LONDON — A toddler wearing a Jets shirt sat in a stroller at the Newark Liberty International Airport on Wednesday night, holding a cell phone up to his ear.
“Hi daddy. Hi daddy,” he said, smiling. “Bye bye!”
The 2-year old was waiting for a flight to London with his mom, Amanda Jones, and great aunt, Wanda Shoulders. They were headed across the pond to watch his dad, Jets cornerback and special teams ace Justin Hardee, take on the Falcons Sunday at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Justin Hardee Jr. laughed with glee after speaking with his dad. The back of his Jets shirt read: “Lil Hardee, No. 34.″
“I love talking to my son. He is my favorite person in the world besides my mom who is not here,” Hardee said after Friday’s practice in Ware, England. “That is my favorite person in the world, so whenever he wants me I am there. Whenever he needs me I am there for any and everything.”
It’s been eight years since Hardee’s mother, Estella Perryman, died after a long struggle with lung disease when he was at the University of Illinois. He kept her close to his heart on the way to London. Hardee often wears a necklace with Estella’s photo to keep her memory alive. Her image popped out from the background of his white shirt as he spoke.
“I always think: ‘What would my mom say? What would my mom do?’ And that is how I make a lot of my reactions, off of what my my would have told me to do,” Hardee, a Cleveland native, said.
His mother’s influence has helped Hardee, an undrafted player, emerge as a vocal and inspiring leader in a short amount of time. After spending the past four seasons with the New Orleans Saints, he signed with the Jets in free agency. Hardee was voted one of five team captains. Before breaking down the team huddle after last week’s 27-24 overtime victory against the Titans, he hyped up his teammates:
All week. All week. Starting Monday — what did I say? This is the one. I told y’all…We got this two-game stretch before the bye, and we couldn’t get the second one without getting the first. We got the first. Let’s go, man. Let’s go!
“I believe that is what I was brought here for,” Hardee said of his leadership role.
Bonded by tragedy
Jones, a New Orleans native, met Hardee in October of 2017. Like Hardee, she not only lost her mom young, but watched her endure pain for years. Her mom died from early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease when Jones was 22 years old. From the time she was 17, she was her mom’s caretaker until she was placed in an assisted living facility.
When Hardee’s mom died, Shoulders became his second mother. She made sure at least one family member was in attendance at each of his home games in Illinois. For the baby shower, she wrote notes to Hardee Jr., yet to be born, from both of his grandmothers in heaven. Jones wept while she read them.
“I think it is one of the biggest things we bonded with, it just always seems fresh. It feels like it never goes away and we still to this day talk about,” Jones said. “One of my favorite things that I ever bought (Justin) was a painting of his mom holding him, but I made the artist put our son in her other arm.”
The painting also means a lot to Hardee.
“It was more so a moment that I wish could have happened, but with the picture it made it happen, so it was special,” he said.
No time to grieve
Shoulders had a special relationship with her sister. When Estella died, she dedicated her attention to Hardee and his older brother, Daunte Perryman. It was the second time tragedy had struck. Earlier in the year, her sister-in-law, Kanesha Reid, died. She and her sister were already helping to care for Hardee’s cousins.
“It was really hard, but I couldn’t take it hard because that year my other nieces and nephews lost their mother. Then my sister was supposed to help take care of them too, but then she left so that left me taking care of them too,” Shoulders said. “I couldn’t even breakdown like I really wanted to because there was no room for me to grieve. I had to keep pushing. If it had had been me, my sister would be doing the same thing because we were really close.”
Her efforts didn’t go unnoticed. Hardee recognized the dedication of his aunt drive making more drives from Ohio to Illinois and back more times than she said she ever wanted to. Years later, he remains extremely grateful to his aunt and was thrilled she could make the trip to London with his girlfriend and his son.
“It is a blessing just to be in London and the reason I am in London. The reason my family is able to come out here,” Hardee said. “It is a blessing. It really is. It is very humbling. It just makes me want to go harder, because I want so much more. I love great things, and I feel like you’ve got to work hard for those great things.”
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Joey Chandler may be reached at [email protected]