LONDON – A toddler wearing a Jets shirt sat in a stroller at Newark Liberty International Airport on Wednesday night, holding a cell phone to his ear.
“Hi dad. Hi dad, he said smiling.” Bye Bye! “
The 2-year-old was awaiting a flight to London with his mother, Amanda Jones, and his great-aunt, Wanda Shoulders. They were heading across the pond to watch his dad, Jets cornerback and special teams ace Justin Hardee, take on the Falcons on Sunday at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Justin Hardee Jr. laughed with joy after speaking with his father. The back of his Jets shirt read, “Lil Hardee, # 34.”
“I love talking to my son. She’s my favorite person in the world besides my mom who isn’t here, ”said Hardee after Friday practice in Ware, England. “He’s my favorite person in the world, so whenever he wants me I’m there. Whenever he needs me I’m there for anything and everything.
It has been eight years since Hardee’s mother, Estella Perryman, died after a long struggle with lung disease while 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. His image came out from the bottom of his white shirt as he spoke.
“I always think, ‘What would my mother say? What would my mother do? ‘ And that’s how I do a lot of my reactions, from what my mon would have told me to do, ”said Hardee, a Cleveland native.
His mother’s influence helped Hardee, an undrafted player, become a vocal and inspiring leader in no time. After spending the last four seasons with the New Orleans Saints, he signed with the Jets in free agency. Hardee was elected one of the five team captains. Before breaking up the squad after last week’s 27-24 overtime win over the Titans, he thrilled his teammates:
The whole week. The whole week. As of Monday, what did I say? It’s the good one. I told you … We had this two-game streak before the pass, and we couldn’t get the second without getting the first. We got the first one. Let’s go, man. Let’s go!
“I think that’s why I was brought here,” Hardee said of his leadership role.
Bound by tragedy
Jones, originally from New Orleans, met Hardee in October 2017. Like Hardee, she not only lost her mother at a young age, but saw her endure pain for years. Her mother died of early-stage Alzheimer’s disease when Jones was 22. From the time she was 17, she was her mother’s babysitter until she was placed in an assisted living facility.
When Hardee’s mother passed away, Shoulders became his second mother. She made sure at least one family member was present at each of her home games in Illinois. For the baby shower, she wrote notes to the unborn Hardee Jr. of her two grandmothers in Heaven. Jones cried as she read them.
“I think that’s one of the most important things we’ve bonded with, it always feels fresh. I feel like it never goes away and we still talk about it to this day, ”Jones said. “One of my favorite things I bought (Justin) was a painting of his mother holding it, but I asked the artist to put our son in his other arm.”
Painting also means a lot to Hardee.
“It was more of a moment that I wish I could have happened, but with the photo it made it possible, so it was special,” he said.
No time to cry
Shoulders had a special relationship with his sister. Upon Estella’s death, she devoted her attention to Hardee and her older brother, Daunte Perryman. It was the second time that a tragedy had occurred. Earlier this year, her sister-in-law, Kanesha Reid, passed away. She and her sister were already helping care for Hardee’s cousins.
“It was really tough, but I couldn’t take it because that year my other nieces and nephews lost their mothers. Then my sister was supposed to help take care of them too, but then she left, which left me to take care of them too, ”Shoulders said. “I couldn’t even crack the way I really wanted because there was no room for me to grieve. I had to keep pushing. If it had been me, my sister would have done the same because we were so close. “
His efforts have not gone unnoticed. Hardee recognized her aunt’s dedication by making more trips from Ohio to Illinois and back more times than she ever wanted. Years later, he remains extremely grateful to his aunt and was delighted that she could make the trip to London with his girlfriend and son.
“It’s a blessing to be in London and the reason I’m in London. The reason my family can come here, ”said Hardee. “It’s a blessing. It really is. It is very humiliating. It just makes me want to go further, because I want so much more. I love big things and feel like you have to work hard for big things.
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Joey Chandler can be reached at [email protected]