Hardy's hardscrabble upbringing leads to opportunity with Ravens

Ravens wide receiver James Hardy watches practice from the sideline.
Ravens wide receiver James Hardy watches practice from the sideline. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston)

James Hardy came by his independence early in life. At 12, he says, he moved out of his mother's house in Fort Wayne, Ind.

"I just wanted to make a better life, and I felt I could do better on my own than I was getting from her," he explained.

Hardy, 25, turned that hardscrabble start onto a path toward NFL opportunity, first in Buffalo and now Baltimore. He is one of the aspiring new wide receivers the Ravens brought to training camp this summer. Against the backdrop of inexperienced rookies, Hardy stands out because he's 6 feet, 5 inches with a wing span like a 747 jet, and because he was once a second-round draft pick with the Bills.

He also stands out for this reason: he was once runner-up in Indiana's Mr. Basketball vote.

Hardy has tracked a lot of mileage since those days, and some of it has been on hard road. His time in Buffalo ended after two years, 10 catches and numerous hours in the training room. He tore knee ligaments late in his 2008 rookie season, missed most of 2009 because of hamstring problems, and finally was cut last September after starting off with a foot injury.

So it raised organizational eyebrows this week when Hardy went out with a hamstring issue. He missed Tuesday's practice, returned Wednesday on a limited basis, and was held out again Thursday and Friday.

"He is valuable [in] that he is a veteran," coach John Harbaugh said. "He had been in the league, so he knows. He has been here before, he is not a rookie. But the hamstring doesn't help. He is going to have to get out there, but we don't want him [sidelined] for the next three weeks, either, so we really have to balance that out. We have high expectations for him. He is a very talented guy.

"The next two to three weeks are going to be huge for him."

In an interview before the injury, Hardy called his brief Baltimore experience "the best opportunity I've ever had in life, and I just want to take advantage of it."

Over the next month, Hardy needs to show the Ravens that he can make plays down field in an offense that hasn't been able to go deep very often. He would be a tantalizing target inside the 20, where his size and long arms make him difficult to defend.

"James is a big body and everybody sees that," Jim Hostler, the wide receivers coach, said. "He has a big radius. He's a down-the-field guy. He is easy to throw the ball to. He is a good athlete. He is learning the system. It's a little different than what he has been used to, so from that standpoint, he is still coming."

The system — and everything else — is actually a lot different than what Hardy has been used to.

"No comparison," Hardy said, drawing on his Buffalo years. "Everything is different. From the way the organization is run, to the way the coaches handle you, to the way they work, to the way they train … every single aspect. You see why they're a playoff team every year, battling for a championship. It's a different mindset."

Hardy's mindset early in life was that he could do better on his own. That's why he left his mother at such an early age. His father served time in prison and wasn't there, either. Hardy said he had a total of seven siblings from both parents and all were moved to other places.

"We all were split up," he said. "Neither of our parents took care of us."

At 12, Hardy stayed with his grandmother for a few months. Then he moved in with an uncle recently released from prison.

"He told me he didn't have the finances to take care of me, but I could have an air mattress and I could sleep in his living room," Hardy said. "So for the next three years, that's what I did. It was normal to me. I thought everyone grew up tough like that."

What went right for Hardy was athletics. He was a blue chip basketball player and a reluctant football player — he didn't play football until his junior year, when a cousin got the coaching job at his high school. Out of 120 scholarship offers in basketball and three in football, he accepted a basketball offer from Indiana. Still, he wanted to play both sports.

That lasted one year, after which he was strictly a play-making wide receiver. In three seasons, he established Indiana records for catches (186), yards (2,690) and touchdowns (36), and then was off early to the NFL.

But he took along some legal baggage. In May, 2006, he was arrested and charged with misdemeanor domestic battery for allegedly attacking the mother of his son. The case was settled out of court when he took part in a pretrial diversion program.

In May, 2008, soon after he was drafted by the Bills, the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette reported that he allegedly confronted his father with a gun during an argument. No charges were filed, and Hardy says the incident never happened, that it was the story of a woman who was dating his father.

Hardy will write either a postscript or a new story to his career this month with the Ravens, having signed a future contract in January. This is the place that best suits his personality, he said.

"I felt it was a place that I could actually be myself because most of the guys you see here, all they do is be themselves," he said. "They're tough, hard-nosed guys. And I feel I'm in that category."