As a kid, Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy spent endless hours in a park near his Arizona home, fielding ground balls and honing his game. The batter? Hardy's mother.
At 4, Ravens' tight end Maxx Williams learned to punt, pass and kick a football in the commons area beside the family's New Jersey townhouse. Williams' teacher? His mom.
As America celebrates Mother's Day, a number of the Baltimore area's star athletes whose moms also played sports cite them as their mentors, inspirations and biggest supporters.
"She was always there to help me practice," Hardy said of his mother, Susie Hardy, who'd been the No. 1 golfer at Arizona and a physical education major. "She'd pitch to me and my brother Logan — and she didn't take it easy on us, either. After awhile, we'd play 'Home Run Derby' and Mom would shag flies for us in the outfield."
Her zeal carried over to Little League, where Susie Hardy helped coach her son's first team in the minors and even pitched to the youngsters during games.
"I threw strikes every time," she said proudly. "J.J. didn't care that it was his mother pitching because I'd put the ball right where he wanted it."
A nationally-ranked amateur golfer — she competed against Hall of Famers Nancy Lopez and Beth Daniel in the 1970s — Susie Hardy carved a reputation as a gritty competitor with a fierce work ethic.
"I'd hit golf balls until my hands were blistered and bleeding," she said. "That drive to get better? I think [J.J.] got that from me. He was the best player on almost every team he played for and, if he wasn't, he'd work hard until he was."
Susie Hardy's golf career ended after college when she developed carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists. Wed to a tennis pro, she quit the sport, started a family ... and helped launch her son on a baseball career. Hardy, 32, is a three-time defending Gold Glove winner who made the All-Star team in 2013.
"My dad [Mark] always says, 'Who knows if J.J. would even be in the majors if his mother hadn't gotten hurt?' " the Orioles' shortstop said. "I still can't beat Dad in tennis or Mom in golf, but I see her being the more competitive of the two. I guess I get that [determination] from her."
'Play catch with me'
Maxx Williams' father, Brian, played pro football for the New York Giants, but it was Rochele Williams who introduced her son to the basics of the game.
"Mom taught me how to kick and catch and throw when I was really young, because Dad was always gone at practice," said Williams, the Ravens' second-round draft choice from Minnesota.
Those early days began much the same, Rochele Williams said.
"Maxx would wake up and say, 'Play catch with me.' So we'd get a small football, go outside and I'd show him how to hold it," she said. "Maxx was a natural; it didn't take him long to catch on. He'd have kept me outside all day, throwing the ball, if I hadn't said, 'It's time for lunch.' "
Last season, Williams led Minnesota with 36 receptions and eight touchdowns. His father, Brian Williams, who also played for the Gophers, was New York's No. 1 draft pick in 1989 and an offensive lineman for a decade. His wife played volleyball at Minnesota where, in 1988, she won the school's prestigious Big Ten Medal of Honor for athletic and academic excellence.
Which parent was the better athlete?
"Mom would probably be it," Maxx Williams said. "That I was an academic All-American last year was an honor because of what Mom did. She has always been one to say, 'Work harder in the classroom because sports won't be there your whole life.' She knows what it takes to do both, so I took her advice."
'My mom inspires me every day'
Other athletes, such as All-Metro basketball star Qalea Ismail of Patterson Mill and Tyler Gabarra, a Broadneck soccer standout, chose to follow in their mothers' footsteps. Holly Ismail played center for Syracuse and graduated in 1994 as the school's No. 3 all-time scorer; Carin Gabarra, a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic gold medal-winning team, is the women's soccer coach at Navy.
"My mom inspires me every day, on the field and off. Without her, I wouldn't be close to where I am," said Tyler Gabarra, an All-Metro midfielder who has a scholarship to North Carolina State. "After games, she'll interpret the game like a coach and tell me what I need to do. She'll also be a soccer mom, pat me on the back and say, 'Good job, honey — you did great.' "
Gabarra's father, Jim, played two years on the U.S. men's national team. However, Tyler's mom set an NCAA all-time career scoring record in 1987 (102 goals, 60 assists) at UC-Santa Barbara, a mark since passed by Olympic star Mia Hamm.
Tyler embraces his mother's mantra: Set goals you can reach, get there and then raise the bar. Life is a continual path, so enjoy the journey.
Soccer has shaped her son's life since birth, Carin Gabarra said. He was barely 1 month old in September, 1997 when she strapped him in the car seat and drove to Colgate to coach a Navy game.
"Ty went with me to every game that year. He had to — I nursed him," she said. "We never pushed him into the sport; I thought he might like lacrosse. "
By 7, he said, soccer it would be.
"Mom and I were in the front yard at our house in Arnold, messing around with the ball when I did something to make her mad," Tyler said. "She juked me real good with a move and I fell on my butt. From then on I've always listened to her."
On his college entrance essay Tyler wrote that, despite his parents' success, every goal he has reached has been of his own choosing. Still, the genes won out.
"I think about what Mom has done and how successful she's been — and I want to keep the family name in soccer," he said.
'Don't do it for me'
At 3, Qalea Ismail saw a video clip of her mother shooting hoops in college and declared that basketball, too, was her calling. A 6-foot-1 guard, Qalea averaged 21.1 points to lead Patterson Mill to its second straight state Class 2A title, and will play for Princeton next year.
To date, she has always been coached by her mom who, at 6-4, is taller still in her daughter's eyes.
"She is, like, my best friend. I can talk to her about anything," Qalea said. "Having her as coach and mom has never been too much to handle."
Her father is former Ravens wide receiver Qadry Ismail. When they married, Holly Ismail said, "People told us, 'You're going to have some crazy athletic kids.' The expectation was there before Qalea was born. So I wanted to make sure our kids knew, early on, that their life paths were their own.
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"If, at home, Qalea came into my room to watch game films, fine — but I wouldn't press her to do it. At 12, she questioned herself, basketball-wise, and I told her, 'Never play this game for anyone but you. Don't do it for me. If you stop playing, I'm still going to coach.' From that moment, she has played with a freedom I hadn't seen."
Admittedly, both said, having mom as coach caused friction with others.
"There were jealousies and talk that maybe this child isn't good enough to start," Holly Ismail said. "But I've told Qalea that she is that good because she worked her tail off. I'm not the one who ranked her in the top 50 players in the country, or who offered her a college scholarship. The truth will out."
Said Qalea, "I've lost friends who thought my mother was coaching me for selfish reasons. It's hurtful, but I can't change peoples' perceptions. All I know is that our relationship works for us — and that Mom has polished me to become the player and person I am now."
Baltimore Sun columnist Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.