CHAMPAIGN — Go ahead.
Call your mom today. Hug her. Tell her you love her.
Justin Hardee would — if he had the chance.
“I would give anything back just to have another day with my mom,” the Illinois wide receiver said. “Unfortunately, I can’t.”
The closest Hardee can get to her now is at a cemetery. One down the street from where he grew up in Cleveland.
It’s where Estella Perryman is now. Now and forever.
Hardee’s 55-year-old mother died Dec. 12 after a lengthy struggle with lung disease.
“That’s definitely one of the first things I’m going to do when I get home from break is go there and see my mom,” Hardee said before final exams start this week.
He still does. When he falls asleep. When he has a good workout. Does well at practice. Gets a good grade.
He takes out his phone, scrolls through the contacts and finds her number. Wants to hit the call button but doesn’t.
How often does Hardee think about his mom?
“All the time,” he said. “There’s not one day that passes that I don’t think about my mom. It’s crazy because I didn’t think there could be a way I could miss a person that much. Sometimes when I fall asleep, sometimes I talk to her in my dreams, and that makes my day so much better knowing that I can still talk to her.”
Even though she’s gone. And isn’t coming back.
It’s the day after Illinois endured a bad 42-3 loss against Michigan State on Oct. 26.
Hardee didn’t contribute much on that Saturday. He had a special teams tackle.
The loss stung Illinois. Hurt the team’s bowl chances and extended its losing streak to three games.
All of that wasn’t on the mind of Perryman.
She was in Champaign-Urbana for her only game last season.
The only time she saw her son in an Illinois uniform in person last year after watching all the other games on TV.
“We went out to eat that Sunday morning,” Hardee said. “We went to Bob Evans in Champaign. I just remember kissing her and telling her I love her. I watched them drive off.”
For the last time.
Before Hardee could see his mom again, she was already too sick.
Too close to death.
Waiting for her baby to come home.
Hardee did come home to Cleveland.
Under circumstances no 19-year-old wants to.
Hardee — who lives with Illinois cornerback and childhood friend V’Angelo Bentley — was at the house of Illinois football players B.J. Bello, Devin Church and LaKeith Walls on the night of Tuesday, Dec. 10.
His cellphone rang.
His mom wasn’t feeling well and had just arrived at University Hospitals of Cleveland.
Hardee was concerned. But not fearing the worst.
“I instantly got sad,” he said, “but I thought everything was going to be OK because it wasn’t her first time in the hospital.”
Hardee started noticing his mother’s health wasn’t the greatest when he was in elementary school.
“Probably about 10-12 years ago is when she first started getting sick and short of breath,” said Arthur Hardee, Justin’s father who is the chief of police at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
Hardee received another phone call the next morning from his aunt, Wanda Shoulders.
She wanted to know when Hardee could return to Cleveland.
He told her when final exams ended, which started the following week.
The communications major attended his 9 a.m. class the morning of Dec. 11.
Interpersonal Communications 230.
A Wednesday he’ll never forget.
“I went to class and got another call from my auntie telling me, ‘You need to come home now,’” Hardee recalled. “‘Your mother needs you.’”
Hardee rushed out of the classroom and called Tim Beckman.
It was a call the Illinois coach knew was a possibility, but one he never wanted to answer.
Picking a college
Hardee went through the recruiting process more than two years ago.
He played both ways at Glenville under well-respected coach Ted Ginn Sr., as a defensive back and wide receiver.
Hardee didn’t commit early in his high school career.
He waited until roughly two weeks before National Signing Day in 2012.
Toledo had recruited him heavily, with Beckman and former Illinois assistant Steve Clinkscale serving as his lead recruiters.
The drive from Cleveland to Toledo takes about two hours.
Hardee was tempted to commit to the Rockets. Not only because of the relationship he had developed with Beckman and Clinkscale but also because it was close to his mom, who retired in 2008 after working for 28 years as a phone operator for AT&T.
“I was perfectly fine being a mama’s boy,” Hardee said with a laugh.
When Beckman accepted the job at Illinois, he extended an offer for Hardee to become an Illini. Hardee accepted.
Even if the drive from Cleveland to Champaign-Urbana is more than
“Coach Beckman and Coach Clinkscale looked my mother and my father in the eye and said, ‘If anything were to happen,’ they would get me back as soon as possible,” Hardee said. “My mom looked me in the eyes and told me, ‘Justin, I want you to make this decision for you, not me.’ She didn’t want me to make the decision based off her health. She wanted me to make the decision for my life.”
Once Hardee received the second phone call from his aunt last December, he knew he needed to get home.
Illinois used the NCAA’s Student Assistance Fund to help pay for a plane ticket for Hardee.
He flew from Bloomington to Cleveland, arriving late in the afternoon Dec. 11.
“Coach Beckman instantly got me a plane ticket, like he had been telling my dad,” Hardee said. “He said he would, if anything happened, so I truly appreciate him for that.”
So does Arthur Hardee.
“They were very understanding,” he said. “I was very thankful that the football coaches and team stood behind him. When his mom took a turn for the worst, they had him on the plane almost instantly.”
Hardee made the trip to Cleveland alone.
The recent football season that saw him catch a mere 11 passes for 95 yards was far from his mind.
“I cried quite a few times just thinking about what could possibly happen and how things could go wrong,” Hardee said. “Then again, I tried to keep a positive attitude because I would know that was what my family would want me to do. I knew God was going to take care of her.”
Hardee made it to the hospital. Spent the night there.
“I fell asleep in the hospital with her,” Hardee said. “I woke up with my dad right next to me.”
“The next thing you know, all the nurses came rushing in,” Hardee said. “I had to get out. They tried to revive her, but I guess it wasn’t enough. It was her time to go.”
Teammates show love
The next week was a blur for Hardee.
He returned to Champaign-Urbana for final exams. It was a brief stay because his mother’s funeral was set for Dec. 21 and Illinois was about to start winter break.
“It’s another one of those things where we always say we’re a family, but it’s true,” quarterback Reilly O’Toole said. “Whenever any of them are going through a hardship, we’ll be there for them.”
Hardee is grateful for the support he felt — and still feels — from his fellow Illini.
“That’s when I really noticed that this team is a family,” Hardee said. “They all reached out to me, even guys whose number I didn’t have. When I came back, I just felt like I was at home with my second family.”
The quarterbacks who threw passes to Hardee during spring practices — O’Toole, Wes Lunt and Aaron Bailey — haven’t noticed much change in Hardee’s demeanor.
“He’s the same Justin,” Lunt said. “He’s been extremely strong through it all.”
Bailey echoed Lunt’s sentiments.
“From the outside looking in, you could never tell,” Bailey said. “I couldn’t imagine, God forbid, losing my mom. We’ve continued to pray for him to get through things.”
Getting that degree
Hardee still had to take his finals.
“I was prepared to help Justin communicate with his instructors and possibly arrange to take his final exams at a later date, which would have meant ending the semester with some incomplete grades,” said Annie White, the Illinois football team’s academic counselor. “But that didn’t even seem to be an option for Justin.”
He did the academic work — two exams and a paper — before heading back to Cleveland for the funeral.
“I’m not sure many people would have the strength to do something like that,” White said. “He finished the fall semester very strong.”
He has reason to.
Hardee wants to achieve not just on the football field but also in the classroom.
It’s why next December is significant to him. Because he’ll graduate in 2 1/2 years.
White has worked as the football team’s academic counselor since 2007.
She has never had someone earn an undergraduate degree in the span Hardee wants to accomplish it.
“Justin transferred in (with) 21 hours from courses that he took through a community college while he was in high school,” White said. “When he first arrived for summer classes (in) 2012, and I realized how many credits were already under his belt, I knew that he would have a chance to graduate very early.”
Hardee doesn’t have to look far for where his motivation comes from in earning his degree.
“Getting my degree from college, and knowing my family history that not everyone went to college, is big,” Hardee said. “My mom put me in a perfect place and a perfect position to go to college. I definitely want to go to the NFL for myself because that’s my dream, but getting my degree is her dream.”
No matter what he or Illinois accomplishes on the football field this fall, Hardee already is looking forward to that December day when he walks across the stage at graduation.
His plan is to then pursue a master’s degree in sports management at Illinois.
“When I do get my diploma,” he said, “I’m going to raise it up in the air and just give thanks to her.”
Progressing his game
Hardee probably wasn’t thanking Bill Cubit at this moment last August.
Another practice was ongoing at Camp Rantoul. It was hot. Humid.
Hardee didn’t come out of a route the way the Illinois offensive coordinator wanted him to, and Cubit was on him.
“He stays on me because he wants me to be great,” Hardee said. “It irritates me sometimes, but then again, I think that if a coach doesn’t say anything to you, that means he doesn’t care. When he does, that means he just wants the best for you. I’m thankful for that.”
It’s a response wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy didn’t always see out of Hardee.
With the graduation of Steve Hull, Ryan Lankford, Miles Osei and Spencer Harris — receivers who accounted for 49 percent of Illinois’ receptions last year and 57 percent of the team’s receiving yards — Hardee is the veteran wideout for the Illini now.
“Being the most seasoned player in my room has made him grow up,” Bellamy said. “He’s taken it head-on in meetings, and he’s very vocal. There are some times where I’m correcting something about him, and there were times before where he was very defensive and started feeling sorry for himself. Right now he takes it as, ‘I’m learning something every day.’ ”
Beckman recruited him initially to Illinois as a defensive back.
“We looked at the problem we were going to have with four guys graduating, and there was nobody underneath him that had played much, so we asked him if he would play wide receiver,” Beckman said. “He’s still learning, though, and his game is getting better.”
It wasn’t always easy for Hardee in the wide receivers room.
“Justin probably felt like he was the dartboard, and all the darts were being thrown at him,” Bellamy said. “He’s understanding more about maturity in the classroom and in the football stadium but also in his life.”
Hardee is back home in Cleveland.
At the family house he has lived in his whole life.
The neighborhood is familiar to him. The sights and sounds.
The environment could have enveloped him, turned him into a gang member and not into who he is today at Illinois.
“I grew up in a rough part of Cleveland,” Hardee said bluntly. “My mom didn’t want me hanging around any gangs. I was a follower at once, but then again, I got a little fuel from my friends. I didn’t want to be like everyone else.”
Bentley saw the change firsthand and credits athletics, along with some valuable mentors like Ginn, in turning around Hardee’s life.
“We both have great parents, too,” Bentley said. “They always steered us in the right direction.”
Hardee spoke at his mother’s funeral.
Didn’t shed a tear. Which left an impression on Bentley, who was there.
“Even knowing he was a strong person in the past,” Bentley said, “that added something to me.”
Hardee stayed in Cleveland during the rest of winter break.
The holidays were hard, though.
“Christmas is real huge in our family,” Hardee said. “That was my mom’s favorite holiday. She actually had a tree that was full of gifts because she does her shopping early. It wasn’t the best holiday because it was very sad. Even though she was strict about having wrapping paper around her house, she loved to see everyone’s faces after they opened gifts from her.”
New Year’s was difficult, too.
“I remember the year before I kissed my mom and told her Happy New Year’s,” Hardee said. “She said it back.”
Hardee looks at the floor after relaying this story while sitting on an orange leather chair inside the recruiting lounge at Memorial Stadium.
He pauses for a few moments. The message is clear. He misses his mom.
Dealing with the pain
Hardee has had his down moments.
Away from his teammates. With his teammates.
Away from his family. With his family.
“It’s OK to hurt,” Hardee said. “It’s OK to cry. At the end of the day, you’re going through it, and no one else is.”
“I’ve been trying to pick up his spirits as much as I can,” said Arthur Hardee, who communicates with his son daily. “He’s been up in that he wants to dedicate this season to her. He’s coming along.”
Hardee worries about his dad. And how he’s holding up.
“He goes up to the cemetery every day because he passes the graveyard on his way to work,” the younger Hardee said. “He visits her every day. That was his best friend and something that really hurts him.”
The hurt might not ever totally go away for Hardee. Or the sense of loss.
His father died last June, and he stayed in touch frequently with Hardee in December even with Cubit recruiting in Florida.
“I wanted to make sure he was OK,” Cubit said. “I sat down in the parking lot for five to 10 minutes after I found out just talking him through it all. I told him I would call him every two hours. You keep reaching out. The one thing you kind of realize as a coach is how much a part of their life you are.”
Hardee has two tattoos commemorating his mom.
One is a picture of his mom’s face on his chest.
Another has a cross with his mom’s name on his arm.
So even as another Mother’s Day hits the calendar today, even as another set of final exams awaits Hardee and even as another round of fall practices is three months away, Estella Perryman is near and dear to her son’s heart.
What words would Hardee use if he could talk to his mother today? That’s easy.
“I would definitely tell her I love her,” Hardee said. “When she left, she definitely left a part of her in me. I would just thank her for giving me the best 19 years of my life. She was the best mom I could ever ask for.”