night at the Fallsview Casino in Niagara Falls – had reached a career crossroads.
He had come north to the CFL after NFL shots with Tampa and New Orleans and had already bounced from the B.C. Lions to the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Then one day in the offseason – February 16, 2016, to be exact – his football career took a left turn. A good left turn.
“I was at home in Lincoln, Nebraska at the gym working out,” began Hardrick, who grew up in Mississippi and finished his collegiate career at the University of Nebraska. “My agent called, and my wife answered the phone. He said Sask had called, and I’d been cut.
“An hour later my agent called back and said, ‘You’re going to Winnipeg.’ I wasn’t sad for long. I was happy to be heading to another organization. And it’s funny, now my kids love Winnipeg. I wouldn’t change anything.
“It’s days like today, doing things like this media day, when I think about the coaches and how they helped me, about Winnipeg giving me a chance, about Coach O’Shea talking to me about my weight and some things they thought could help me save my career.
“Now I look up and it’s eight years later and I’m in a position I wouldn’t have even dreamed about. This just doesn’t seem real, even after watching Stanley (Bryant) do it for all these years just by working hard. It’s funny, but every offseason I used to say I wanted to be an all-star or the best offensive lineman and compete with Stanley and win the award. Then this offseason I didn’t think about it. All I could think about was how we lost the cup and how could we get back to it.”
He’s here along with his Blue Bombers teammates, and Hardrick & Co have one more game in what has been a sensational season. Long one of the emotional leaders on this team – on top of being a damn fine tackle – he flanked the right side of a line that features fellow CFL all-star Pat Neufeld at guard along with centre Chris Kolankowski, left guard Geoff Gray and Bryant, the perennial all-everything left tackle.
They’ve been the engine in an offence that finished first in all the cool statistical categories, features the leading rusher in Brady Oliveira and the leading touchdown passer in Zach Collaros.
“It’s about Sunday. No matter what happens Thursday night (at the awards), I want the team award,” he said. “I want the team award so bad after losing one. It almost doesn’t seem real being back here. After you win one you wonder if you’re going to get back. After you lose one you really don’t think you are coming back. So… all I want is for us to feel that again, to get it back again.”
We first told you of Hardrick’s amazing journey to Canada back in 2017 and since then, his legend has only further grown. He’s found a home in Winnipeg with the Blue Bombers, a place where his career was not only saved, but transformed.
And his story, of course, is much bigger than that.
“I couldn’t have imagined any of this,” Hardrick admitted. “I’m just a trailer-park guy who used to look out my window dreaming. I’m a kid who used to play with mud pies, run through the woods, play in sewage drains… now I’m in Winnipeg and I see skyscrapers, I’m in love with the cold, I’m hardened by the cold, I look forward to perogies and gyros… I can’t thank Winnipeg enough and now to be back here for the fourth time is just so exciting.
“I’m proud of what’s happened. When I get into my deep thoughts and talk to myself that’s what I tell myself – that I’m proud. A lot of times I don’t take the time to tell myself that because I’m always on the go or working at getting better because you don’t think you’re good enough.
“Then sometimes I go back and read the stories. Sometimes I go back and look at pictures. I’ll call my mom and tell her to send me pictures from when we were kids. Then I’ll sit there for about an hour looking at four pictures. Then I’ll go work out like a madman.
“Those are my proudest moments, looking at those pictures or when I go home and people who knew me as a kid and have seen my whole journey tell me how proud they are. But there’s more to do this Sunday.”