Hardwick was always the center of fun

jay-paris

The rookie head coach’s stomach was churning before his NFL debut.

But not like Nick Hardwick’s.

“All of a sudden I heard someone was violently ill,’’ Chargers coach Mike McCoy said. “I thought, ‘Oh no, someone is sick.’’’

Then McCoy peeked outside his office to Hardwick’s cubicle, which always had a trashcan near.

“Hey don’t worry coach,’’ Hardwick told an alarmed McCoy. “It’s just my pre-game ritual.’’

McCoy learned in 2013 what others around the Chargers organization knew: the game meant as much to Hardwick as anyone.

“Guys like him don’t come around too often,’’ McCoy said.

Hardwick won’t be around in a playing capacity after announcing his retirement on Tuesday at Chargers Park.

It was a packed meeting room that greeted Hardwick, a rarity for a center saying ‘adios.’

“Maybe there is a guest speaker coming later,’’ said the modest Hardwick, a member of the team’s 50th anniversary team. “So stick around.’’

Hardwick stuck for 11 years after being a third-round pick. He was undersized at Purdue, and especially so in the NFL, and it didn’t matter.

“I’m pretty confident in nobody in the NFL will ever work as hard on protections as we did,’’ Philip Rivers said in a halting voice. “We studied every little thing to find out when they were blitzing.’’

It was that attention to detail that let Hardwick, who becomes starts work next week for a San Diego FM station, shine for so long.

Because truth be told, Hardwick didn’t know if he could carry the load.

“I was never the biggest, never the fastest, never the strongest,’’ Hardwick said. “And I’m looking at blocking a guy for three hours who is the biggest, strongest and fastest. I am terrified because I don’t know I can block him for three hours.

“But that is what your teammates are for you. You hold each other accountable and if I get in deep water, they will come bail me out.’’

That didn’t happen often, as Hardwick was the anchor of some of the best teams in franchise history.

And we’re not sure how had more fun on Sundays — the fans or Hardwick.

“It’s like you are about to go to a party and have a good time and it just so happens you are going to fight in the game and that is fun for me,’’ Hardwick said.

But the laughter stops when the body revolts. Hardwick had various neck and nerve issue that landed him which restricted him to one game this year, which was to be his last regardless.

“We’re going to miss the heck out of you,’’ Eric Weddle said. “It’s not going to be the same without you around.’’

One thing McCoy won’t miss is the trashcan outside his office.

“It smelled pretty bad,’’ McCoy said.

But that sweet aroma of victory filled the Chargers locker room after most the games Hardwick played.

“I’m incredibly proud and grateful I get to have a moment like this,’’ said Hardwick, who pointed to the 2008 Chargers’ overtime playoff win over the Colts as his top memory. 2008. “A lot of guys come in and out the door and have great careers and they don’t get to stand up front and have closure,

“This is a nice moment and something I’m embracing.’’

But like every player, Hardwick, a Pro Bowler and three-time Chargers offensive lineman of the year, has to let go.

“It’s time to step aside and let someone else have some fun,’’ Hardwick said. “It’s been a blast.’’

+ Contact Jay Paris at jparis@bcardio.com

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