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Yoshi Hardrick enjoys return home

Former SP Tiger had long struggle to win title

When Jermarcus Hardrick left Panola County more than 12 years ago he was hoping to become a household name playing college football, and then move into the National Football League.

His dream of championship rings and trophies went largely unrealized, and other than his friends and family, and relatively few fans around the country, not many people knew about the football exploits of the former South Panola Tiger.

His certainly was not a household name.

But, hard work and a tenacity learned in the weight room and on the bleacher steps at his high school alma mater, began to pay off for Hardrick three years ago when he finally found the perfect team for his game, and his dream of becoming a well-known professional football player became a reality.

Today he is a football celebrity that appears on radio and television sports shows, makes personal appearances for all types of organizations and causes. And while most of his Batesville and other fans across America may have lost touch with his career, the football fans north of the border know all about Yoshi Hardrick, and many of them wear his jersey and follow his team closely.

“I guess it’s kind of strange, me being a kid from Batesville, Mississippi, just trying to make something happen and then for my career to take off in Canada,” Hardrick said. “It’s been wonderful for me, though, and I don’t know how it all happened, but I love being in Canada, I love my teammates and our fans, and I’m so proud to always tell everybody there that I’m from Batesville and describe what it was like growing up here and being a South Panola Tiger.”

Hardrick was in Batesville last week visiting family and friends and catching up with old friends. “My daddy had to have a knee surgery and I came back for that,” he said. “It’s been a thrill to me to see all my friends and I tried to show as many people in Batesville as I could my championship ring because I feel like the people here helped me get it.”

The ring Hardrick wears proudly is the 2019 Grey Cup championship ring he won as a team leader for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Canadian Football League. The Grey Cup is the equivalent of the Super Bowl in the NFL, and since the Blue Bombers beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats for the title last year, Hardrick has enjoyed a year of fan adoration and media attention.

Hardrick was a CFL West All-Star in 2017. At 30 years old, he knows his football career is reaching a peak, but he has just signed for another season, and believes he can play in the CFL another four or five years. The 2019 Grey Cup championship game was the last CFL game played because the league chose to not play a 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic.

At 6’7” and 315 pounds, the ever-smiling Hardrick became a fan favorite his first year in Winnipeg when he sprinted to the end zone after a teammate scored a touchdown and jumped into the stands to celebrate with fans.

“American football had the Lambeau Leap so I gave Canadian football the Hardrick Hop,” he recalls. “After that it became a tradition and the fans started expecting me to do it every time we scored. Everybody in Canada was talking about the Hardrick Hop and I had a lot of fun with it. The people there are just great and they love their football teams.”

“It’s not like I thought it would be when I left Batesville, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I thought football was over for me and then God just blessed me and let me be part of the Canadian league,” he said. “I remember running those stadium steps in high school until we threw up, and Coach Weaver was right there telling us to keep pushing, we could do it.”

Not many people know him as Jermarcus – it’s Yoshi. That nickname came years ago when he and best friend Mario Lewis were always together and relatives began to refer to them as Mario and Yoshi – the names of the Italian characters in the iconic Super Mario Bros. video games. Incidentally, Mario and Yoshi found out later in their lives they are actually half-brothers, further strengthening their bond.

Hardrick’s path to his football dreams was indeed a long and winding one. He first suited up as a 7th grader at Batesville Junior High, and played six seasons as a South Panola Tiger. In high school, from 2004 through 2007, his teams won four consecutive state championships, turning in four consecutive perfect seasons.

His head coach was Ricky Woods until his senior year when Lance Pogue took over the program after Woods took another coaching position. “Man, those were the good days that I will never forget. It seemed like everybody would be at the games and we had so much fun every Friday night. Everybody remembers my last year as the year that Tig (Barksdale) ran wild,” he remembers.

After high school Hardrick enrolled at Ft. Scott Community College in Kansas where he helped the Greyhounds rebuild a struggling program. It was at Ft. Scott that he had to learn a lesson all his teammates already knew – you don’t win every game in football.

“When we lost that first game my teammates couldn’t understand why I was crying and so upset. They said don’t worry about it we will win next week, but I told them they didn’t understand,” Hardrick said. “We didn’t lose a game at the junior high in my seventh or eighth grade year and then we didn’t lose a game my four years in high school. I had never lost a football game and they couldn’t believe it. They said, ‘Man, where are you from?”

“Overall It was a good two years and by the second year we had won the conference and got a bowl game. They hadn’t been to a bowl game in 20 years and that was a fun thing to be part of ,” he said.

His hard work at the JUCO level paid off and Hardrick finished his amateur career with two stellar seasons at the University of Nebraska, earning a degree and becoming a first-generation college graduate. Playing for the Cornhuskers put Hardrick on a national stage almost every weekend in front of thousands of fans and large viewing audiences in a major athletic conference.

Undrafted by any NFL team when his Nebraska days had passed, Hardrick got a tryout with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and made the team. He finished his rookie season on the practice squad of the New Orleans Saints and was not given a contract by another team following the 2012 season.

In 2013 he signed with the Utah Blaze in Salt Lake City, and spent a season playing Arena Football. “That just wasn’t for me. The fans weren’t excited and really at that point I thought football was over for me,” he said. “I felt like I was wasting my time and not making much money.”

He was hired as a car dealership salesman in Omaha, and began to earn good money selling Jaguars and BMW cars.  “A lot of customers remembered me from playing at Nebraska and all I had to do was talk about Cornhusker football with them and then they bought the cars,” Hardrick laughed. “It was a lot of fun in the car business, but I was sure glad when I got a chance to get back into football.”

Hardrick joined the British Columbia Lions in 2014 and thought he was set for a few years, but the coach was fired after the season and he was cut from the roster. Another tough year was 2015 when he returned to the U.S. to play with the Tampa Bay Storm, another Arena Football League team.

That same season he got a call from another Canadian team, the Saskatchewan Roughriders. “Same thing, the coach I was playing for got fired, and I got cut again. It was a hard time for me, but then I got with Winnipeg and it’s worked out great,” he said.

It was during those dark days that Yoshi drew from lessons learned growing up in Panola. “I learned from my coaches and older people that no matter how much work it takes that winning feels so good that it’s worth it. I just tried to remember that I was playing for myself and all the people that were back home,” he said.

Are there any regrets, or bitter feelings, about not having an NFL career and more opportunity in the premier league? “Not at all,” Hardrick said. “I feel like I put my best foot forward and I checked all the boxes that I could, but it just didn’t work out for me.”

What did work out is that last shot in the CFL. “The game is different there with all the motion and the field size, and the downs, but I won the spot outright  in camp with the Blue Bombers and it’s been good ever since.”

For a player who had won some many titles early in his career, Hardrick knew the feeling of satisfaction a championship brings. But by the time the Blue Bombers made it to the Grey Cup game last year it had been almost 10 years since he had played in a title game.

“A game of that magnitude was what I had worked so hard for since I started playing pro football and I was finally back in a championship,” Hardrick said. “Honestly, it took me about two or three days after we won when I woke up one day and really thought about what had happened. I just break down thinking about how these 30 years I had worked so hard to get something like this and it finally happened. It’s kind of like having your first child. It’s that kind of experience.”

Only able to spend a few days in Batesville before getting back to his family in Lincoln, NE, Hardrick’s time here was filled with visiting family, friends, and a little football. Best friend Terrance Pope is an assistant coach at North Panola High School and he took in some practices. “Watching Pope do his thing made me think about if I might go into coaching one day. I don’t know, but it was fun being there and watching these youngsters playing like I was doing coming up. I tell them to work hard and who knows where it might take you. It took me all the way to Canada so it can be them, too,” he said.

Although he doesn’t make it back to Panola County often, Hardrick said he treasures each visit. His wife Samantha – he met her at the University of Nebraska where she was a track athlete – couldn’t make this trip because the children, a boy and two girls, are in school back in Nebraska. He enjoys bringing his wife and kids to Batesville, though, and there will be future trips.

Samantha is a California native and when they married in 2012 she agreed to make another of Yoshi’s dreams come true. “I always wanted to get married at Tiger Stadium because I loved it so much and she said yes. So we got married out there on the field. All of her family accepted it and they had a good time when they came for the wedding.”

“They still laugh about it because it was so country to them,” he said. “They loved it that our grocery store was named Piggly Wiggly and had a pig on the sign and they laughed and laughed at it. They thought it was so country, but they liked it, too. I told them that was fine with me because Piggly Wiggly was my first job, and I still remember when I worked there. It was some good days for me.”

PIggly Wiggly was definitely one of his places to stop and show off the Grey Cup ring and catch up with old friends. Of course, so was the Jiffy Store, and the hot food counter with the famous fried chicken.

“That’s always my first stop just like everybody else. I’ve got to have some Jiffy chicken as soon as I get home,” he said. “I tell people I have eaten a lot of fried chicken all over and in two countries and nobody can touch the Jiffy chicken. It’s just something about it and I get it all the time when I can.”

With the Blue Bombers so far away, Yoshi doesn’t get to play in front of family and friends very often. Canadian Football League isn’t easily available on American television, but websites for the team and its fans have clips of games and his interviews on Canadian sports shows are also online.

Fans can also purchase an array of Yoshi Hardrick merchandise, each piece of clothing or hat bearing a distinctive logo that includes a Hwy. 51 road sign and “Courtland” spelled out in a variety of colors and styles.