FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Justin Hardee gently brushed the snow from his mother's gravestone, enough so he could see the image of her face etched into the marble.
The New York Jets' special teams ace needed to share his good news with Estella Perryman. Just like the old days.
“Mom, I did it,” Hardee told her. “I did it.”
Perryman, 55, died Dec. 12, 2013, in Cleveland after a long struggle with lung disease. Coinciding with the ninth anniversary of burying her, Hardee found out during a team meeting last week he was selected to his first Pro Bowl. And coincidentally, the Pro Bowl Games will be played in Paradise, Nevada, on Feb. 5 — Perryman’s birthday.
“I know she’d be proud,” said Hardee, who has an image of his mother tattooed over his heart. “She’d tell me to go do it again."
After the Jets played last Thursday night, Hardee traveled home for the holiday weekend and spent a few quiet moments at his mother's grave.
“See the smile on my face?” Hardee said. “I haven’t been able to see my mom on Christmas in years. And she’s not even here, but she’s still here.”
That’s evident in the 28-year-old's insatiable desire to succeed, guided by the morals and work ethic instilled by his mother.
“Every time I walk out on that field, every day, I’m representing her all the time,” he said. “Every time.”
Hardee went undrafted out of Illinois in 2017, but signed with Houston as a free-agent wide receiver. It was there then-coach Bill O'Brien suggested he could “be one of those guys” — a special teams ace. Hardee was waived after training camp, but was quickly signed by New Orleans to its practice squad.
“I knew exactly what I was there for,” he said. “They switched me to defensive back and said, ‘Man, go be a beast on special teams.’”
He did exactly that over the next four seasons, establishing himself as a force on kickoff and punt coverage. It led him to the Jets, who signed him to a three-year, $5.25 million deal in March 2021.
“He embraces it as something he can make a career out of and he embraces it as something that can help the team win every Sunday,” long snapper Thomas Hennessy said. “His leadership is infectious and his play is infectious.”
Hardee, a special teams captain, has a career-high 12 special teams tackles, ranking him among the NFL's leaders. That's despite often being double- and sometimes triple-teamed.
“If you asked any player we’ve played against, any coach you play against, that’s the first guy they mention,” Jets special teams coordinator Brant Boyer said. “He has done a heck of a job. If you can find me a better gunner in this league than that guy, I’d like to see it because I don’t think there is one.
"He's a special dude.”
Hardee said he was “crying inside” when his coaches told him he earned the Pro Bowl selection, which is one-third each of votes from fans, players and coaches.
“It was just like, wow, one of my dreams actually came true, you know?” Hardee said. "I didn’t get that feeling of being drafted. I didn’t get that call, like, 'Hey, man, we’re coming to get you,’ or anything like that. And I haven’t gotten a championship and I haven’t gotten a national championship or a state championship in high school or a Super Bowl just yet.
“So it was just like a personal championship.”
Hardee's on-field resume speaks for itself, but what he has accomplished away from all those kickoffs and punts is also remarkable. He has three degrees from Illinois — a bachelor's in communications and master's in sports management and education. He's also a budding entrepreneur who owns two Papa John's franchises, one in New Orleans and another in Waveland, Mississippi.
“He can just do it all,” punter Braden Mann said. “He's impressive.”
Earlier this week, Hardee was asked to speak to the media about his Pro Bowl selection at the backdrop in the middle of the Jets' locker room, which is usually reserved for the team's biggest stars.
“I’ve been walking past this all year, and I was like, ‘Man, I’m going to make them want to put me in front of here,’" Hardee said. “I literally got my motivation from you guys. I’m the type of guy that lets any little thing motivate me.
"And the simple fact I wasn’t called to talk on on any day, I was like, ‘I’m going to make them want to talk to me.’”
Well, there's certainly plenty to chat about now. And another story to share someday with his mother.
“She's always with me,” Hardee said. “Always.”
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Dennis Waszak Jr., The Associated Press