Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Bucs' Hardy has final chance to impress tonight
LANDOVER, Md. - The closest anyone with a good link to a college football program ever came to watching Daniel Hardy play in high school was the time during his senior year that his father took a bunch of Green Bay Packers offensive linemen fly fishing. "They don't call it the Last Frontier for nothing,'' Hardy said of his native Alaska, which remains uncharted territory for college football coaches. If you want to track a grizzly bear, see a humpback whale or hunt moose, Alaska is the place to go. If you're hunting football players, you stay in what Alaskans such as Hardy call the Lower 48 and focus on Florida, California and Texas. Few know that as well as Hardy, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie tight end who can count on one hand the number of NFL players from the Land of the Midnight Sun."I think there's three,'' the Anchorage native said. "That's one reason I've asked my parents, 'Of all the places I could have been born, did it have to be Anchorage?' I mean, really? It's just so far away from everything. But I'm really proud of where I'm from. It's helped mold me into the man I am today.'' Today, Hardy is a man fighting for his football life. A seventh-round selection in the 2011 draft, he enters tonight's preseason finale against the Washington Redskins at FedExField hoping to keep a dream alive and lock down a spot on the final 53-man roster. It's a long way from Anchorage, where you're chances of seeing Russia from your house are remote but still better than your chances of someday seeing your name on an NFL roster. Especially for Hardy, who didn't start playing football until he was a junior at Anchorage's West High. Before that it was all basketball, which he started playing at age 5, and soccer, which he started at 10. By the end of that junior year, though, Hardy had a feeling, despite playing in obscurity, there might be a future for him in football. At 6-foot-plus and more than 200 pounds, he certainly had the size to play beyond the high school level. He even had the credentials, having been named an All-Conference selection in the Anchorage area as a junior. What he didn't have was a college coach expressing an interest in him. None had really seen him. He had never attended a football camp – mostly because his family didn't have the money to send him to one – and most of the coaches who traveled to Alaska went there to fish for halibut, salmon and rockfish, not tight ends. So, Hardy's first objective was to show those coaches what they were missing. With his father Dan Sr., a fly fishing guide, doing the taping and his mother Kathleen doing the editing, Hardy and his family put together a VHS highlight tape he sent to every college coach "who would listen,'' he said. Then he waited. For weeks. Finally, a call came from then-Idaho coach Dennis Erickson. It wasn't the call Hardy was hoping for. The best Erickson could offer him was a chance to walk on as a freshman, which meant taking out a pricey student loan to pay for his tuition. It was a chance to play Division I football, though, so he jumped at it, which only served to test his determination more. Good enough to dream but not quite good enough to play, Hardy was redshirted as a freshman and worked on the scout team as a sophomore. His first chance to play came during his third year at Idaho. He saw action in seven games and caught nine passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns, including four for 91 yards against Boise State. Obscurity was no longer a problem for Hardy. Having grown to 6-feet-4 and 242 pounds, he finished second on the team with 39 catches for 691 yards and three touchdowns during his junior season. Notoriety came in waves after that. As a senior, Hardy was a Mackey Award contender in leading the team in receptions with 32 for 545 yards through eight games. But then came another couple of blows to his dream. First, a broken left forearm knocked him out of the last five games of the season. Then a hamstring strain kept him from running and jumping at the NFL scouting combine. By that time, though, the Bucs had seen enough. Oddly, much like Erickson, it was what they saw on tape that impressed them the most. "He had that injury as a senior so statistically he didn't really jump off the page at you,'' Bucs general manager Mark Dominik said. "But when you saw him in games, you felt like he was a guy who really had some potential, partly because he is a former basketball player. "I look at that as a real attribute for a tight end, because it's a position where you have to be really athletic, and usually basketball players have soft hands and can catch the ball. So, we were excited about that and the fact that he just seems to have the potential to continue to grow.'' From obscurity and a self-proclaimed "humble'' beginning, Hardy has grown into a legitimate contender for a spot on Tampa Bay's 53-man roster. He's battling Ryan Purvis and Nathan Overbay for the third tight-end spot behind starter Kellen Winslow and rookie Luke Stocker. Tonight is his final chance to shine before roster cuts Saturday. "And it all comes down to this for me,'' Hardy said. "You don't want to put more pressure on yourself, but you do realize what's at stake and how hard you've worked for this, so you really want to make sure you leave everything on the field. Either way, I just want to be able to look back on this and be proud of what I've done.''