Sam Hardy would be proud to know that his son found another way to honor his memory.
Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Justin Hardy wrote his late father’s name on his wrist tape, his towel and his cleats before games over the past three years. Sam Hardy died of a heart attack in February 2013. He was 48.
“When it happened, I was going into my senior year of college, so I was like, ‘OK, I’m just going to dedicate the rest of my career to him,’ ” Hardy said. “He was the reason why I started playing football. He taught me everything that I know about football. That was a way of me to show my dedication to him and my appreciation because he was at every game.”
On this Father’s Day, Hardy’s latest tribute carries even more significance. He switched jersey numbers in the offseason from 16 to the same No. 14 Sam Hardy wore as a quarterback at West Craven High School in North Carolina — the same high school where Justin and his brother, Bryan, starred.
“Everybody always has their number, and that was his,” Hardy said of his father. “He had a chance to play Division I, but other things came up and he never went. Would he be proud of me wearing his number? Oh yeah, for sure.”
Hardy, who wore No. 2 in college at East Carolina, entered the NFL in 2015 with plans to wear 14 to represent his father. However, veteran wide receiver/return specialist Eric Weems re-joined the Falcons for a second stint in 2014 and already had the number. Instead of bargaining with Weems, Hardy went a different route.
“When I got drafted, that (14) was the number I was going to try to get because I knew I couldn’t wear No. 2, which is what I wore in college,” Hardy explained. “We had to wear a Nos. 10-19 and above 80, so I was like, ‘I’m going to do this because my dad wore it.’ But when I came here, (Eric) Weems had already gotten it. I didn’t ask [Weems] for it. He had been there previously, so I was like I’m just going to let him have it and get a new number. So I added 14 and 2 together and came up with 16.”
Weems signed with the Tennessee Titans this offseason, meaning Hardy could make the number switch. His teammates rallied behind him.
“That’s something special,” said fellow receiver Mohamed Sanu, who recently lost his father. “Only you have that connection with your father. And I know what that means to him. I’m happy that he was able to switch it, and I’m just excited to see what he’s going to do it. I know he’s going to be fantastic.”
Falcons coach Dan Quinn, who lost his father on June 16 of last year, expressed admiration for Hardy regarding the jersey change.
“What a great story,” Quinn said. “And I’ve met Justin’s mom and some of his family. I would imagine his dad has a big influence on everybody because his mom is pretty special when you talk her, and his brother is, too.
“The man that Justin has turned out to be, I would imagine that was a lot of him growing up with a good model with his father. [Sam Hardy] is looking down, and he ought to be very proud of the man that Justin has become. Probably everybody knew for a good while he was going to be a good ballplayer. More importantly, he’s such a well-respected teammate around here. … One of the highest compliments that I can give a guy is that he’s a great teammate; I can count on him. As a teammate if I’ve got a problem, go see Hardy.”