Shelby Hilliard reviews East Carolina University wide receiver Justin Hardy’s record-breaking performance against the Tulane Green Wave.
Nov 22, 2014; Greenville, NC, USA; East Carolina Pirates wide receiver Justin Hardy (2) runs with the ball after his 2nd quarter reception against the Tulane Green Wave at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. (Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)
GREENVILLE, N.C. (C+P) — It was a special day at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium from start to finish as the East Carolina Pirates bounced back from back-to-back defeats to take down Tulane 34-6. On a day that saw the team run onto the field with flags honoring each branch of the armed forces that alone would have been enough to inspire the team to such a victory, but the Pirates had a little extra motivation as teammate Justin Hardy came into the game only four receptions short of breaking the FBS record for receptions in a career.
“We didn’t talk too much about it,” said ECU quarterback Shane Carden. “We didn’t have a certain game plan for it or anything, we just knew it was going to happen.”
Seemingly all of the 48,433 fans in attendance knew it was going to happen that night too, a clear anticipation was more than apparent throughout the stands for much of the first half. Cheers and gasps filled the air every time the ball even neared Hardy’s direction. The chase for history started quick too as Hardy got two receptions on the first drive of the game, but then Tulane began double-teaming him and the nervous energy continued to build. That was until Hardy came open on an eight-yard curl late in the second quarter to pull in his fourth reception of the day and etched his name in the record book for years to come.
True to Hardy’s nature, the first thing that came to his mind was all about the team and not about the historic achievement he had just accomplished.
“We need to score, we need to score this drive,” said Hardy after the game when asked what was going through his mind after the record-breaking catch. “We needed to score; we had struggled to finish some drives, so that’s all that was on my mind that we needed to score.”
Hardy overtook Ryan Broyles, who played for the Oklahoma Sooners from 2008-11, as the FBS leader for receptions in a career. However, their journeys were very different. Broyles came into college as one of the top recruits in the nation whereas Hardy, a high school quarterback his senior year at West Craven High School, had to walk-on and prove himself on the practice squad before his impressive rise into the record books.
“I thought I would be good, but not this good,” said Hardy. “Never give up, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t be anything. I wasn’t given a Division I offer, and I came in here and walked-on. Just never let anyone tell you can’t do anything.”
Poignant and inspirational words from a man that has left his legacy on and off the field at ECU. It’s a legacy his coach Ruffin McNeill was quick to acknowledge himself.
“In 34 years, 3,000-plus athletes I’ve coaches, great, great ones, and that young man is one of the best,” said McNeill following the game. “I am very proud of the accomplishment. When you say you are the best in the history of something, the best in the history of college football, it’s saying something.”
His outstanding career has not gone unnoticed by others either. He was recently named a semi-finalist for the Burlsworth Trophy, an award given to the former walk-on with the best overall performance on the field during their time in college. Seeing as Hardy went on to set an NCAA record, it seems as though he has a pretty good shot to be standing at the podium receiving this award come season’s end.
One award he was surprisingly not on the semi-finalist list for was the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top receiver. Despite having better stats than multiple players who did make the list, Hardy was somehow omitted to the surprise of many in the program and the country.
“It is what it is,” said Hardy speaking about his omission for the first time following Saturday’s win. “Life goes on. I’ll just keep playing the game.”
It’s a game he clearly plays well and after his time at ECU is done, no one should be surprised to see him continue his career on the next level. It’s certain his coach expects nothing less.
“If somebody wants to win, then choose him,” said McNeill when asked about Hardy’s NFL prospects. “If you are wise enough to choose someone like him…he will do whatever it takes for you to win.”
That moment will be here soon but Hardy would be the first to tell you the focus should be on the team and what they are still hoping to accomplish, not what he already has – legendary or not. The slip ups versus Temple and Cincinnati have derailed what was once a potentially historic season for ECU, but sitting at 7-3 with two games to go, the season is far from over. Now that Hardy has the record securely under his belt, the focus around Pirates Nation will shift to their ability to make a run at the conference championship, and a premier bowl game slot come December.