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Justin Hardee's NFL success started as a standout student at Ginn Academy (Video)


This past Christmas Day, not even the bitter cold and snow could prevent Justin Hardee from having a dedicated moment with his late mother, Estella Perryman.

Hardee, a 2012 graduate of Ginn Academy, and now a star player with the New York Jets, had made a promise at his mother’s Cleveland graveside a few months earlier. Now, it was time to share the good news. He was named to the 2023 Pro Bowl roster.

A decade after Ms. Perryman’s death from lung cancer at the age of 55, her son was being recognized as one of the elite players in the National Football League

“Being named to the Pro Bowl meant the world to me,” said Hardee, who signed with the Jets in 2021.

“I went to the cemetery this past summer and pledged to my mom that I was going to make the Pro Bowl. I went back on Christmas Day to tell her that it had happened.”

Hardee took time recently to talk to the CMSD News Bureau about his evolution from a lightly recruited college player coming out of Glenville to his time as a player at the University of Illinois, to his new-found status as an NFL All Pro.

“I always believed in myself,” Hardee said. “I knew how badly I wanted it and I continued to work.”

“It was a blessing to make the Pro Bowl,” Hardee said. “There were plenty of guys from Glenville who had better high school and college careers than I did.  Some even had better NFL careers. But somehow, I was picked,” said Hardee.

Now in his sixth NFL season, Hardee made a strong case for his Pro Bowl selection due in large part to a career-high 14 tackles on special teams and a forced fumble this past season.

Glenville football coach Ted Ginn Sr. wasn’t surprised by Hardee’s selection to the Pro Bowl.

“I knew he was going to make it because of the kind of guy he is,” said Ginn, who led the Tarblooders to the Division IV state football championship last December. “He’s an intelligent player who I believe should get into coaching. I’m happy for him.”

Hardee said another factor in his success has been his life-long drive to excel in the classroom. At Ginn Academy, he graduated third in his class, and he was elected class president.

His commitment to academic excellence only accelerated while in college. At the University of Illinois, he earned three degrees: an undergraduate degree in communications and two master’s degrees - in sports management and education.

While playing for the New Orleans Saints between 2017-2020, Hardee developed an interest in business investment and started thinking about what his life might look like after the NFL.   

“You only get paid in the NFL during the season,” Hardee said. “I was really enjoying myself during my rookie year but then I started to think, ‘I don’t have any (off-season) money coming in.’ I’m saying to myself, ‘I have three college degrees and I need to take advantage of that. I’m more than a football player.’”

While participating in a Christmas charity event with the Saints, pizza was delivered to the gathering and Hardee struck up an improbable conversation with the pizza delivery man about franchise opportunities in the pizza business.

It wasn’t an idle conversation. Shortly after the impromptu meeting and conversation, Hardee purchased a Papa John’s Pizza restaurant in New Orleans. Prior to the purchase, Hardee studied the business opportunity and took the necessary steps into owning a franchise, which included raising the capital (through his savings and other investments).

He opened a second Papa John’s Pizza in Mississippi last year. Hardee, who also dabbles in real estate, said he plans to open a juice bar later this year. He also aspires to eventually develop some type of business in Cleveland.

In addition to his late mother and Coach Ginn, Hardee credits three Ginn Academy teachers for nurturing his academic success: Lavera Thornton, Beverly Beard-Little and Rhonda McLean.

 “Justin was very disciplined at a young age,” said Thornton, a math teacher at Ginn Academy. She remembers Hardee always sitting in the front of her math class.

“He always paid attention. He never rushed through his lessons. If he didn’t understand, he always asked questions. I wasn’t surprised about his academic success in college. I wouldn’t have expected anything less,” said Ms. Thornton.

Hardee’s message to students is simple:

“Never limit yourself,” he said. “You can do multiple things. You don't have to just focus on one thing. It’s about believing in yourself, expanding your mind, asking questions and more importantly, take time to listen.”