All season long, Jets special teams player Justin Hardee watched multiple players be invited to speak at the podium, which is located in the middle of the team’s locker room.
Wednesday was his turn to be in the spotlight as Hardee finally achieved one of his career goals.
Last week, Hardee was named to the AFC Pro Bowl team for the first time in his career. He supplanted Patriots’ 15-year veteran Matthew Slater, who was a 10-time Pro Bowl selection.
Hardee was not only chosen by the fans to be the AFC’s special teams representative but also by the coaches and players.
“I honestly been waiting on this moment all year,” Hardee said. “Offense and defense get a lot of the recognition and there’s no knock on any of those guys because they deserve it, especially in this locker room.
“All season, I’ve been walking past this [podium] all year and I was like, ‘put me in front of there.’ I literally got my motivation from y’all. I’m that type of guy that any little thing motivates me. I wasn’t called to talk on any day and I was like, ‘I’m going to make them want to talk to me.’
“That’s just something that I put in my head each week. Each week, I was like, I’m going to make them talk to me and I’m going to get what I want. So that was a blessing.”
The life of a special teams player is always challenging and that has been the case with Hardee. He was a three-star recruit at Illinois, where he started 12 games at receiver his senior year.
Following his college career, Hardee didn’t get selected in the 2017 NFL Draft. He was signed by the Texans as an undrafted free agent but was released during final cuts.
After the Texans cut him, former coach Bill O’Brien gave him some career advice as he believed Hardee had a chance to be a special teams player in the mold of Slater.
Following his stint in Houston in the fall of 2017, Hardee was signed to the Saints practice squad as they switched his position to defensive back. He was later promoted to the Saints active roster as he was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week after Hardee blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown in a win against Tampa Bay.
After three seasons with the Saints, Hardee signed a three-year, $5.25 million contract with the Jets in 2021.
“I didn’t even know about the Pro Bowl or anything like that necessarily during my rookie year,” Hardee said. “At that point, I just wanted to be on the 53-man roster. I didn’t necessarily care about accolades, I just wanted to play and show that I can play in this league.
“Once I was able to get around that and be around that team, be around winning and other guys was going to the Pro Bowl, I set that as one of my goals, but I fell short for years.
“I can honestly say, better late than never. I’m glad that it happened for me and I’m glad that it happened now compared to now because I appreciate that much more because I had to go through so much to get it.”
Hardee’s Pro Bowl accomplishment is a bit bittersweet. His mother, Estella Perryman, wasn’t able to see him play in the NFL as she died at 55 in 2013 while he was a student at Illinois as she dealt with lung disease for 15 years.
Perryman was Hardee’s inspiration for earning not just a bachelor’s degree in communication but also master’s degrees in education and sport management. Last week, Hardee visited his mother’s grave site on Christmas with the Jets having the weekend off after playing last Thursday night.
Hardee wanted to tell his mother the news of him making the Pro Bowl and all the goals that he wanted to achieve.
“I know she would be proud,” Hardee said. “She would tell me to go do it again. My mom was always someone that had very high standards for me and we are not ok with just that. It is so much more stuff out here to go get even within the season.
“Pro Bowl is a huge accomplishment as some guys never get that in their career. It’s an honor and every time I walk out on that field, I’m representing her all the time, every time.”