Kevin Hardy is no longer "the other" University of Illinois linebacker. Now, he's simply the best in college football.
Two years ago, when the Illinois sports information director was gathering the starting linebackers for a photo, it was announced over the loudspeaker: "Will Dana Howard, Simeon Rice and John Holocek report to the end zone?" Then, after a short pause: "And Kevin Hardy."
When the sports publications came out during the 1995 preseason, it was Rice who drew all the honors. Not Hardy.
But with the annual NFL draft only five days away, it is Hardy who is expected to be one of the top four players chosen, along with USC wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, UCLA offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips.
The Baltimore Ravens would like to choose Phillips with their overall No. 4 selection, and the Jacksonville Jaguars are expected to take Hardy with the No. 2, but if Phillips isn't available and Hardy is, then the Ravens would be more than satisfied.
The Ravens have pressing needs at linebacker and running back. Hardy has the potential to be another Kevin Greene or Greg Lloyd, two All-Pro linebackers with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"Those guys were special," said Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, who was reluctant to heap such praise on a rookie. "But he has the potential. It's the next step he has to take.
"Probably of all the young players I've talked to, he had a really great understanding of the game," said Lewis, who coached the Steelers linebackers the past four seasons. "He gets the big picture, he sees things, asks me questions about things we did in Pittsburgh. I'm real impressed with him, and he has a good future ahead of him. He is stable and very bright."
Don't forget humble. There has never been a bad word uttered from Hardy about his lack of recognition. He has been content to lurk in the background and not deal with the pressure that the greatness label can bring.
"I was never jealous," said Hardy. "Jealousy breeds a lot of negativism. I've always considered myself blessed to have this body and able to play football.
"The pressure comes when you're supposed to be the best, and I was never No. 1," he said. "Sometimes, I enjoyed being left out. That goes along with my identity."
Hardy is from a middle-class family in Evansville, Ind. His mother, Imelda, is a teacher. Father Herbert sells cars.
Hardy is a video-game buff and a talk-show addict. He likes Jenny Jones and Ricki Lake because they're "ghetto-ized," but also enjoys Oprah because she is sophisticated.
Hardy has a warm and personable smile. He loves to party, and plans to crash the draft celebration given by Keyshawn Johnson Saturday night.
The two met last summer at a festival in Atlanta. "Later during the summer, I saw Keyshawn on the front cover of Sports Illustrated, and said, 'Wow, I know that guy,' " said Hardy.
But now Hardy finds himself with similar status, yet at the same time in a class of his own. He is 6 feet 4, weighs 244 and once ran the 40 in 4.5. He is strong enough to play over the tight end or run over an offensive tackle (18 career sacks), and fast enough to cover a wide receiver or running back.
The Pro Bowl could be next.
"All you do with a player like Hardy is station him at an outside linebacker spot and forget about that position. He'll provide a Pro Bowl-type effort each week, likely ranking as the top pure outside linebacker in the NFL within his first two to three years," said Mel Kiper, a draft analyst for ESPN.
Hardy seems embarrassed by such predictions.
But he said he's dealing better with the stardom, and is writing a daily draft diary on the Internet.
"Even before games, the other players kept saying, 'Kevin, man, you ready to roam or what? You act like it's Wednesday and not game day,' " said Hardy, who said he would like to play in Baltimore because his parents were reared in Maryland. "I guess that all changes now. I always thought football was just a game, but now I'm about to get on the level where it becomes your livelihood.
"You know, when I get paid for the first time, I'm probably going to just sit back and take a deep breath," said Hardy. "But I'm still going to be cool about this money and football thing."
Tomorrow: Simeon Rice
Thursday: Leeland McElroy
Friday: Lawrence Phillips
* Saturday: Keyshawn Johnson
Pub Date: 4/16/96
The Hardy file Name: Kevin Hardy
Position: Outside linebacker
Size: 6 feet 4, 244 pounds
Hometown: Evansville, Ind.
Career statistics: 326 tackles (ranks ninth on Illinois career list); 38 tackles for losses (fourth on Illinois career list); five interceptions; 18 sacks.
Awards: 1995 All-American by Football News, AP, UPI, Sporting News, Walter Camp Foundation and Football Writers Association America; first-team All-Big Ten in 1994 and 1995; 1995 Illinois Most Valuable Player; 1995 Butkus Award winner.
Quote: "He has work ethic, intensity, he's a very solid person and he was willing to fill a number of roles for his team." -- Joel Buchsbaum, Pro Football Weekly draft analyst.