February 18, 2024

Study hall and football: Jermarcus Hardrick’s heartfelt story

Long before being enticed by a contract offer from the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Jermarcus Hardrick discovered that it also pays to be studious.

His life changed, strictly by chance, in a study hall at the University of Nebraska.

“That was where I saw my wife and met my wife for the first time,” Hardrick, one of the CFL’s marquee free agents in 2024, recalled earlier this week after signing a two-year contract with the Roughriders.

“I think about it a lot: ‘What if I was never in the study hall that day?’ I saw her that day and I made my move. I made a couple of jokes and she said something back to me.

“Then I found out her name (Samantha Morabe) and I Facebook-messaged her.

“I also remember warming up for practice. She was warming up for track and field. When she was running by, I was doing drills with the O-line.

“We were both just 18, 19, and living our young lives and getting to know each other. Now we’ve been married for 12 years.”

They are the proud parents of Jermarcus Jr. (10), Santana (8) and Lyla (7).

Samantha was expecting Santana when, in 2015, Jermarcus Sr. joined the Roughriders for the first time.

He was on the Green and White’s practice squad before being elevated to front-line duty for the second half of the 2015 season.

The following February, he signed with Winnipeg and became a mainstay on the Blue Bombers’ offensive line and a popular figure in the community.

“Most football fans know me as Yoshi,” Hardrick said of his long-standing nickname. “Most of the time when I’m called Jermarcus, it’s my wife or somebody new who met me when I put in a job application or somebody who probably doesn’t feel comfortable calling me Yoshi.

“I don’t mind being called Yoshi or Jermarcus.”

The moniker results from his kinship with his half-brother, Mario Lewis.

“It’s pretty funny,” Hardrick said. “My brother’s name is Mario but, at first, I didn’t know he was my brother.

“We were going to the Boys and Girls Club and I was in about the fourth or fifth grade. Everyone kept saying, ‘Here comes Mario and his little brother, Yoshi.’ ”

Yoshi, for the uninitiated, is the name of a dinosaur from the Super Mario World video game.

“I ended up finding out we had the same father, so Yoshi kind of stuck, but I used to fight people for calling me Yoshi,” said Hardrick, who grew up in Courtland, Miss.

“My brother was two years older than me so, by the time I got to seventh grade, the football coaches already knew me as Yoshi. Once the football coaches were calling me Yoshi, the school was calling me Yoshi, the teachers were calling me Yoshi.”

In Winnipeg, he was routinely called an All-Star and a champion.

With Hardrick anchored at right tackle, the Blue Bombers advanced to four consecutive Grey Cup Games, winning CFL titles in 2019 and 2021.

Also in 2021, he was named a CFL All-Star for the first time. He received that honour again in 2023, when he earned additional plaudits as the West Division’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman.

None of that would have happened without the home team — Samantha, Jermarcus Jr., Santana and Lyla.

“You have to think about your wife and kids and ask yourself, ‘Is this the best thing for them?’ ” Hardrick said from Lincoln, Neb., where he played NCAA football for the Nebraska Cornhuskers in 2010 and 2011.

“The older my kids get, the harder it is for me to miss their sporting events and miss the little things that I don’t get a chance to do because of football. The older I get, it hurts a little more.

“When I was younger and they didn’t remember things, and before I had kids, I didn’t think about it like that. When they were in diapers, I didn’t think about being at practice and doing an extra hour or two.

“I thought about my wife having to go through mayhem at home with all three kids but, back then, I didn’t think, ‘Man, I didn’t see my son score that touchdown …’

“I’m seeing everything on video and just Zooming from hotels. Those things hurt and those are the sacrifices you have to make.”

Those sacrifices sometimes involve leaving a comfortable situation, such as the one in Winnipeg.

“I was getting a little older and I wanted to see what my value was,” said Hardrick, who turns 34 on May 30. “I wanted to maximize that.

“My wife and my kids, they put in a lot. It has been about me a lot. I just put them first and this is the outcome.

“It was a very hard decision. It’s still a little foggy at times and I still feel guilty right now talking to you guys (in the media), but I know it’s the right thing. I put my wife and kids first.”

The extended family — consisting of his football teammates — is also an important consideration.

“The football family means a lot,” the 6-foot-5, 317-pound Hardrick said.

“We’re moving every six months, so it’s hard to get friends. It’s hard for the kids to get best friends. So it’s good when you can look inside the locker room and know that you have a teammate whose wife is cool and someone my wife and kids can hang with anytime.

“Talking to (quarterback) Trevor Harris, that put a lot of ease in me. Talking to (Head Coach) Corey Mace and how he is about his family — having a young family like me — I know how much that means.”

Hardrick quickly discovered how much football means in Saskatchewan after he signed with the Roughriders, for the first time, on June 5, 2015.

By that point in his football career, he had already tried out for two NFL teams (the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints), played arena football (with the Utah Blaze and Tampa Bay Storm), and suited up for 10 CFL games (with the B.C. Lions in 2014).

Not long after arriving in Regina, he was introduced to a facility (historic Mosaic Stadium) that was barely two years away from demolition.

“But it was still football heaven,” he said with a smile.

“Playing against you guys (with the Roughriders) with that crowd, it’s so hard. It’s one of those weeks when you don’t get a lot of sleep. It’s one of those weeks when you don’t have to wait for the crowd to roar when you come out for the warmup. It’s already on. When it’s Labour Day, it’s on.

“Playing in the (2022) Grey Cup (at new Mosaic Stadium), I saw all the bells and whistles. I saw the lights when they were brighter.

“I basically saw the stadium with all the makeup on. She was already pretty and then it was even prettier.”

The spotlight is also bright in Saskatchewan, where the Roughriders’ players are under a microscope. The pressurized environment was a factor as Hardrick pondered his football future.

“It was definitely something I had to think about,” he acknowledged. “It was something that probably took me the longest: ‘Do I want to accept this challenge? Do I want the outside pressure? How close are we going to keep this family so that everything is in-house and it doesn’t feel like pressure?’

“I just want to make it to where we get into a family where it’s not about pressure. You do your job and you trust that the man’s going to do his job beside you. I know we can get it there if we work that way. That’s what I’m looking forward to.

“There’s definitely pressure (resulting) from leaving being comfortable to going to something that is probably uncomfortable right now for me.

“I’m excited but, I’m not going to lie to you, I’ve had to think about things like the pressure. Will I keep working? Will I keep my standard? Will it be able to rub off on other guys?

“If we can get a whole room thinking like that, I don’t think I can make us do that, but I’ll try to help.”

The benefits of signing Hardrick should be far-reaching.

“He brings a lot of excitement,” Roughriders Vice-President of Football Operations and General Manager Jeremy O’Day said. “He’s an excitable guy, but he works hard and loves playing football. That’s what I remember from when he was here (in 2015).

“When he went to Winnipeg, he just grew as a player and became one of the top tackles in the league. He takes a lot of pride in what he does.

“The way he plays the game is what Corey and I are looking for. He’s a physical player and likes to have fun with his teammates and likes to win.

“He comes from an organization that has done a lot of winning in the last couple of years. It’s nice to add somebody who has been in that culture and in that environment and can bring that to our group.”

If that entails being the voice of experience, so be it.

“I probably let my actions show a little bit more, but I’ve been in the mirror talking or talking to my wife like, ‘I’m going to have to be a little vocal,’ ,” Hardrick said.

“I don’t talk a lot on the field. I dance and I celebrate, but I really don’t say a lot. I probably break it down three to five times a year if I have something to say.

“I’m trying to wrap my mind around that I’m going to say a little bit more. I think a lot of guys are capable of doing that and are willing to do it, so I’m trying to make myself willing to be able to step out there and still just be vulnerable.

“It’s more about being vulnerable out there and letting everyone know you’re not perfect and letting them know that there’s a way we do things.

“I don’t want us to be a group that talks a lot but, to get this thing to where we want, we probably have to talk a lot to make sure everyone’s on the same page. And I’m fine with that. I’m ready to sacrifice.”

He is also ready to sweat — as evidenced by an off-season training regimen that incorporates regular visits to the University of Nebraska’s facilities.

“I can still go to the stadium and work out,” he reflected. “I can still go to the study hall where I met my wife and show that to my kids.

“I just have so much support here (in Lincoln). Being from a small town of 300 people in Mississippi, there’s not a lot of opportunity.

“I’m in a college town here and the only Division 1 football team in the entire state of Nebraska is the Cornhuskers, so we’re treated like the Riders or Winnipeg.

“It’s in the Midwest and there’s a lot of honest, hard-working people, so I know that’s what I’m going to get when I get to Riderville.”