NEXT GENERATION: For kids at Elbert Primary, ‘ME-cole’ is beloved

Mecole Hardman works with students at Elbert County Primary School on pronunciation. That's Ashley immediately to his right.

ELBERTON — You know him as Mecole Hardman, 5-star prospect and athlete extraordinaire. But to 6-year-old Ashley and her fellow students in Mr. Eubanks’ class at Elbert Primary School, he is just another teacher known only by the beautifully mispronounced name of ME-cole.

A recent visit to Elberton reveals that there is much more to Hardman — whose first name is correctly pronounced muh-COLE — than an inhuman vertical leap and 4.3-second 40-yard-dash time. It turns out that one of Georgia’s most high-profile signees also doubles as a special education teacher.

Every morning at 8 a.m., Monday through Friday, Hardman dutifully reports to the primary school four miles away from Elbert County Comprehensive High School and joins the class of Scott Eubanks.

Technically, Hardman is doing this for academic credit through the school system’s “Career Pathways” program. But working with special needs children is actually something Hardman was doing long before he started seeking joint-enrollment credits.

Before arriving at Elbert County High as a ninth grader, Hardman was introduced to Mrs. Crystal Thomas, who encouraged him to join the Friends Helping Friends service club. Thomas directs the volunteer organization through the middle school and suggested Hardman join the group.

“I’ve always been good with kids, and she told me when I got to high school I should work in the program and come to the schools and help the kids,” Hardman said after completing a recent shift. “She’s the one who got my mind set on it. So I got into it the second semester of my ninth-grade year. That’s when Mrs. Eubanks came and she helped me get into the Pathways Program.”

“Mrs. Eubanks” is April Eubanks, who teaches at the high school and heads the Pathways Program. Her husband is Scott Eubanks, who teaches special needs children in kindergarten and first grade at Elbert Primary.

It is in Scott Eubanks’ classroom that Hardman serves as an aide for four hours every weekday.

“He comes in here every day and works with the kids and he’s just been great,” said Scott Eubanks, who played football at Coastal Carolina but fancies himself a Clemson fan. “I’m really glad my wife suggested him. He came in and jumped right in with the kids. It’s not really anything I have to ask for. He’s real good about helping the students who need hand-over-hand instruction.”

That’s evident in Hardman’s interactions with Ashley. She was severely injured as a toddler and was left with mental and physical difficulties as a result. On this particular day, Hardman sits in a tiny chair at a tiny round table next to Ashley in her walker and the other kids. Hardman points to a picture of an animal for Ashley to pronounce. Quite spontaneously, Ashley throws her arms around Hardman’s neck and plants a kiss on him.

“I love you, ME-cole,” she says loudly.

“I love you, too, Ashley,” Hardman replies softly.

A calling, not an obligation

Hardman represents a sort of outlet for these children. Yes, he drills them on words and letters and numbers just like the other teachers. But he also cuts up with them. He’ll make a game of tossing toys back into the bins. He’ll make them jump to retrieve a pencil. Everywhere he goes, outstretched hands seek high-fives. He has fun and tries to make sure they do, too.

Hardman also does some student teaching in a first grade math class. AJC / CHIP TOWERS

Hardman’s daily teaching duties will satisfy his requirements for college credit through Pathways. But there were steps to take before getting here. Before this semester, Hardman’s final one in high school, he had to take classes on Early Childhood Care and Health, Safety and Nutrition, and Early Childhood Education. He has already taken the exit exam and thus has technically fulfilled the requirements for credit. But still he comes to the primary school every morning.

Hardman makes it clear that this is more of a calling than it is about satisfying academic obligations. He has a 6-year-old cousin, Tykem, in Mr. Eubanks’ class.

“Working with those kids, it makes you re-think life,” Hardman said as he reflected on it later in the football office at the high school. “When you see Ashley, the way she gets out of her walker and does her best to walk, it just gives me more motivation. If she’s got to do that, if she has to work with that every day, Monday through Sunday, that just gives you more motivation to do what you have to do.”

What Hardman is having to do is get ready to report to the University of Georgia. He’s due to report on June 1 along with roommate Elijah Holyfield and all the other members of the 2016 signing class.

Meeting Hardman there is dump truck load of expectations.

The 5-foot-10, 175-pound Hardman is rated as the No. 1 athlete in the nation by “Athlete” is the designation given to prospects that could play any skill position in college.

Hardman signed with UGA to much fanfare in February with the expectation of becoming a cornerback and kick returner. But the Bulldogs also plan to install an offensive package for him as a receiver and, with the recent attrition experienced in the backfield, possibly as a tailback.

At Elbert County, all Hardman did was start at quarterback as a ninth grader and in every game since. And coach Sid Fritts and the Blue Devils rode his considerable athletic talents to great heights. This past season did not end until Hardman almost singlehandedly led them to victory in the Class AAA state playoffs. Hardman scored three touchdowns before Elbert finally fell to Calhoun 33-30 in three overtimes. They finished 11-3.

“He was our quarterback,” Fritts said. “When Mecole came along, we wanted to do what Texas did with Vince Young and what Appalachian State did with Armanti Edwards. Mecole was our Armanti, and it really worked well for us. I’ve never seen him waver, regardless of the stage. He’s been able to handle some pretty big environments.”

As a senior read-option quarterback, Hardman had 2,103 rushing yards and scored 28 touchdowns. But other than an occasional snap in the “Wild Dog” formation, Georgia didn’t recruit Hardman to play on the offensive side of the ball.

It’s as a cornerback that the Bulldogs see his future. And the funny thing about that is, Hardman played virtually none at that position in high school. Occasionally, in special defensive situations, Elbert County would play Hardman as a deep safety. But the rest of the time he served only as his team’s primary offensive weapon.

Which is not to say Hardman has no experience playing defensive back. At every elite prospect camp Hardman attended – and he attended them all – coaches always put Hardman on defense and usually matched him up against the best receivers on site. Invariably, Hardman won those battles, which sent his recruiting value through the roof.

That’s why Tennessee and Florida and Alabama and Michigan and Ohio State and, of course, Georgia, were clamoring for him to sign as a DB.

“That’s definitely established with Coach (Mel) Tucker,” Hardman said of Georgia’s new defensive coordinator. “He definitely wants me in the secondary as a corner or a star kind of player. But Coach (Jim) Chaney definitely is going to have a couple of plays for me on offense, whether that be a jet sweep or (in the) ‘Wildcat’ or whatever.”

Bumpy road to UGA

People in this small Northeast Georgia town of about 5,000 always figured Hardman would wind up at the UGA. But it wasn’t always such a certainty. Early on in his recruitment, Hardman favored Tennessee, the first SEC school to offer him a scholarship and the first come visit him by flying the school jet into the local airport. And the idea of going up north to a place like Michigan or Ohio State once appealed to him.

But Hardman is, first and foremost, a family man. His parents and five sisters and brothers all live in the area. And his mother, Danyell Hardman, is the one person in the world he can’t stand to be away from. She’s a cancer survivor who lives in Elberton, works in Athens and also ministers at a local church.

RELATED: Mama’s Boy: What Hardman is truly thankful for

So with Mark Richt as Georgia’s head coach and with defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt as his primary recruiter, Hardman was fairly certain a long time ago that the Bulldogs were his team. It was only at the end of the regular season when Richt got dismissed that things became squirrelly.

“When Coach Richt got fired from Georgia, that really made me stop and realize I needed to stop and try other schools,” Hardman said. “That’s when I visited Michigan, Ohio State and Alabama. I wanted to go with Coach Pruitt and, for a minute, I was going to Alabama. Then the day I was supposed to go on my official visit (to Alabama) it snowed and I didn’t go. I took that as a sign I should go to Georgia.”

As one might imagine, that went over quite well with the local populous. In fact, in Christy Hart’s math class at Elbert Primary, one of the three classrooms he visits daily there, they polled the students on which college they wanted to see Hardman attend as a lesson in percentages. Georgia took 17 of the 28 votes, with Florida (4) pulling in a distant second.

But that was those students. The ones in Mr. Eubanks’ class, the ones with whom Hardman has spent most of his morning hours since the first of January, they don’t care about where he’s going to school. And neither do they care that he’s a 5-star prospect or a track star that recently ran away with the Region 8-AAA high-points award with wins in the 100 meters, 4×100, 4×400, long and triple jumps.

To them, he’s just ME-cole, the one who always greets them with a big grin and a high five.

“They don’t know who I am or what I’m about to become or what I do in football,” Hardman said. “They just know my personality and how much love I show to them. That’s what they’re attracted to. They don’t know anything about football or basketball. You could be LeBron James and walk into the classroom and they might not like him. I walk into the room, and they’re like, ‘Mecole! Mecole!’

“I just love every one of them kids. If these kids can go through life dealing with what they have to, I ain’t got no worries.”

With Hardman in the house, it would appear Georgia doesn’t either.

“Next Generation” is weekly series on Georgia’s 2016 football signees that will run every Wednesday now through the summer.

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