When an NFL player is sidelined indefinitely by injury there is very little that feels rewarding. You can't contribute to your team's success on the field. You can't spend as much time with your teammates. You can't show your coaches what you're truly capable of. Such was the existence of Bills wide receiver James Hardy in 2009. In the end however, for Hardy, there was a reward.
Buried in the lengthy rehabilitation process required to recover from a torn ACL, Hardy painfully watched his teammates continue on without him. He worked night and day to be ready before the end of training camp last summer, but his knee wasn't ready. He hoped he would be set come the start of the season, but again the knee wasn't quite fit enough for the daily rigors of the season.
Mired on the reserve/PUP list, Hardy had to wait another six weeks before he was given the clearance to practice with his teammates again, and was finally added to the roster in Week 9. Just being back on the field was reward enough, but come season's end there was a much more significant recognition of his efforts.
Named the Bills Ed Block Courage Award winner for 2009 by his teammates, Hardy will be representing the team at the annual Ed Block Courage awards banquet in Baltimore Tuesday evening.
"It was an honor, most definitely," Hardy told Buffalobills.com. "It made me feel pretty good."
The award, which is presented to a Bills player that exemplifies a commitment to the principles of sportsmanship and courage, also recognizes dedication, professionalism and community service. For the third-year wide receiver the award carries special meaning because the Ed Block Courage Foundation serves to promote the prevention of child abuse by raising awareness and assisting agencies that provide care and treatment of abused children.
"Being through a lot of the hardships I had as a child, going to see children and talk to children that makes me release all that I have in me from my childhood," said Hardy. "That's why I'll always volunteer for that. I love doing it. It takes me back to a time when I was that age. They call us players an inspiration, but I get inspired when I see those kids to not give up and not quit.
"I wasn't in an abusive situation that some of them may have been in, but there was verbal abuse and not feeling loved like I'm sure some of them feel. I know exactly what they're going through."
Hardy just last week read to a group of young students as part of a celebration of author Dr. Seuss' birthday in the Buffalo area.
"I know what that feels like not having people reading to you and not teaching the do's and don'ts for when you're an adult," said Hardy. "I basically had to figure all of that out on my own. So if I'm making the slightest difference for any of those kids that gives me stability and a warmth inside."
What adds further significance to the award for Hardy are the names that have preceded him on the Bills honor roll of Ed Block Courage award recipients, which hangs in Buffalo's training room.
"When I was in the training room last year and I was working out I would see the Ed Block Courage Award plaque and at the time I didn't know who Ed Block was and no one ever told me about it," Hardy recalled. "I know (Chris) Kelsay had won it last year and I remember seeing his name."
Kevin Everett's name also graces the plaque, who came back from a life threatening neck injury and paralysis to walk again in 2007.
"I remember looking at that plaque about three or four months into my rehab saying, 'I don't know what that is, but my name is going to be on there,'" recalled Hardy. "Five months later they explained to me what that award was for and it's a great accomplishment."
What has Hardy especially excited about the award presentation Tuesday evening was a conversation he had with Colts center Jeff Saturday, a 2008 Ed Block Courage award winner.
"He said out of every award he's ever gotten, it was the most meaningful to him," said Hardy. "He said the award was justification for coming back up after being down. In his mind it's the best trophy he's ever received. He said when he comes home and walks in his house he looks at it and knows whenever something goes wrong, that he's come back from much more. He said it's more important to him than the Super Bowl, so I said, 'Wow. I can't wait to go now. He got me pumped up.'"
So what will Hardy remember about this past year when he passes by his trophy in his home?
"It's going to remind me of the pain that I endured when it happened after not ever really being hurt in my life, and to know that I overcame that," he said. "More importantly I will remember the appreciation and the patience from the organization and the trainers. It makes me want to work that much harder to help this team. This offseason I can be anywhere in the world, but I'm here in Buffalo to do my part."