When Justin Hardee brought home a ninth-grade report card with straight A’s, he expected the same rewards he knew other high-achieving students received.
Maybe cool new sneakers?
Instead, Estella Perryman looked at the grades and told her son, “Go clean up.” With those three words, Perryman set the bar for Hardee to always strive for better no matter how much success he experienced in school, as a business owner, or during an NFL career that has led him to the foundation of the Jets special teams.
“In that moment in my life I didn’t understand it,” the 28-year-old cornerback told The Post after practice Friday. “Once I caught on, I feel like that affected how I go about my life.”
Perryman died of lung disease at 55 years old, about a week before Christmas 2013. At the time, Hardee was a lightly recruited college sophomore far off the NFL radar and reliant on a “strong support system” of best friends and family to survive.
“I was on the road recruiting and he calls and says, ‘Coach, I just lost the most important person in my life. My mom passed away five minutes ago,’ ” former Illinois assistant coach Bill Cubit recalled. “I called him every hour on that day to make sure he was OK. He’s one of the most special kids I’ve coached. Never put himself first.”
But Hardee put himself in position to succeed. Multiple times over.
Hardee earned three degrees at Illinois — a bachelor’s in communications, a master’s in sports management and a second master’s in education — and worked his way off the Saints practice squad as an undrafted rookie. Over the next five seasons, the Cleveland native switched his official position from receiver to cornerback and established a reputation as one of the best non-kicking or ball-carrying special teamers in the NFL.
“Every big decision, the way I push myself in everything, I dedicate everything to my mom,” Hardee said. “She showed me how to work hard. Of course I miss her, but I know she’s with me every day. To see where I am, after the neighborhood where I came from, she’s definitely proud.”
Here’s one example why: When Hardee couldn’t secure a sponsorship deal with any of the major sports apparel brands to keep the paychecks coming during the NFL offseason because he wasn’t a big enough name, he took matters into his own hands.
After seeking advice from a financial adviser, then-Saints teammate and small-business owner Malcolm Jenkins, and former Jets star and Saints assistant coach Aaron Glenn, Hardee purchased a Papa John’s franchise in New Orleans — where there once was a discounted pizza and breadsticks combo item bearing his name on the menu to benefit charity — and grew to buy another in Mississippi.
“I’m sitting here with three degrees and I’m so much more,’” Hardee remembered thinking. “You have to make the most out of every opportunity while you are in the NFL. I’m trying to create generational wealth — something my family is not familiar with — so that one day my son and my grandchildren can have it.”
The Jets signed Hardee to a three-year, $5.2 million contract and teammates named him a captain last season. Their kickoff return, punt return, kickoff coverage and opponent punting numbers ranked among the top-five in the league, and the offense and defense were both upgraded in the offseason.
“We control our own destiny,” Hardee said. “If we work together, I feel like we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”
Head coach Robert Saleh brought an “All Gas, No Brake” slogan with him to the Jets. If he ever needs a poster boy, he knows where to look.
“Justin is the epitome of ‘All Gas’ in the way he strains and the words that come out of his mouth,” Saleh said. “Any young man who comes into this league and is trying to find his path needs to look no further than him. He’s one of the ones you cheer for because he does it the right way.”
By playing for the name on the front of the jersey, the name on the back and the name in his heart. Hardee has worn a necklace holding his mother’s picture for years.
“It’s having the want-to,” Hardee said. “I’m representing somebody every Sunday, and when you are representing somebody you play different. I’m going to give it everything I’ve got for her.”