During Thursday's virtual press conference when he was introduced to the New York area media, Justin Hardee, a special-teams standout and sometime cornerback (and long ago wide receiver) signed by the Jets this week as a free agent from New Orleans, was asked why he's so good as a gunner. He stood up and pointed to a heart-shaped logo on his sweatshirt.
"That's why I'm good at it — 'cuz I've got heart," Hardee, 27, said. "I won't back down. I'm a maniac on the field. I just play with grit, man. I play like I'm trying to feed my son. I play like I told my mother that I was going to play -- hard. She's up in the sky watching me. I cannot disappoint her.
"That's why I believe I'm good at special teams — because I will NOT be denied."
Hardee's mother, Estella Perryman, died at 55 in late 2013 while he was a student at the University of Illinois. His mom, who lived in Cleveland, struggled with lung disease for 15 years. Responding to the question, Hardee stood up. You could his medal, a cross that has a picture of his mom on the inside.
Hardee was in class when an aunt called and urged him to return home to be with his mom.
"I went to class and got another call from my auntie telling me, 'You need to come home now,'" Hardee told the News-Gazette in Champaign, IL. " 'Your mother needs you.' "
He made the six-hour drive home.
"I could hear her in my ear telling me what to do in certain situations and [to] always be positive," he said. "I wanted to come back to school to show people it is positive to go through tough things and still do the right things."
Hardee, who played wide receiver in college at Illinois, was signed by Houston as an undrafted free agent in 2017. He was one of the Texans' final cuts, then signed with New Orleans' practice squad.
"It means a lot to me just being wanted," said Hardee after signing his new three-year contract at the Jets Atlantic Health Training Center in Florham Park, NJ. "Being undrafted, you're rarely wanted. Being undrafted, you get the short end of the stick. So to turn those tables around for me in a positive light, you know, it's a true blessing from God."
Hardee ranked No. 7 in the NFL with 32 special teams tackles between 2017-20 and was a part of the Saints punt-return-coverage unit that set an NFL record for fewest yards allowed in the 2020 season.
"New Orleans is in a big cap problem," Hardee said on Thursday. "The Jets were one of the ones who really reached out to me and really wanted me. I wanted to go somewhere where I was wanted and not just be tolerated, and be a part of something special. I'm looking forward to being in New York and being a Jet."
Hardy is far from a one-dimensional athlete. Last year he purchased a Papa John's pizza franchise in New Orleans. In addition to earning a communications degree from Illinois in fewer than three years, he also has a pair of master's degrees -- one in sports management and one in education.
"That was my mom's most important thing," he said in an interview after she died. "She loved to see me on the field, but she always wanted me to bring back great grades and get a degree."
On Thursday, he added: "Growing up, she went to work everyday with no complaints. She was battling sickness but got up and fought it. She left me with expectations, and those expectations I have to fulfill. It's my goal in life to make her proud.
"Once when I brought home all 'A's' [on a report card], she told me to go clean up. That moment there kept me humble throughout my life and my career. I pray I'm making her proud and this is only the beginning."