NFL farewells are seldom friendly, so this day was the exception to the norm, the farewell of respect, love and friendship for longtime Chargers center Nick Hardwick.
History will write that the Purdue Boilermaker spent 11-years anchoring one of the best offensive lines in San Diego Chargers history. Maybe better than the Air Coryell era offensive front that included longtime center Donnie Macek, and the line that went to the Super Bowl that was led by center Courtney Hall.
Farewells in NFL cities aren’t pretty, San Diego included. LaDainian Tomlinson was let go to be a Jet. Junior Seau was dealt to Miami. Rodney Harrison exited to New England. Dan Fouts retired in a press conference at his house. Kellen Winslow just left. Leslie O’Neal went to the enemy.
The stories are everywhere, turn in your playbook, or a phone call to an agent-he’s been released, or a voice mail, and sometimes even from a reporter-talkshow host. Words like IR list, buyouts, waived injured are part of the language. Giving up the jersey most times is not an easy thing.
But Tuesday was indeed different, because maybe this player was different. It was honest, it was heartfelt, it was classy. It was Nick Hardwick representing all the things people have respected him for.
Nick Hardwick surprised himself with what he accomplished as Philip Rivers’ wingman on offense. A third round pick, not highly regarded, who came to the party, got the job, never gave it up, and became a leader on the field, the lockeroom and in meeting rooms.
He laughed at practical jokes, got choked up talking about the qualities of Rivers ‘pure of heart-a saint’. He talked about training sessions at 4:30am, and meeting room study of film with Rivers late at night, to come up with blitz protections. And he oozed emotion with a clenched fist when he and Rivers would look at each after a TD pass off a blitz and yell “we got em”.
You only had to listen closely, and read between the lines, to understand how beloved a person, not just a player, Nick Hardwick became.
Fiery, intellectual, tough, compassionate and academically gifted.
Rivers kept using the phrase “he cared alot”, and never more so when a terrible concussion and a Gran Mal seizure threatened the life and took the career of his left guard Kris Dielman. Ditto for the emotional support given to his right guard Jeromey Clary when hip surgeries brought him to the end of his career.
Eric Weddle voiced it best, “you play the game to be around people like Hardwick, respect about being a man, a father and a teammate”.
A choked up Mike McCoy said “San Diego was a special place because of special people like Nick Hardwick.”
GM Tom Telesco used the phrase ‘you look in his eyes, and you know how important football was to him”.
But there are other sides to Hardwick too. The one who thought about more than X’s and O’s, and blocking nose-tackles, or making protection line calls. There was the academic side of the man, who studied the injury count in the NFL.
I remember him telling me, ‘every Sunday, there are 7-season ending injuries in the league, many that become career ending”. He studied the Concussion lawsuits, and was a proponent of better equipment and rules for safety of the players.
He leaves at the right time, to enjoy the family he has, and the money he made. In a quiet moment, you wonder if people like him also wonder what their life will be like at age 45 or 55, with everything we know about CTE and concussions.
For this day, history should write about his skill, his smarts, his high jinks, and his popularity. Remember the short-sleeve cold weather toughness, and his quarterback wearing his “61” on his helmet the day Hardwick was lost for the season.
Broadcasting NFL games as long as I have, you love the passion, respect the athletes, and appreciate the philosophies of the special people of the game. Nick Hardwick is right there at the top of the list of people you talked about, wrote about, and covered. No cheering in the press box, but why not, for that player, that man.
This farewell was expected; the outpouring of universal respect was earned, the respect and affection going in both directions. The center peered into the second row at the press conference and told his quarterback “I love you”. Nick Hardwick. Fine man, fine player.