One word kept coming up as Justin Hardy went through his first Super Bowl media day.”Unbelievable,” the former ECU wide receiver said, over and over. “This is unbelievable.”Hardy will suit up for the Falcons on Sunday, in just his second year in the NFL, playing on the biggest stage the sport has to offer.”I dreamed about this my whole life, as a kid,” he said. “Just being here this soon, my second year in the league. I can’t be any more grateful.”The week started with Super Bowl Opening Night, where the players met with the media in an arena packed with fans.”People bought tickets to get in here,” Hardy marveled. “I feel great. It’s just unbelievable, coming out from behind the curtain (during team introductions) and seeing the crowd here, and hearing them all.”The Super Bowl spotlight is a far cry from Hardy’s humble beginnings. As a freshman at Vanceboro, N.C.’s West Craven High, he was a 90-pound ballboy who couldn’t get on the field. He eventually earned a chance to play, but college coaches weren’t exactly beating down his door.”When I went to school, I didn’t have any offers,” he said. “I walked on (at ECU). I knew what I had. I had heart. I had grit. I didn’t like it when people said I couldn’t do something. I definitely had that chip on my shoulder and used it to prove people wrong.”After setting receiving records during his ECU career, Hardy was chosen in the fourth round by the Falcons and made the adjustment to the pro game.”Coming from a small town, not being used to the city like that, to come to Atlanta and on a great team like we are, it’s unbelievable,” Hardy said, using his adjective of the week.While there was culture shock with the move to Atlanta, the game itself wasn’t a big change for Hardy. “It’s not as physical as you would think,” he said of the difference between the NFL and ECU. “It’s more mental.”Hardy will become the third player from West Craven to reach the Super Bowl, joining Packers linebacker George Koonce from 1997 and 1998 along with Anthony Wright, the third-string quarterback on Eli Manning’s New York Giants in 2007. He will also become the 19th former ECU player to reach the Super Bowl and the first wide receiver.Another successful adjustment Hardy has made since ECU is getting used to being the low man on the totem pole again. By his senior year, he was clearly the main target in the Pirate offense. Now, he’s on a Falcons offense that is known for spreading the wealth.”The guys that we have, the depth that we have,” Hardy explained, “any guy can have a good day on any given day. So it’s really good to be a part of something special like this. Everybody believes in each other. It’s a brotherhood that we have. Nobody has ego.”It also means that Hardy could have a big game against the Patriots especially if New England concentrates on shutting down fellow wide receiver Julio Jones or he could be an afterthought, while one of the other Falcons receivers is targeted by quarterback Matt Ryan.The uncertainty means that Hardy may or may not reach a few potential milestones for ECU alumni. He would become the fourth Pirate to catch a Super Bowl pass. Earnest Byner caught three for 24 yards in 1992, Todd Collins two for 19 in 1986, and Vonta Leach three for 10 yards in 2013. Collins has the longest catch by an ECU alum in Super Bowl history at 12 yards, and Byner has the only touchdown, a 10-yard catch.Should the Falcons win, however, Hardy will be the 14th Super Bowl champion in ECU history, and that’s the only accomplishment he’s worried about.”As a kid I grew up believing in this moment, and I’m here now,” he said. “It’s second to none. And it’s only Monday. It’s already crazy. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like later in the week.”It’s unbelievable.
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