Everyone knows Mecole Hardman, Jr. The easy smile. The stud earrings. The ludicrous 4.3 speed that goes along with being a 5-star recruit rated as the nation’s no. 1 athlete.
He’s richly blessed with a life that’s already the stuff other athletes make January resolutions about. UGA, Alabama, Michigan and Tennessee seem to have the best chances at signing him, but he would not count any one of those opportunities as his biggest blessing.
“I’m so thankful for my mother and her health,” Hardman Jr. told DawgNation. “That she’s still here with us to experience all of this with me.”
In 2013, doctors discovered that his mother, Danyell Hardman, had a brain tumor the size of an apple. The surgery to remove it took almost ten hours.
“He went to the hospital with me because he’s a momma’s boy,” Danyell Hardman said. “He stayed with me the whole time until I came out of surgery.”
When that tumor was found, it was pushing her brain to the back of her skull. She was having seizures and didn’t even know it.
“It was a miracle for me,” his mother said. “I had a seizure driving. Right after I had the tumor taken out me and my mother were coming back from Athens driving and I had another full-blown seizure. The bad part is I don’t remember anything. .. I remember waking up in an ambulance and I didn’t know who I was. I saw trees. I saw a sheriff and I knew who she was, but I didn’t know who I was.”
When one of her aunts called her by a name her mother used for her, it triggered her memory. She needed two surgeries over a span of three months to fully remove the tumor.
“All I could think about then was I could lose my momma,“ Mecole Hardman, Jr. said. “But my momma was so strong she told me she’d be okay. I believe every word she says because she is a real strong woman of God.”
Hardman said she has experienced a 100 percent recovery.
“I’ll never look up into the stands to see my momma and take that for granted,” Hardman, Jr. said.
His mother had to learn to do everything all over again, even simple things like making a bowl of cereal. It was so humbling she cried the first time she was able to make the shopping rounds at Wal-Mart. She was that thankful to do it on her own.
Hardman, Jr. said she’s a big reason why he plays with so much passion.
“Football is for her and all my family,” Hardman said. “To make her and my family proud. That’s all the fuel I need for my fire.”
It is easy to see the relationship being a big factor in his eventual college choice.
Hardman, Jr. was a big fan of former UGA defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. When Mark Richt was fired, he made a public plea for Pruitt to be retained. Pruitt is now at Alabama. Hardman already had the Crimson Tide as one of his top schools before he got there.
Can Kirby Smart get Hardman to feel the same way he did about the program before Pruitt and Richt left?
“Yeah,” Hardman said. “I like Coach Smart. I told everybody when Coach Pruitt left that the only way I’d still be interested in Georgia would be if Coach Smart came in. Coach Smart and Coach Pruitt come from the same background under Nick Saban. Who wouldn’t want to learn the game from two guys like that?”
Hardman took an unofficial visit to UGA on Dec. 15. That was the weekend of 5-star quarterback Jacob Eason’s official visit. Hardman has been to UGA more than a dozen times, but said it was “probably his best ever visit.”
Smart even called his mother while he was there to let her know her son was in good hands.
“It felt like the same old Georgia,” Hardman Jr. said. “The only thing which was different is there was no Coach Richt or Coach Pruitt there.”
Smart’s pitch is the same thing that reeled in 5-star defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick to Alabama.
“They want me to get all the extra meetings I can and learn the defense as fast as I can so I can go to the other side of the ball and learn that system as well,” Hardman, Jr. said.
Hardman, Jr. was a read-option high school quarterback. He had 2,103 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns as a senior, but will play elsewhere in college. He has the skills to be an impact defensive back, receiver or return man on Saturdays.
“I tell everybody when I get to campus I’m going to do all the conditioning and film study I need to play both ways,” Hardman Jr. said. “I want it bad. I feel like I’m too good with the ball in my hands for them to just say let’s just keep him on defense and not let him touch the ball.”
THE FIRE WITHIN
What does football really mean to these 5-stars? Are they entitled princes that need reprogramming when the enroll? That’s what the college coaches wonder.
Does what they do on the field matter outside of a scholarship? That’s what separates the good from great in the SEC. It matters to Hardman.
When Elbert County lost its final game of Hardman’s senior season, he cried. He laid his jersey on the floor for a photo. He had a hug for every teammate and coach. Yet before the bus left, he walked out onto the field at Calhoun High School.
The first few steps were a stroll. He had his headphones on, but there was no music pumping through them. Hardman went down to the far end zone past the goal post. He had a moment and then went back in the other direction.
He was all alone and soaked it in. It was not drawn out but wanted the end of that chapter to matter.
“That was the last time I will ever play on a high school field,” Hardman said afterward. “I left it all out there. It is still out there. This game will be on my mind for a long time. I didn’t want it to end.”
Jeff Sentell covers UGA football and UGA recruiting for AJC.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on who’s on their way to play Between the Hedges.