On the Friday before the Super Bowl, amidst the height of a media maelstrom, Greg Hardy arrived at radio row with two childhood pals to play an entirely new game. The Panthers defensive end, who has 26 sacks over the past two seasons, intended to prepare for his impending free agency by building his personal brand. Wearing sunglasses, jeans and a vibrant blue sport jacket, he weaved slowly through the maze of tables for three straight hours, stopping to give interviews whenever he was asked.
He delighted a skeleton crew from Phoenix, cracked jokes with LaVar Arrington at a packed table from Washington and declined to take his sunglasses off for an NFL Films crew. Everywhere he went, they asked the same question: Where do you want to be? And the answer was the same every time: Carolina, for the right price.
And he did all of this as the Kraken, playing the part of a fire-breathing sociopath as irreverent as he is unpredictable, and composed of equal parts intelligence, indifference and violence. I watched him go through the routine and couldn’t help but wonder who the real Greg Hardy is, or how the Kraken became one of the NFL’s best defensive ends four years after being a sixth-round pick.
After speaking with dozens of radio stations and TV crews, Hardy walked from the Sheraton hotel in Times Square toward his ride when a fan in a 49ers hat approached him for an autograph. Still fuming weeks after Carolina’s divisional playoff loss to San Francisco, Hardy bit his tongue, signed a photo and stepped into the black car.
“Did you see that guy?” he said incredulously. “This mother------ had a 49ers hat on. Did you not see the playoff game? I should’ve just thrown that s--- in the trash.”
We laughed, and soon we were discussing everything from Colin Kaepernick’s “big-nose swag,” to “the Biebs,” to Hardy’s painful childhood. Later, I reached out to people from his past to get a better picture of the Kraken for a profile in Sports Illustrated. That story hits newsstands next week, but here is a Q&A with Hardy, whom The MMQB has dubbed this offseason’s No. 1 free agent.
Robert Klemko: You were on the cover of Sports Illustrated when you were a junior at Ole Miss. How did that change your life?
Greg Hardy: Big time. I became one of the biggest people in Ole Miss history. It put me on the map as a 19-year-old. It was kind of cool, going around and people are like, You’re that guy. It was awesome.
Klemko: Were you prepared for that attention, emotionally?
Hardy: I wouldn’t say that I was prepared, but I was pretty well set. We had a good program down there, but nothing can really prepare you for an SI cover. In sports, that’s the biggest thing you can get. The last person that got it at Ole Miss was Archie [Manning] and that’s one of the greatest of all time. I adapted well. It built my brand. Back then I wasn’t the Kraken… I was just the Land Shark.
Klemko: Some of your NFL teammates think you are the Kraken. I don’t believe that. Does that get old, being the Kraken all the time?
Hardy: It doesn’t get old. You have to sell it. You’ve got to be what you’re saying you are. You’ve got to embody that life, because if you don’t, it will fall to the wayside. So what I did was make it a part of my life and then lived it. People say I’m different, but you can’t put it all on the line and deal with all of this pressure without an outlet. When I start feeling that pressure—I’ve had five surgeries—I’m thinking, What am I going to do to feed my family? The Kraken is kind of like putting on a mask—a secret identity. It helps you out. I’m growing to love it.
Klemko: You were humbled by the draft. Were you as confident then as you are now?
Hardy: I haven’t cried a lot in my life, but I cried a little bit. I was hurt. I wasn’t drafted in the sixth round because of my ability. After my third year I was the number 1 prospect. Even after my senior year, I was projected as a third-rounder. I still don’t understand what happened. It hurt, but I was still confident, because that’s not based on my athletic ability.
Klemko: So what happened?
Hardy: A lot happened. At one point I got kicked off the team, but they let me back on. Coach [Ed] Orgeron, a man I really respect, had enough. I was just being a kid with a crazy head, having fun, and then me and coach ended up yelling at each other.
Then there was the way I dealt with injuries. My first two years at Ole Miss I took care of myself. If my hand was broken, I’d say I wasn’t playing. And they’d say it was a sprain and I’d be like, Nah, I’m getting my own opinion. They hated that with a passion. That all came from the one time I was all about the team, when I had a stress fracture my sophomore year. In high school I did the same thing and it just snapped in the other foot. I told them it feels like the same thing, and they said it wasn’t, then one time in the middle of practice it snapped. After that I would break my thumb, for instance, and say I’m not practicing. Of course Ed Orgeron would say you’ve got to play, which is part of why I respect him. He’s the coldest coach in the world.
“O-linemen are naturally dirty, nasty, disgusting fat people,” Hardy says. “But if you want to go to war, if you want to fight ... between the lines there are no rules if you don’t get caught. I’m about that life.”
Klemko: How did the experience change you?
Hardy: I feel like the way I approach people today is more mature. Guys don’t get to see inside. It hurt to see my work ethic and my character questioned, and the criticism was so vague. Me getting kicked off the team, nobody knew why, so what do you call that? Team problems. If I was smoking weed or getting arrested, that’s what they’d say, but it wasn’t that.
Klemko: People also said your play was inconsistent.
Hardy: My play was inconsistent, 100 percent, but my work ethic was not. I didn’t get a lot of credit for my work ethic. How do you play both sides of the ball and play basketball and not work hard?
Klemko: I’m guessing teams asked at the combine if you were bipolar.
Hardy: Everybody. Every team.
Klemko: What about the Panthers?
Hardy: With the Panthers, they asked me, “Why is everyone saying you’re bipolar?” I didn’t get clinically tested for being bipolar. I’m not bipolar. But that’s the kind of questions I got all combine. I’m not crazy, but you walk into a room and people ask you that question. They were like, “Can we trust you to play?” Really? I don’t understand that. If there was a psychiatrist in there I would’ve felt better, but these guys weren’t qualified.
Klemko: Some guys latch onto a veteran when they get to the league and mimic the guy. Did you do that?
Hardy: Yes. I latched onto Jon Beason, because that’s what I did at Ole Miss with P-Willy [Patrick Willis]. I tried to emulate the way he plays.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Klemko: You exploded in 2012 as a pass rusher, and improved in 2013. What changed?
Hardy: The preparation became more important for me. Once you realize that being good or great is not good enough—because legendary is attainable—you’ve got to make it important. I made winning, and not making excuses, important to me. I’d go to sleep instead of partying. I’d work out more even if I was partying and drunk, starting my second year. I was working after workouts and practices my rookie year, too, but I did more. I did the extra reps on top of the extra reps. In the offseason you don’t have to do anything if you’re talented enough, but I started taking the offseason seriously. As it became more important, the work became more natural. As a result, my level is unprecedented right now. I haven’t found a ceiling yet.
Klemko: Ron Rivera said you have a switch that goes off during games, and you end up playing at your highest potential. True?
Hardy: There’s some truth to that, and there’s some BS to that. I’m balling 100 percent of the time, but I’m taking more focus into the game when I’m not the Kraken. Once you piss me off, I forget everything. Everything after that is the monster. I’m going to take you out. When you cross that line, I’m gonna take it to a place you’ve never seen before. Like the Atlanta game. I’m a grown man. Don’t talk crazy to me at work. Once you try to talk trash or hurt me, we’ve got problems. I couldn’t jack [fight] because it was a game where we had something to lose and priorities are big to me.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Klemko: What else sets you off?
Hardy: Hands to the face. Hits after the whistle. Falling on me after the whistle blows. You know how many times I’ve been chop blocked after the whistle blows?
Klemko: Is it a result of you talking trash?
Hardy: I think its because O-linemen are naturally dirty, nasty, disgusting fat people. But if you want to go to war, if you want to fight, I’m that guy, as long as it doesn’t jeopardize my team or my family. And between the lines there are no rules if you don’t get caught. I’m about that life. Fighting is my number 1 talent.
Klemko: Tell me about the Panthers. You guys took another big step this season. What’s changed?
Hardy: Little things, man. Little things. We’ve got a players’ coach. We’ve got a players’ GM. We’ve got a players’ owner. For example, we wanted the music changed in the stadium for game days. They were playing some Miley Cyrus. Don’t get me wrong. I love Miley Cyrus. I’m gonna be at her concert, jamming out. I know every one of her songs, but that’s not what’s going to get you ready to sack quarterbacks. Justin Beibs ain’t getting me pumped to get around the edge at all. I wanna talk to my girl and conversate for a while—that’s what the Biebs does for you. So we asked. Me, Cam [Newton] and Luke [Kuechly] are on the junior board of leaders. We make time to present our problems, and that was one of our problems. We said, “Coach, this is our office. It’s like not having staplers and printers.” He got it fixed, and that’s a testament to Riverboat. Another thing: Getting rides to our cars after games so we’re not harassed. Before we had guys who are hurt pressured into standing around and signing autographs. We got music at practice, and it sharpened our focus. When you know the lyrics to a song and you’re trying to remember a play, you’re screwed. When you’re comfortable you can adapt more.
Klemko: Compare Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton?
Hardy: Kaepernick is more of a cowboy, and a smaller version of Cam. He has more confidence in his arm while Cam has more confidence in his game. Kaepernick does what he is good at. But he could do more to be a better player. Cam gets out of the pocket and makes plays, and that’s what makes him better. Kaep could do that better. At the same time, I feel like if Cam would add a little more big-nose swag to his game, he would be more complete.
Klemko: Why did you attend Super Bowl week? To get your name out there?
Hardy: Getting my name out there is an everyday thing. I’m a sixth-round draft pick. I came from the bottom, so every single day I’m pushing my crew—putting us in the best position to win.
Klemko: Is it hard to be in New York without playing?
Hardy: Normally I would avoid it. I get really, really upset when I don’t win. I’ve got a problem with being a loser. Being up here reminds me of that loss to San Francisco, because I know everyone is going to ask me about it and everyone’s going to be in my face a little bit. I don’t want to be a fan, watching other people do my job.
Klemko: I respect that you don’t talk about your family in interviews. What’s been the most difficult part of your life, thus far?
Hardy: I came from Memphis, didn’t have nothing, lived in a trailer. I would say the most difficult thing was having nothing, the thought of going back to having nothing, and how that would make my parents feel. When you don’t have anything there’s a look. It doesn’t matter how strong you are; at some point when you’re kids are growing up, they can see it in your face. The hurt, the pain, the struggle. My parents never really showed pain but you could see the struggle in their faces. I hated it. I hated having to wear the same New Balances to every single sporting event. I never want to go back to zero. I want to be revered. I want to be seen as a well-rounded guy. That’s what motivates me.
Klemko: And what if it all ended tomorrow?
Hardy: If it ended tomorrow, if my career was done, I’d find another way to make a billion so we can keep eating. These are some hungry boys.