It’s cliché, but there isn’t much that Justin Hardy hasn’t seen in his football career.
Put simply, his list of accomplishments is impressive. Whether it was throwing 29 touchdowns playing high school football in Vanceboro, North Carolina, becoming the NCAA’s all-time leader in receptions with East Carolina University, making the Super Bowl with the Atlanta Falcons, or being the most targeted player with the Ottawa REBDLACKS this season, Hardy has done nothing but succeed on the football field.
Before all of that, his beginnings were humble. While at West Craven High School, Hardy started his football journey as a receiver, played basketball as a guard, and also participated in track and field, competing in high jump.
In 2008, Hardy and his West Craven team made it to the state championship, where they fell in a blowout. In 15 games as a junior, he hauled in 55 receptions for 837 yards and seven touchdowns. With their quarterback graduating, the coach made the obvious decision, promoting Hardy to starting quarterback. Wait, what?
The method behind the madness, Hardy explains, was to get the team’s best athletes the ball more often, but by that point in his career, he had thrown the ball three times. Thankfully, the transition paid off, and Hardy filled the role admirably, combining for 40 touchdowns in his senior year.
“It was natural,” Hardy said. “My brother, dad, and cousin were all quarterbacks, so playing the position ran in the family. I was the only one to break away from it.”
A triple threat, Hardy had proven his ability to be a reliable wide out, and showed flashes of being a talented quarterback, all while using his legs effectively to run the ball from different positions. Yet, when it came time to move on to college football, no one took notice.
Hardy headed for his local university – East Carolina – where he walked on, doing enough to impress the coaching staff. He redshirted his freshman year in 2010, but earned a scholarship in 2011. In that season, with Dominique Davis leading the team under centre, Hardy immediately proved the coaching staff right, collecting 64 receptions for 658 yards and six touchdowns.
“I just took off,” Hardy said. “I built that trust with everyone, and they believed in me. It all carried over onto the field.”
As time ticked forward, Shane Carden stepped in as Hardy’s quarterback, but they never skipped a beat. With Carden at the helm, Hardy climbed his way through the record book, finishing his time at ECU with 387 receptions, the most in the NCAA’s over 100-year history.
That record wouldn’t last for long, as Zay Jones – whom Hardy spent a pair of seasons teaming up with at ECU – pushed the record to 399. There was no disappointment on Hardy’s behalf, however.
“Records are meant to be broken, but if there was ever anybody that I wanted to break the record, it was Zay,” Hardy said. “I saw the work that he put in. [I’m proud of what we accomplished], all day, every day.”
In five years – four spent playing football – Hardy’s public image changed entirely. He had gone from someone that schools didn’t recruit, to a name that will live on forever in college football lore. By the time the 2015 NFL Draft rolled around, Hardy was a virtual lock to hear his name, with some suggesting it could come as early as the second round.
It didn’t happen quite like that, but when the Atlanta Falcons announced their selection in the fourth round, Hardy got a call, and could officially say he had been drafted.
“All of the work that I had put in until that point in my life [was rewarded],” Hardy said. “Hearing my name on draft day was a refreshing moment, but I also knew that this was a new beginning, I had to start all over again.”
It was the first time the Falcons had drafted a receiver since Julio Jones in 2011, whom Hardy was teaming up with. Along with Jones, Hardy had reliable veterans he could turn to with players like Matt Ryan or Mohamed Sanu, and routinely went to them for help whenever it was needed.
“Those are some great guys,” Hardy said. “When I came in, they were already a little older, but they put their trust in me, and understood that I was trying to be a sponge around them. They were always knowledgeable with [anything I needed], and they weren’t afraid of helping out where they could.”
In 2016, the Falcons captured their second NFC championship, sending them to Super Bowl 51.
“The experience was cool,” Hardy said. “Getting the chance to go to the Super Bowl… there’s only a few people who can say they have been able to do that. But you have to approach it as if it’s any other game, you can’t get too high.”
Through four NFL seasons, Hardy had just under 1,000 yards total, and nine touchdowns, but it wasn’t what the Falcons were looking for anymore. In 2020, the now-veteran receiver didn’t play, and after a short offseason stint with the Chicago Bears in 2021, was out of the NFL.
While many players who had reached a level like Hardy would have turned their noses up at the CFL, he wasn’t one of them. On March 18th, 2022, he signed with the REDBLACKS, making the transition to the Canadian game.
“I still have football to play,” Hardy said. “There was an opportunity to come up here and showcase that.”
Last season, Hardy was a rookie by technicality only. By all accounts, he has been a veteran from the moment he walked through the doors at TD Place, and he showed flashes of that, picking up 416 yards in his first year.
This season, he has taken another step forward, becoming one of the most reliable options in the REDBLACKS’ passing attack. Although he’s no longer leading the charge in yards – that’s now Jaelon Acklin – he’s way out in front in receptions, and that shouldn’t be shocking with his history.
“It’s all of the work,” Hardy explained. “Every week in practice, we’re attacking it, doing everything I need to do. When game time comes, it’s easier to play free, because I know what I’m doing.”