Jermarcus Hardrick was more than willing to be the test subject for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ drastically altered payroll structure for the 2021 season.
Signed to a one-year contact extension announced Wednesday, the massive offensive lineman likely took a salary cut to stick with the still-reigning CFL champions, but Hardrick’s a family man first and foremost, and just wants to provide.
He demonstrated that back home in Lincoln, Neb., during the lost year owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, driving for UPS, loading and unloading trucks at a meat-packing plant, or delivering newspapers to 300 doorsteps in the wee hours of the morning.
Set to become a free agent in February, Hardrick said agreeing to terms with the Blue and Gold was an easy decision.
"There was a lot of doubt in 2020, but I didn’t want to be anywhere else but Winnipeg (in ’21), and if they ever offered me (a new deal) I knew I was coming back. That’s kind of my home, man," Hardrick said during a conference call on Wednesday. "Winnipeg is special to me and my family. This is huge for me and I couldn’t be happier.
"When Kyle (Blue Bombers general manager Kyle Walters) hit my agent up, or however it happened, when my agent called me I was just happy, man, to have a deal on the table. Once I saw we had a deal and talked to my wife, it wasn’t even about the number. It was about the opportunity to still be a Bomber and still be in Winnipeg."
Hardrick is the first on a long list of free agents to re-sign with the reigning Grey Cup champions. Walters will likely spend to the league’s salary-cap floor of $4.75 million instead of the $5.35-million ceiling.
The club will offer less money to retain all-stars such as running back Andrew Harris and offensive lineman Stanley Bryant, receivers Nic Demski and Rasheed Bailey and kicker Justin Medlock, while others already under contract, including linebacker Adam Bighill, defensive end Willie Jefferson and quarterback Zach Collaros, will likely be asked to rejig their deals.
Hardrick said the harsh reality is not lost on him and his teammates.
"Everyone knows everything going on in the CFL. It just came down to me wanting to still play football and me talking to the guys who’ve been on the team for years, and all us just talking. It wasn’t even about the money. We all knew what was kind of coming, we all stayed in touch. We all said we’re gonna tuck our chin and try to keep it together," he said.
"I don’t know what’s gonna happen in the future with everyone else, but just from talking, man, the vibe is we all want to come back and we all know we’re gonna have to probably take a hit."
Does he anticipate a scenario where Bryant and rest of the gang is reunited?
"Stanley’s my brother, and I don’t know his pockets or I don’t know how everything’s going to work out but I’m pretty sure if they talk to Stanley, we all love Blue Bomberland. So, if the Bombers (make an offer) to anybody that’s been there, they’re probably going to come back. That’s all I can say," he said.
Hardrick, 6-5 and 320 pounds, started all 18 regular-season games and three playoffs contests at right tackle in 2019 as Winnipeg captured its first league title in 29 years. Assuming a CFL season unfolds, it will be his fifth season with the Bombers after bolting from Regina in 2016, the same year Harris left the B.C. Lions to play for his hometown team.
Contrary to popular belief, the two aren’t joined at the hip, although Hardrick says nothing energizes him more than bulldozing a clear path for the league’s leading rusher the past three seasons.
"Most definitely. I played a year with Andrew in B.C., and I was brand-new to the CFL. Didn’t even know all the teams and everything. I was just a young American O-lineman trying to learn the game. And Andrew made me correct a lot, and still to this day," he said.
"Just having a back with that much talent, I’m just blessed to play with Andrew. He’s going to be a future Hall of Famer and I’m just going to be happy when they’re showing his highlights and hopefully I’m in ‘em."
Hardrick said a sense of belonging had eluded him until he settled in Winnipeg
"My time as a Bomber, man, I think I became a better pro. You become a better pro the day you walk in through the Bomber doors. Just being around (head coach) Mike O’Shea... the coaches, the way everyone approaches things, everything matters. Everyone wakes up trying to win. It’s just a family thing," he said. "I always cared about football when I was in B.C. No matter where I played, I always cared, but it’s different in Winnipeg. You don’t want to let your family member down."
Hardrick, a married father of three, admitted he’s had many sleepless nights this year worrying about the health of his family and his future in football.
"You have to worry, I’m not gonna lie. I worried if things ever would get better, if it would be normal again to come across the border. Definitely 2020 opened my eyes and made me appreciate the opportunity that I have (in the CFL)," he said. "Wherever I could get the money, I just wanted to keep the family happy, keep all the bills going. I was trying to take the stress off my family."
Now 13 months removed from Winnipeg’s 33-12 Grey Cup triumph over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Hardrick said memories from training camp to that glorious day at McMahon Stadium in Calgary remain vivid.
"Everything, the building, from the fans... just how passionate they are. Just the pursuit to go get that championship and to take that final knee, man, I can talk for hours. I can start crying right now," he said. "It will forever be emotional for me. It was probably one of the best days of my life, besides getting married and having kids. I can think back to it any time of the day and smile or almost cry. It never gets old. You can watch those highlights every day.
"When I think about that Grey Cup, I think about the guys on the team and we really did it and we worked for it, everyone bought in and we did it together."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).