Amid grief and shock from the loss of a friend and an Indiana football teammate comes inspiration.
Matt Mayberry has that, and more.
James Hardy is gone. But what the former Elmhurst and Indiana standout meant to Mayberry and many of his Hoosier teammates resonates as strongly now as it did when Hardy was dominating Big Ten defenses a decade ago.
“He was a phenomenal teammate,” Mayberry said. “I've never met another player or person who had his mindset. You could tell he was destined for greatness from the moment you met him.
“That's why this news so shocking. He was the epitome of a great player and a great person. Everybody who knows him from Indiana was shocked at the news.”
Hardy, one of the greatest athletes in Fort Wayne history, was 31 years old when his body was found last week in the Maumee River. The Fort Wayne Police Department, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and the coroner's office continue to investigate the cause of his death.
A memorial service is planned for Saturday at New Covenant Worship Center on 3420 East Paulding Road. Viewing is from 10 to noon, with the service to follow.
Mayberry is a former Indiana All-Big Ten linebacker and, briefly, a Chicago Bear. He's now a motivational speaker and author. His book, “Winning Plays,” which talks about overcoming adversity and achieving success in business and life, came out last fall.
Mayberry played two years with Hardy, during the 2006 and '07 seasons. They were roommates during the 2007 August camp, two months after the death of coach Terry Hoeppner, four months before Hardy, as a record-breaking receiver, would lead the Hoosiers to the Insight Bowl, their first bowl game since 1993.
Mayberry said Hardy's drive for greatness separated him from every other Hoosier.
“We really started to become close during that (August) camp. That's when I started to get know his work ethic.
“He would stay up until 2 a.m. watching film, trying to get better. I remember one time I was trying to get some sleep, and he was telling me we need to do this and that, all the things he needed to do to get better, and what we needed to do to make the team better, what his vision for the future was.
“By the time we were done, it was like 3:45 in the morning and we had to be up at 6. That was James. He never stopped thinking about how he could be better and get better. That's why what happened shocked me.”
Amid the many athletic achievement — Hardy was an all-state receiver and basketball player at Elmhurst, an All-American at IU, and a two-year member of the Buffalo Bills before injuries ended his career — were a few instances of troubles (charges of domestic battery, an arrest and charge of felony resisting arrest for fighting with police officers, a judge ruling that he was mentally incompetent to stand trial) that contrasted dramatically with what Mayberry remembers.
“James' mental toughness, his focus and his determination to be the best, was extraordinary. He was an extremely thoughtful and caring guy.
“I was a nobody when we were roommates. He was extremely well known. He went out of his way to be there for me, to help me be great and play in the NFL one day. He went above and beyond. He would do anything possible to make sure I was on track.”
Mayberry said he and Hardy stayed in contact after they left IU, but had drifted apart in recent years.
“I know all of us teammates are kicking ourselves about that. You never know what someone is going through. He was never outspoken about any troubles.”
Mayberry wondered if the physical nature of football, specifically the impact of concussions that can cause a progressive degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy that leads to erratic behavior and more, was a factor. He said he's seen a neurologist because of concern that he might one day develop a problem.
“I was a physical player. I prided myself on that. All it takes is one concussion that goes undiagnosed and then you continue to play and take competitive hits to the head. That could lead to long-term brain damage.
“All of this was so uncharacteristic of James. He had one of the strongest, most inspiring mindsets I've ever seen.”
Mayberry said he last spoke with Hardy in 2014, shortly before Hardy's arrest in Los Angeles for fighting with police officers.
“He called me and I could tell he was going through a lot. He said he wanted to get into public speaking like I do except he wanted to work more with student-athletes. I said I'll walk you through it. I'll take your hand and show you what you have to do, how you develop your story and anything I could do to help. He told me, 'No, I want you to give me opportunities. I need to make money right now.'
“It was more of that. That continued for about four to five weeks. He talked about needing money right away, that he needed to do it now. I tried to tell him, this isn't something that happens overnight. It takes time to develop.
“I didn't look between the lines. I thought maybe he'd blown some of the NFL money. I took it that he was desperate to make money. I could tell something was wrong. I called a former teammate and said I'm worried about James. A week later he got arrested in Los Angeles.
“Looking back, I do wonder what more I could have done. I regret that, not reaching out.”
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