Harrison graduate Kevin Hardy on College Football Hall of Fame ballot

When Kevin Hardy was honored at the Harrison High School athletic banquet years ago, he told his mom to get up. She received a standing ovation.

Kevin thanked his mother, Imelda, and father, Herbert, for their tremendous support over the years. But he lost her to cancer last December at the age of 72.

“My mother was as supportive as she could be, of myself and my brother (Brian) and my sister (Carla Hardy Milton),” said Kevin, who appears on the College Football Hall of Fame ballot. Fame 2023 organized by the National Football Foundation. He was also on the ballot in 2019 but didn’t make the room

The announcement of the new Hall of Fame class will be made early next year; the group will be officially inducted on December 5, 2023 in Atlanta.

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Kevin noted that his mom and dad would go to virtually every one of his University of Illinois football games, home and away.

“They were coming to Minnesota to see me play football,” said Kevin, the winner of the 1995 Butkus Award, given annually to the nation’s best linebacker and named after another outstanding Illini player. “I received tremendous support. I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am today without her. She was with me until the end. It was the same with her grandchildren.”

Kevin Hardy

Imelda was a teacher at Howard Roosa Elementary School, which closed in 2011. Kevin established the Imelda Hardy Memorial Scholarship Fund in her honor. Herbert, 73, worked at Expressway Dodge for several years.

Kevin’s success in college and in the NFL was no accident. He was an integral part of an incredible string of talented athletes at Harrison from the late 1980s through the late 1990s. Hardy said they spurred each other on to greatness.

Calbert Cheaney, a 1989 Harrison graduate, was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019. Playing for Indiana University, Cheaney was named National Consensus Player of the Year in 1993. He spent 13 years in the NBA and is currently an Indiana Pacers Assistant.

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Tennessee Oilers quarterback Steve McNair (9) tries to escape Kevin Hardy of the Jacksonville Jaguars as he rushes to the court late in the fourth quarter.  The Oilers won the road game 16-13 on December 13, 1998.

Hardy, 48, graduated from Harrison in 1991 before spending nine seasons in the NFL, earning first-team All-Pro honors while playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1999. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame of Illinois Athletics in 2021.

Other notable Harrison athletes from this period include Walter McCarty, a member of Kentucky’s 1996 NCAA championship basketball team who played 10 years in the NBA. He coached the University of Evansville in 2018 before being fired on January 21, 2020 for alleged inappropriate behavior. Lawsuits are ongoing. Sean Bennett was a running back for the New York Giants from 1999 to 2002, the New York Jets in 2003 and the professional indoor team the Evansville BlueCats from 2004 to 2006.

“We definitely had special athletes in Harrison in my time there,” Hardy said. “Some of these guys are the reason I was able to reach the highest level.”

When you’re young, you don’t plan for the things that will eventually happen, he said.

“Calbert was the Big Ten (career) leading scorer (with 2,613 points),” Hardy said. “He was the No. 6 pick in the NBA draft and I was the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft and the winner of the Butkus award. Walter McCarty, Chris Lowery… so many guys have had success all over the We had a group of competitive guys.

Lowery started for two NCAA basketball tournament teams in Southern Illinois and guided the Salukis to the Sweet Sixteen in 2007 as head coach. He is currently an assistant at Missouri State.

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A sophomore at Harrison when Cheaney was a senior, Hardy would often babysit him at basketball practice. He was called upon to replace him when Cheaney broke his foot against Terre Haute South at the end of his senior season, ending Harrison’s dream of a deep playoff run.

“I had to keep Tony McGee, who then played football for Michigan and several years in the NFL,” Hardy said. “Ironically, I was Calbert’s backup, not offensively but more defensively.”

KEVIN HARDY (LB; Jaguars, 1996-2001).  Choix de repêchage de premier tour des Jaguars en 1996, Hardy a dirigé l'unité des secondeurs pendant six saisons, dont quatre voyages en séries éliminatoires et deux visites au championnat de l'AFC.  Il a réalisé 506 plaqués et 28,5 sacs pour les Jags, et a remporté les honneurs All-Pro de la première équipe en 1999.<br />Pictured: Kevin Hardy, the Jaguars’ first pick in the 1996 draft, greets the media with open arms upon his arrival at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium on April 20, 1996. [Rick Wilson, The Florida Times-Union]”/></figure>
<h2 class=In the footsteps of Scott Studwell

Born in Washington, DC, Hardy attended elementary school in Sauk Village, Illinois, near Chicago. His family moved to Evansville, and he began attending Plaza Park in sixth grade. Flag football was the only option in Sauk Village, so Hardy relished the opportunity to play tackle football in the Lakeview Optimist League when he came to Evansville.

When Hardy played for Illinois, coach Lou Tepper brought Scott Studwell, another notable Harrison linebacker, to Champaign for a visit. Studwell, who played for the Minnesota Vikings from 1977 to 1990, was a second-team All-Pro in 1988.

“There’s a picture of him outside of Harrison’s auditorium,” Hardy said. “He was a great guy to look up to. I basically went to Illinois and followed in his footsteps. It was kind of cool to tell him I was from Evansville.”

Much to his delight, Kevin’s sons also play as an outside linebacker, known as “the edge” in the current vernacular.

“Watching my sons play is one of the highlights of my life,” he said. “And they play linebacker.”

SUNDAY NOV.  January 21, 2004: Kevin Hardy celebrates the sacking of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.  The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 19-14 at Paul Brown Stadium.  The game marked the return of University of Miami legend Ben Roethlisberger to Cincinnati.

Langston, who will be a redshirt sophomore at UConn, is recovering from a knee injury. Camden, a rising junior at Atlantic Coast High in Jacksonville, has already started receiving scholarship offers.

When Kevin was a player, it didn’t seem like those days would ever end. But he referenced the oft-quoted phrase: NFL stands for “Not For Long.” Kevin said the next two, three and four years will shape the rest of his son’s life. They have to face the challenges and avoid the pitfalls, said Kevin, who uses his vast experience to steer them in the right direction.

Kevin, who sold the two nightclubs he owned years ago, is essentially retired. He coaches Camden in high school, hoping to help him and other young players develop their skills.

“Success if a feeling you sometimes take for granted,” Kevin said. “Today things are so different with the rise of social media. It’s not a game anymore. It’s life. It’s life changing.”

Contact Gordon Engelhardt by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @EngGordon.


High school: Harrisson

Middle School: University of Illinois. Consensus All-American and 1995 Butkus Award winner. Two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection led Illini to two spots in the bowl. On the 2023 College Football Hall of Fame ballot.

NFL: No. 2 pick in the 1996 NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Played for the Jaguars from 1996 to 2001; Dallas Cowboys in 2002, Cincinnati Bengals 2003-04. First Team All-Pro 1999, Pro Bowl 1999, NFL All-Rookie Team in 1996.

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