Game Day

FAMILY REDEFINED: Hardy plays for more than himself

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I wouldn’t exactly call it the light at the end of the tunnel because now the hard work starts. But I plan to work as hard as I did up to this point and even harder when I get to Bozeman to take advantage of this opportunity. I can’t wait to play some football and be a part of the family.” Daniel Hardy, April 2018

Daniel Hardy came to football in the midst of his most profound loss. He’s stayed with football because of the sense of family that it’s provided. Since the athletic defensive end who transferred to Montana State from the College of Siskiyous landed in Bozeman, he has done nothing but take advantage of his opportunity. 

And since he stepped on the MSU campus, the senior defensive end has been playing for something greater than his own individual accolades. 

Hardy lost his father, Wilbert, after a three-year bought with kidney cancer a few months before Daniel committed to Montana State. The last time the Bobcats played in the City of Roses came six months later in 2018 when Troy Andersen rushed for a Big Sky Conference single-game quarterback record 211 yards to lead Montana State to a 43-23 at Portland State. 

Saturday, Hardy returns to his hometown for the first time since then. Over the last three years, Hardy has continued growing into a man that would certainly make Wilbert proud. 

The 6-foot-3 former outside linebacker and now wrecking ball defensive end has put on nearly 30 pounds to play his fifth and final season of college football with his hand in the dirt. 

The former private school high school basketball star has dedicated himself to learning the game of football, honing his craft and making an impact in a variety of ways during his time playing for Jeff Choate and now Brent Vigen with the Bobcats. 

From striving to be a special teams standout to backing up Andersen at outside linebacker to taking his place in the MSU starting lineup, to now, sitting among the Big Sky Conference leaders in tackles for loss and sacks, Hardy’s growth on the football field is tangible. 

A young man who gravitated toward the game to fill the void left by the loss of his father has also blossomed when it comes to personal discipline, leadership, dedication to his team and so much more. Today Hardy gets to show his mother and eight siblings just how much he’s grown. 

Montana State and Portland State open Big Sky Conference play from Hillsboro Stadium at 3 p.m.

“I’ve been putting in work and working on myself and I can’t wait to show my family that,” Hardy said. “No killing time. We’ve been getting in work and I can’t wait for my mom and my family to see that. 

“My mom, love her to death, the most supportive person, strongest woman I know. I tell everybody all the time that I have the greatest mom in the world so for her to see how hard I’ve been working will be sweet. I want to put on a show in front of the home crowd.”

Montana State defensive end Daniel Hardy (44) in 2018/by Brooks Nuanez

Vigen has been around Hardy for less than a calendar year. But the humble, hard-working senior has left an impression on his new coach strong enough that Vigen is excited for Hardy to make one last trip back to the city he grew up in. 

“Sometimes you want to go home and show what you’ve become,” Vigen said. “Daniel was this project, this basketball player who was all in on football and here we go a few years down the road and he’s on the verge of becoming a star. 

“He’s worked real hard and this is his chance to go back and showcase that.”

Joel Sobotka keeps a video from Hardy’s senior year of high school hoops on his cell phone. The former athletic director and boys’ basketball coach at Valley Catholic School in Beaverton, Oregon outside of Portland sometimes sends it to Hardy when he’s thinking about one of his favorite former pupils. 

In the clip during the winter of 2017, Valley Catholic was running an out of bounds play called “wide 2”. The lob on the play was thrown to the backside. Intially, Sobotka thought the pass would sail out of bounds. The athleticism displayed in the video as Hardy effortlessly slams the alley-oop with one hand is impressive enough.

But the video remains special and something he shows to Daniel from time to time because as the camera pans to the other side of the court after the one-handed slam, you can see Wilbert Hardy stand up, clapping, and giving a high-five a fellow parent. Wilbert wore a black ski hat in that video. He would pass roughly a year later. 

“Daniel’s father would be proud today,” Sobotka said “He raised one of the most fierce competitors I’ve taught but also one of the best servant leaders I’ve seen.”

Sobotka, who was an assistant at Portland State before leading the Vikings’ men’s basketball program as the head coach from 1998 until 2002, remembers Hardy helping younger players learn the ropes, carrying the medical kit, helping clean up the bench, whatever the team needed.

Sobotka was a college coach for 18 years before taking the Valley Catholic job in 2012. After his time at Portland State, he was an assistant at Cal State Northridge alongside former Montana State standout Danny Sprinkle, who is entering his third season as the head coach for the Bobcats this fall years later. 

Montana State defensive end Daniel Hardy (44) in 2019/by Brooks Nuanez

Sobotka spent six seasons as an assistant at University of Portland before he took over at Valley Catholic. Of all the players he’s coached in 30-plus years mentoring young men on the hardwood, Hardy is one of the most memorable. 

“After this many years, you realize that you only get to coach players like that occasionally, there’s only a few of those guys in your career, if you are lucky,” Sobotka said. “He was an absolute fierce competitor while also being one of the most humble spirit and servant spirit you will ever be around. That’s how he was raised.”

During Daniel’s sophomore year, Wilbert Hardy was diagnosed with kidney cancer. The Reverend Hardy served as a beloved, humble spiritual leader for Portland’s African American community, “inspiring so many others with his dynamic sermons and lifelong service to his church and community”, according to the Portland Tribune. 

When he passed on February 6 of 2018, he left behind Daniel, his mother and eight siblings. 

“His father was a tremendous leader and communicator in the city,” Sobotka said. “Going to his services, seeing the number of people who were there that were touched by him, he was so far ahead of his time as far as bringing the community together as far as what has happened recently. He was someone who cared about people.”

Hardy only started playing football his senior year of high school. He was so raw, he held a partial offer from Division II Western Oregon in hoops and that’s all. So he chose to bet on himself.

An assistant at the College of Siskiyous happened to be in Portland when Hardy was deciding between “playing hoops at a junior college or just working at a job.” He ended up deciding to go the junior college in Weed, California that boasts an enrollment of 2,473 and has a tuition price of $1,156. 

Montana State sam linebacker Daniel Hardy (44) rushes vs Austin Peay in the quarterfinals of the 2019 FCS Playoffs/by Brooks Nuanez

At the community college, Hardy started to blossom. His first year there, his second year ever playing football, Hardy earned first-team NorCal all-conference last fall after piling up 66 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and a league-leading nine sacks.

“Daniel is a tremendous athlete, 6-3 with a wingspan of almost 6-10, and he’s explosive, fast, and has huge upside,” former Montana State head coach Jeff Choate said when Hardy signed in the spring of 2018. “He’s a guy that we evaluated numerous times and we kept coming back to the fact that if we tried to wait a year we wouldn’t have a chance. After his visit here he visited Fresno State, and when he called to let us know he’s becoming a Bobcat we were pretty excited.”

Hardy came to Montana State as a lanky, unpolished 6-foot-3, 210-pound piece of unrefined granite with no true position. The Bobcats tried him at the Buck end spot in Choate and former DC Ty Gregorak’s defense. Then he moved to Sam linebacker, improving enough to earn a No. 2 spot behind Andersen during the 2019 season. 

Hardy played in all 15 games between special teams, reserve reps before taking over for Andersen in the starting lineup for the final four games of MSU’s run to the FCS playoffs semifinals. He rolled up 18 total tackles, including 5.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. 

“He went through some pretty tough things right before he first got here, some family tragedy stuff and I just think he has a good spirit, man,” Choate said last off-season. “He’s a kid who always has a smile on his face, really wants to be good, really treats people the right way, is always there for his teammates. 

“And because he’s been that person, guys have gone out of their way to help him figure out how to put weight on, learn the playbook, do things in Bozeman. 

“Even though he’s a kid from Oregon, he’s a kid who has embraced his opportunity here,” Choate said. “He has great passion and that spirit about him, he brings great energy every day.”

Montana State defenders Jeffrey Manning (5) and Daniel Hardy (44) celebrate a fumble recovery in spring of 2021/by Brooks Nuanez

That energy has helped endear Hardy to his teammates. He’s not a team captain but he’s certainly a leader, both by example and in emotional awareness. 

Hardy used the off-season to dedicate himself in the weight room and get himself up to near 240 pounds. Hardy’s “motor never changed and his speed never changed” according to Vigen, MSU’s first-year head coach. 

Thus far this season, Hardy has 12 tackles, 3.5 sacks and five tackles for loss, each among the best non-conference totals for Big Sky defenders. 

“He’s amazing right now,” MSU offensive tackle T.J. Session said in August. “I think he’s a next level guy and by next level, I mean NFL guy right now.

“Going against Daniel Hardy, that has really made me a better player.”

Last week in a 52-10 win over San Diego, Hardy shared one of his sacks with Andersen.

“Sometimes, in games, he’ll look at me and ask if I want to race to the quarterback,” Andersen said with his trademark unassuming chuckle. “And man, he’s pretty fast.”

That energy has helped endear Hardy to his teammates. He’s not a team captain but he’s certainly a leader, both by example and in emotional awareness. 

Hardy used the off-season to dedicate himself in the weight room and get himself up to near 240 pounds. Hardy’s “motor never changed and his speed never changed” according to Vigen, MU’s first-year head coach. 

That has him living up to the preseason notion held by new Montana State defensive coordinator Freddie Banks that Hardy “can be one of the most explosive defensive ends in the country in FCS and that’s the expectations for him.”

A new strength training regimen from first-year strength and conditioning coach Sean Herrin has inspired Hardy. Sobotka said last time he talked to MSU men’s basketball assistant Dan Russell, the hoops coach said he sometimes finds himself just starring at Hardy as he lifts weights, the visual is so impressive.

Thus far this season, the ripped, lean end — Hardy says this is the best shape and strongest he’s been in his life — has 12 tackles, 3.5 sacks and five tackles for loss, the latter two totals among the best non-conference totals for Big Sky defenders. 

“You are playing from a different stance, reading different keys, all of that, but Daniel is very coachable,’ Vigen said. “And he understands that every rep he gets is so critical and he never stops. He is certainly one of them when you say, ‘That’s how you practice, that’s how you go about your business.’ 

“He’s a tremendous person and a tremendous competitor and sometimes, those things don’t always come in the same package. When you have that and you have the respect of your teammates, You just become a shining example. You get out on that game field on Saturdays and you make plays like Daniel has been making, you just inspire others.”

Montana State defensive end Daniel Hardy (44) records a sack vs. San Diego in 2021/by Brooks Nuanez

Vigen is a first-year head coach but has been around college football since his days as a tight end at North Dakota State in the mid-1990s. He coached at his alma mater for 15 years, culminating in serving as NDSU’s offensive coordinator during national championship runs in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

The head coach has long been inundated with and perpetuated the importance of the familial aspect of college football. NDSU has had such tremendous success, it’s hard to deny the importance of the dynamic. And Vigen saw Hardy’s appreciation for that element of the game that has changed the young man’s life so much. 

“So much is made of the relative violence that football is about and for some people, that’s all they see,” Vigen said. “But football, because of it’s numbers and because of its reliance on one another, you are 1/11th on a team, you are one of 100-plus, I think doing your job within the scope of a greater purpose is so important. The very best teams, the common denominator is they play for each other. 

“And so family because such a big part of a successful football team. I want our players to feel like we are, in many ways as coaches, their next set of parents. And in some of our cases where our guys have lost parents or don’t have parents, we need to fill that void. We need their teammates to be like brothers. 

“Daniel has been a really good example of how football will really benefit him and allow him to grow beyond a situation that was very difficult in his life.”

Hardy remembers the moment he realized football was not like other sports. In basketball, he reckons, a player can go out and score 60 “and win the game for everybody.” In baseball, a player can hit a walk-off home run.

“But this game really requires 11 people to do their job. And if one person isn’t doing it right, then we all fall together,” he said earlier this week.

Montana State senior Daniel Hardy/ by Jason Bacaj

Before the season began, Hardy had a moment of clarity while sharing dinner with his defensive line brethren. The football journey he has chosen has not only taught him about his own personal limits and the discipline it takes to stretch those. But he’s also learned about the diversity that can make up a football family.

He counts players like Zach Wright, who hails from New Braunfels, Texas, and Bryce Sterk, who grew up in tiny Lynden, Washington to Andersen, a cowboy from Dillon, Montana as some of his closest brothers.

“In that moment, it really didn’t seem like we were all from different places. It really felt like we were a big family and we’re just a big band of brothers, going out to war every Saturday,” Hardy said. “I couldn’t be more thankful for the guys that I get to play next to.”

Today as Hardy takes the field in Portland, he will pay homage to his late father like he always does. His towel he keeps in his pants has “P4WGH” written on it, meaning “Play for Wilbert Gail Hardy.” The same is etched on Hardy’s cleats.

“I think about him every day,” Hardy said. “Every time that 5 a.m. alarm goes off and I don’t want to get up or I don’t want to eat another bite of that food, he’s an extra reminder I’m playing for something bigger than myself.”

Most, if not all of Hardy’s eight siblings will be in attendance in Portland today. Sobotka and Valley Catholic head football coach Nick Hegwood will also take in Hardy’s last game in the City of Roses.

Montana State senior Daniel Hardy, pictured here in 2019/ by Brooks Nuanez

Hardy likens his newfound football brotherhood to growing up with so many siblings. You have to fight for the man next to you and you never want to let your family down.

It’s a notion that certainly would have made Wilbert Hardy proud of the man his son has become.

“Any time a guy has an opportunity to go home and show what he’s become, that’s big,” Vigen said. “That’s what Daniel has and we are happy for him for that.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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