Carolina Panthers’ Greg Hardy is an undeniable talent who has made questionable actions

jjones@charlotteobserver.comMay 17, 2014 

In Greg Hardy’s domestic violence case, separate 911 calls and multiple court documents paint a conflicting picture of what happened early Tuesday morning at Hardy’s upscale uptown condo.

A call from Hardy suggests a 6-foot-4, 290-pound Pro Bowl defensive end protecting himself from a woman who was behaving erratically. A call from an eyewitness tells of Hardy beating his girlfriend.

There’s a similarly conflicting portrait of Hardy himself. In college at Ole Miss, he was suspended from the team for immaturity and truancy, issues that have also flared in his four seasons with the Carolina Panthers.

Hardy’s football talent is undeniable. His brash statements and sometimes spectacular play have earned him strong support among fans.

But the key question the Panthers face is the same one his coaches have always dealt with: Which Greg Hardy will we get today?

Tuesday, two weeks after the Panthers agreed to a $1.3 million “good faith” advance on Hardy’s $13.1 million, one-year contract, he was arrested. The charges: Assault on a female and communicating threats – both misdemeanors.

Court documents filed by the accuser, Nicole Holder, state Hardy had 25-30 firearms, including several on a couch that she landed on when she claims he threw her. Friday, Hardy turned in nine guns as a condition of his $17,000 bond.

The Panthers say they will let the legal issue run its course, and on Friday, Panthers coach Ron Rivera called Hardy a “heck of a young man.”

Hardy is disruptive on the field for the Panthers – a team historically concerned about its image – but he can be similarly unsettling off the field. That leads to uncertainty in the Panthers organization about Hardy’s long-term status with the team.

Issues at Ole Miss

In 2008, Hardy helped Mississippi beat defending national champion Florida 31-30. Hardy had 1 1/2 sacks and 2 1/2 tackles for loss, and he made the cover of Sports Illustrated, shown pressuring reigning Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow.

One week later, he was benched midway through the Rebels’ 31-24 loss to South Carolina.

“We expect so much from Greg Hardy because he’s a difference maker, and he’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated one week and we want that guy to come back,” then-Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt told the AP. “We want him to come back every Saturday.”

The previous season, Ole Miss had suspended Hardy indefinitely for missing team meetings. He was reinstated two weeks later, after apologizing to coaches and sending an apology to reporters.

Hardy’s talent and athletic ability – he also played basketball at Ole Miss – were elite. But his behavior, streaky play and injury history, plus questions about his work ethic and time missed with minor injuries, gave NFL franchises pause.

At the 2010 NFL scouting combine, the same question kept coming up: Hardy told Sports Illustrated that every NFL team asked if he was bipolar.

“With the Panthers, they asked me, ‘Why is everyone saying you’re bipolar?’ ” Hardy said. “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.”

Hardy heard talk that he could fall to later rounds, but was undaunted.

“If I’m a sixth-round pick and I go out there and get 20 sacks, what can you say to me?” Hardy told Yahoo Sports before the draft. “You have to pay me anyways. I’m gonna get paid.

“I’m about winning, that’s what it’s all about.”

The Panthers took Hardy with the 175th pick, in the sixth round.

Minor off-field troubles

Before he turned himself in to police Tuesday, Hardy didn’t have a known arrest on his record.

He had three speeding tickets, two of which were waived and another where he received a prayer for judgment.

There were charges of no operator’s license, a window tint violation, and a driving without registration that was dismissed.

In 2011, a motorcycle accident left Hardy with a concussion and severe abrasions, keeping him out of most of the Panthers’ preseason activities.

It was during that season, Hardy’s second in the NFL, that his parents, Greg and Lan, moved from Memphis, Tenn. to Charlotte, where Hardy Sr. is the football coach and security chief at Alexander Graham Middle School.

Hardy Sr., also a former player at Mississippi, said he and his wife, a former police detective, relocated with two of Hardy’s younger siblings to give Hardy “a little stabilization.”

“We just had to eliminate the distractions,” Hardy Sr. said in an interview with the Observer last fall. “I don’t know if he had any. We let him live his life and did what we could to help him out.

“We try not to be in the limelight. We just want to be part of his life.”

Plenty to talk about

Their son, however, seeks the limelight.

In high school, Hardy asked his coach to call him “DK,” which according to the (Memphis) Commercial Appeal was explained as a translation for “African Warrior.” It is also the name of a character in the popular video game “World of Warcraft.”

As a pro, he has frequently interacted with fans in meet-and-greets not sponsored by the team at locations across Charlotte, and he hosted an “Ask Me Anything” session on the popular reddit.com online community.

During the 2012 season, with the Panthers struggling at 3-9, he proclaimed Carolina better than 11-1 Atlanta, and the Panthers backed up the boast by defeating the Falcons.

And in October, Hardy made a national splash when he told the Observer he would “dominate” four-time NBA MVP LeBron James in a game of one-on-one basketball.

Hardy’s verified Twitter account, with more than 23,000 followers, had for months listed his location as “Front Page” before it was deactivated after his arrest. In 2012, he tweeted a photo of a Bentley speedometer that appeared to show he was driving more than 100 mph.

And Hardy is a rapper. He posted six rap songs to a music-sharing site in 2011, and at one point last fall he agreed to let the Observer listen to him rap in a studio, although that session never materialized.

In his song “Out of My Mind” from 2011, Hardy raps that “everybody thinks I’m schizophrenic.”

“I lost my mind, I still haven’t found it,” Hardy raps as part of the chorus. “Used to get high but I’m still well grounded.”

The making of the ‘Kraken’

Hardy would regularly sign his tweets “Kraken out,” a reference to his nickname, modeled on a mythical sea creature.

The nickname is part of the brand Hardy has been building for years, but he ramped up the campaign entering a contract year in 2013.

He warmed up before games with “Kraken” on the back of his jersey, and he sometimes ran out of the tunnel during introductions with cat-eye contacts and face paint, performing a 360-degree roundhouse kick.

But he catapulted the nickname into the national spotlight before a key Sunday Night Football game against New Orleans in December.

Hardy, wearing sunglasses, looked into an NBC camera for his player introduction and said “Kraken … Hogwarts.” He left the film crew befuddled, saying he only needed one take and wanted to go take a nap.

Then, at February’s Super Bowl in New York, Hardy walked around radio row – the area where various sports radio hosts conduct their shows during Super Bowl week – with “KRAKEN!” written in black ink on his nametag.

Hardy would talk to anyone willing to grab him, but he wanted them to call him by his nickname.

The brand had gone national, and paired with his play, he was set up for a big payday.

Talent equals money

There are significant layers to Hardy, but money has always been his motivation.

He played receiver occasionally early in his Ole Miss career, and he asked his coaching staff to let him play more.

“I believe that’s where the money’s at,” he told the Commercial Appeal in 2007.

His talents are such that he might be capable. After one training camp practice last summer, he stood less than 10 yards in front of the jugs machine, which fires out footballs at high speed for practice purposes, snapping his hands up from his sides to catch the ball, amazing media members and Rivera.

Hardy entered the final year of his rookie contract with a deal that paid him $1.35 million in 2013, and the season wasn’t always smooth.

Hardy missed a number of practices with various illnesses, most said to be related to his asthma.

He was benched for the start of Carolina’s Week 13 win against Tampa Bay after he was late to a team meeting. He was fined by the team and later apologized to Rivera.

But Hardy produced. He tied the franchise single-season record with 15 sacks – four more than fellow defensive end Charles Johnson, who had signed a six-year, $76 million deal in 2011. Hardy earned his first Pro Bowl trip, and Sports Illustrated named him the NFL’s No. 1 free agent.

Everything was in place for Hardy’s long-awaited payday.

And Hardy was ready.

“I want a big number that I worked for, nothing imaginary,” Hardy said in January. “And if you don’t believe me, tell me what you want me to do and I’ll go do it for you.”

Hardy even said he would take a hometown discount, accepting slightly less money from the Panthers because he had made Charlotte his home.

“If you take $10 million off $110 million, it’s still $100 million,” he said. “That’s not the case, but you know what I’m saying? It’s a number, it’s not ridiculous. But I want to be compensated and I want it to be what I deserve.”

In February, the Panthers used their franchise tag on Hardy. The designation under the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement guaranteed him a one-year, $13.1 million deal for the 2014 season.

The two sides could continue to work toward a long-term extension by July 15, but if no deal is reached by then, Hardy could become a free agent in 2015.

The dark of night

Days after the Panthers’ January playoff loss to San Francisco, general manager Dave Gettleman discussed the hypothetical of a big-name player leaving the team in free agency or being released.

Not specifically asked about Hardy or any other player, Gettleman said that people on the outside don’t have all the facts.

“Unless you know all the facts, all you’re doing is speculating,” Gettleman said. “It’s all it is pure speculation. There are times (when I see moves other teams make) when I just say, ‘That’s interesting.’ And some day – three, four, five years down the road – I’ll get all the information and know why they made the decision they made.

“Everybody’s got their things they’ve got to deal with, and it varies from team to team. There’s a million reasons why things like that happen.

“There’s a lot of stories in the dark of night that never get told.”

The Panthers have met with Hardy since the arrest, though neither side will say what was discussed.

Team officials say they are still gathering information, and there is no imminent decision on Hardy’s future.

His 2014 salary is guaranteed, even if the team releases him.

His criminal case is proceeding, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office said.

The conflicting accounts of Tuesday’s incident in Hardy’s condominium may never be reconciled.

But the Panthers, by now, should have a good idea who Greg Hardy is – a sometimes-dominant defensive end who likes the limelight on the field and off.

As Hardy himself said in December, “I’ve been being me for a long time.”

Staff writer Joseph Person contributed.

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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