Homecoming provides memories for Hardee

Illinois’ Justin Hardee (19) runs for a touchdown during the game against Western Kentucky at Memorial Stadium on Sept. 6.

By Charlotte Carroll

This year Homecoming will be different for wide receiver Justin Hardee.

His mom, Estella Perryman, won’t be sitting behind the 35-yard line. They won’t go to his apartment after the game to eat. And he won’t hear her say ‘I love you.’

It was at last year’s game where he saw his mom as herself for a final time.

She wasn’t lying in a hospital bed; rather she was alive and well, cheering on her son and his fellow Illinois football team members.

“When I went back home, it was when she was really sick,” Hardee said. “She wasn’t herself. So it was just real special to know that the last time I did see her was at an Illini football game.”

Perryman died later that year in December at the age of 55 after battling lung disease for close to 15 years. The disease had been a constant theme in Hardee’s life, as he grew up watching his mother go to doctors’ offices, take medication and use a breathing machine on a regular basis.

And while Hardee made it home to Cleveland in time for her passing, it wasn’t the same. He got to be with her and the rest of his family, but ultimately it’s the memory of Homecoming that is the moment he last considers her “alive.”

While Perryman didn’t know much about football, she did know how to push her son when it came to academics. And this drove him back to school to take final exams in the weeks just after her death.

“It was tough, but my mom was a strong person and that was one thing I wanted to remain,” Hardee said. “Just strong, because I could hear her in my ear telling me now what to do in certain situations and to always be positive. I wanted to come back to school just because I wanted to show people that is possible to go through tough things and still do the right thing.”

He took those exams and is set to graduate with his bachelor’s in communication this December after just two and a half years of classes because he came into college with so many credits. He will finish his football eligibility by starting a master’s program and continue on the academic path his mom set him on.

As Hardee has focused on his school work, football has given him another outlet to center his attentions on. And his mother’s death made him realize how close of a family Illinois is for its players and coaches.

“Ever since then, the team has really had my back,” Hardee said. “That’s why I love this team and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.”

Defensive back V’Angelo Bentley is one teammate whose brotherhood with Hardee extends well beyond college.

The pair met when they were kids playing for the East Cleveland Chiefs, a Pop Warner team. That friendship carried on as the two went to The Ginn Academy together and then on to college.

Bentley called Perryman a very loving person who would often give the two rides to school and always check in that they were doing their school work.

He remembers the last time he saw Perryman as well, giving her a hug and talking with her in her car after that Homecoming game. And he remembers Perryman teasing the two on what they should have done and that they missed certain tackles in the game. Because, he said “that’s what (their) moms do.”

And he’s seen the change in attitude in Hardee throughout the year.

“I’ve seen him mature and become more focused,” Bentley said. “He’s just become more focused on his goals. I would definitely say now he has a ‘why’ as to why he plays the game. (I’m) not saying he didn’t before but having your mom pass can be detrimental to anyone, so I think his focus tightened up and he worked his butt off to become the player he is.”

In the year since his mother’s death, Hardee has worked hard to become a more consistent player. In six of the team’s seven games he’s played in, he has already had 16 receptions for 201 yards. His total yardage has more than doubled from the 2013 season, when he recorded only 95 receiving yards on 11 grabs.

And while Homecoming may be different this year, it doesn’t change how often he thinks of his mom.

“It’s been something that he thinks about every day,” head coach Tim Beckman said. “He still has pictures up of his mom even in lockers and stuff of that nature. That’s what a relationship is all about. And when he lost his mother, he took it extremely hard. I think he’s really matured through it and he knows now what he plays for every week.”

Charlotte can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @charlottecrrll.