Former Illini Justin Hardee making most of his NFL opportunities

Former Illini Justin Hardee making most of his NFL opportunities
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Justin Hardee tries to make the most of every opportunity he earns.

When his college football career extended to five years due to a foot injury, he left the University of Illinois with three degrees.

When he earned an NFL training camp invitation from the Houston Texans, he impressed a preseason opponent so much that the New Orleans Saints immediately signed Hardee after the Texans cut him. Hardee is now playing his fourth season with the Saints franchise, making $1.5 million this season according to Spotrac and Over The Cap.

Now, Hardee is trying to make the most of that seven-figure income while he’s got it. In July, Hardee opened his own Papa John’s Pizza franchise at 3001 Tulane Ave. in New Orleans.

Hardee said his personal drive comes from the motivation to make his mother proud. Following Hardee’s sophomore season at Illinois, Estella Perryman died in December 2013 from sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that mostly affects the lungs.

“This opportunity definitely means the world to me, to be able to live up to something that I know I promised my mom to use this opportunity to give me a better opportunity in life, to be able to start my business and to be able to put myself and my family in situations we probably would have never had the opportunity to have,” Hardee told Illini Inquirer. “It’s definitely a dream come true. That’s just something I don’t want to not take advantage of and to ever take for granted.”

Hardee now balances three roles in his life: NFL player, first-time business owner and father of 1-year-old son Justin Hardee Jr. And he seems to be handling each role well.

Hardee said business is going well despite opening up during a pandemic. The idea came from running into a long-time Papa John’s employee during a holiday party. Hardee then received professional advice from New Orleans Saints defensive back Malcolm Jenkins, who owns several Papa John’s Pizza franchises.

“We put a plan together, and now it’s here. It’s definitely a big blessing,” Hardee said. “I always wanted to do something, not sure exactly what it was. I’m just sitting here like, ‘I got three degrees, and I’m not doing anything,’ and this was after my first offseason. I just knew I wanted to get into stuff. Once this opportunity came at hand, it was something I had to do my research on and an opportunity I couldn’t turn my back on.”

Hardee hired a store manager to take care of most day-to-day operations. But he also plays an active role in the store, which he has enjoyed so far.

“It’s pretty dope, honestly. It’s pretty dope,” Hardee said. “It’s different. Just making sure you’re checking on everything and then also making sure you stay on top of your A-game, what’s really the moneymaker [the NFL]. I wouldn’t say it’s hard or anything like that, but it’s a challenge, and I enjoy it. Because it’s fun to be the boss.”

Hardee earned the business opportunity by taking care of business on the field. Hardee had a solid career as a wide receiver at Illinois, hauling in 72 receptions for 841 yards. But he’s found his niche as a special teams standout on one of the best special teams units in the NFL.

Hardee — who always has had track speed since graduating from the storied Glenville (Ohio) football program — made an immediate impression during his rookie season, blocking a Tampa Bay Buccaneers punt in Week 9 of the 2017 season and returning it for a touchdown to earn NFC Special Teams Player of the Week. During his first three seasons, he led the Saints with 24 special teams tackles, and he has two special-teams tackles through the Saints 1-1 start to the 2020 season.

Hardee watched former Illini teammates, like Clayton Fejedelem, make careers — and good money — out of special teams’ contributions. And an NFL scout’s comments early in his career opened his mind to set his sights on a special-teams path to success for himself.

“I remember I was a freshman, and one of the NFL scouts had come up to one of the coaches and said, ‘Man, I can’t wait to see this guy on special teams,’” Hardee said. “That was just in my freshman year of camp, so I honestly didn’t think much of it. Coach Beckman had me on special teams. I was one of the lead guys on special teams. So it was something I knew I was going to do as soon as I got to the league. And it’s something I knew I could always do because I did it at Illinois.

“I knew exactly my role was going to be to get me into the league and to have me stay.”

What has been his key to special-teams success?

“It’s just a want-to, having that dog [mentality], having that will not to lose, just being so competitive,” Hardee said. “I just hate to lose. I definitely don’t want to be that guy in the film room being called out. I study, man. I definitely try to study my opponent and have fun with it. Special teams is fun to me. I love it.”

Hardee also has flipped positions to cornerback in the NFL and provides depth at the position for the Saints behind starters Janoris Jenkins and Marshon Lattimore. During a 2018 win over the Washington Football Team, Hardee intercepted Alex Smith for his career pick and returned it inside the Washington five-yard line. Hardee thinks he can eventually evolve into a higher-impact defensive player too.

“Honestly, I wish I would’ve played defense [in college] because obviously now in my situation, I think I could have been so many more steps ahead,” Hardee said. “But I guess I wouldn’t change my process because I’m here, I’m healthy, I’m on the uprise, I’m definitely an up-and-coming defensive back. I believe I’m going to make big plays and I’m going to be a big-time defensive player someday. Just like special teams, I want to be the best. My goal is to go All-Pro.”

Hardee continues to keep up with his alma mater. He checks on Illini scores and even keeps tabs on Illini football recruiting. He said some in the NFL “joke on” Illinois as a program, but he thinks the program is heading in the right direction after last season’s bowl bid — the Illini’s first since Hardee was a junior in 2014.

“I’m impressed,” Hardee said. “At first, I had no idea where the program was going. But after last season, I definitely see they have a plan and they have a long-term plan and a short-term plan with the guys that they have now. Seems like they’re going to have a great season, whenever that may be. I feel this may be one of the better teams that we have in a while.”

Hardee has made the most of the opportunities he’s earned, and he hopes to continue that moving forward. Most of all, the proven NFL veteran, the first-time business owner and father of Justin Jr. hopes that he’s making his mother proud.

“She definitely means the world to me,” Hardee said. “Everything I do, every move I make, even becoming a business owner, it was something I thought about with her. She’s definitely impacting me so much and meant so much throughout my whole life, especially throughout this whole process with me fortunately being able to go to the NFL and then to be able to become a business owner, to become a father. My goal is to make her proud and just use her as motivation for the rest of my life really.”

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