BLOOMINGTON -- James Hardy as model and actor. Can you grasp that concept? Can you see this 6-6 former Indiana University and Elmhurst High School standout hitting a magazine cover and then a movie theater near you?
It's possible. Hardy has the Hollywood dream and opportunity, and now, just as it once was for him in football, all things are possible.
“I want to be a chameleon,” he says when asked about what kind of actor he wants to be. “I want to be able to do them all -- action, comedy, romantic lead. I feel I'm a romantic guy already.”
“I'm going to say my prayers and give it all I've got.”
Here is Hardy on a sun-splashed afternoon, working with kids as part of IU football's recent spring game youth clinic. He is lean and fit, as he was six years ago when he was setting school receiving records and earning All-America honors.
He is 27 years old, which in most professions makes him young as you wish you were again. But the NFL ages you fast, and if you can't produce, you're out.
Hardy, it seems, is out. He could never shake the hamstring injuries that cut short his career with the Buffalo Bills, then halted his opportunity with the Baltimore Ravens
He played in 16 NFL games for the Bills from 2008-2010 and totaled 10 catches for 96 yards and two touchdowns before being cut. While with the Bills he received the Ed Block Courage Award, presented annually to selected NFL players voted by their teammates as role models of inspiration, sportsmanship and courage.
Hardy signed with the Ravens in 2011, but couldn't do much in preseason camp and was cut again. He tried the Arena Football League with the Arizona Rattlers and the Tampa Bay Storm, but injuries limited him there as well.
“I've tried extremely hard to get my body right the past two years to get back to the NFL,” he says. “It just hasn't happened for me. Unfortunately, with the multiple injuries that I had, it looks like it's done for me. I officially retired last month.”
By then his modeling opportunity had arrived. He lived in Los Angeles and a friend got him in contact with Sports + Lifestyle Unlimited, a 20-year-old agency focused on supplying models who represent an active lifestyle. It has offices in Los Angeles and Portland, Ore., and works with print, broadcast commercials, TV and film projects and more.
“They wanted a meeting,” Hardy says, “and signed me on the spot. Now I'm getting paid to be in Los Angeles. The sky is the limit. I'll do the work. I'll put in the same hours I did in football so I can be successful in the next stage of my life.”
This time, Hardy won't have to worry about balky hamstrings or punishing NFL defensive players, which doesn't mean the challenges will be any less intense. Hollywood crushes dreamers everyday and only the tough, resilient and passionate can survive.
“This is a dream of mine just like the NFL was,” Hardy says. “The NFL didn't work out, but I've done a lot of things, learned a lot of things. I can pursue my dreams in Los Angeles as well as come back to Indiana to teach the younger generation how to do it, how to be more successful than I was at this level.”
Hardy is taking acting lessons, a follow-up to ones he took at IU. He's done a few basketball commercials (basically playing himself) that he says likely won't come out until next year, and are geared toward websites.
“There's a 12-month period to cut and edit, so 2014 should be my year,” he says.
Hardy has had auditions (“Six in the last month alone”), and will do countless more. The roles are small, the projects are unheralded and the competition is fierce.
“There are thousands of people going to these auditions,” Hardy says. “Unless you're with an agency, you don't really get looked at. It's like trying to make it in the NFL without an agent.
“The agency finds the outlets where you can make money for yourself and for them, but it's up to you to go to the auditions and make your mark.”
Hardy made a huge mark in athletics. At Elmhurst he was a basketball-football superstar, and remains one of the most prolific scorers in city history. He challenged for Indiana Mr. Basketball honors as a high school senior in 2004, and signed with IU with the intent of playing both sports in college.
But the demands from those sports were too great, and his football potential too apparent. The world is full of 6-6 basketball players, but 6-6 athletic receivers have huge upsides.
Hardy showcased that football upside. As a junior he ranked third in the Big Ten in catches (74) and receiving yards (1,075), and earned all-conference honors. He led the Hoosiers to the 2007 Insight Bowl, their first bowl appearance since 1993. He set school receiving records for touchdowns (36), yards (2,690) and receptions (186), and could have done more, but elected to give up his final year of college eligibility and enter the NFL Draft. He went in the second round with the No. 41 pick.
The plan was to have a long, standout career, much as NFL Hall of Famer Rod Woodson (a former Snider standout) had done. Now he has a new one, and if it ends up closer to, say, the Rock, than Woodson, he can live with that.
“This is difficult because all I've known are football and basketball,” he says. “For the first time in my life, I can't use my body to get ahead. So it's different. I have to evaluate myself, see what I can do to be great at. I'll take this entire year to focus on my craft.”