Riders’ OL Jermarcus Hardrick feels ‘guilty’ about leaving Bombers for top dollar

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After seven seasons in blue and gold, Jermarcus Hardrick still isn’t entirely comfortable with the idea of joining the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

“It was a very hard decision,” the long-time Winnipeg Blue Bombers right tackle acknowledged in his first address to the Regina media. “It’s still a little foggy at times. I feel guilty still right now talking to you guys, but I know it’s the right thing.”

“I’ve been there for so long, it was so emotional. It’s all my kids knew. I wasn’t looking for a new challenge but I’m excited for a new challenge, to have a new motivation. There’s not any bad blood or anything like that.”

Hardrick had been a member of the Bombers since 2016, serving as one of the foundational pieces for a team that went to four straight Grey Cup games and won the first two. He became as synonymous with Winnipeg as any player in the organization during that span, lending his name to the popular touchdown celebration at IG Field, the “Hardrick Hop”.

However, like many veteran members of the West Division powerhouse, the six-foot-five, 311-pound blocker was forced to sign at a discount every year in the hopes of keeping a budding dynasty going. Now 33 years old, it was time for other priorities to take the forefront.

“During the negotiation process, I knew I was getting a little older in the tooth, going to see what my value was and just trying to maximize that,” Hardrick explained. “My wife and my kids, they’ve put in a lot. It’s been about me a lot and I just put them first.”

The Riders were more than happy to step up to the plate and help put a few more Christmas presents under the Hardrick family tree next year, making their patriarch the highest-paid American offensive lineman in the CFL. He collected a $120,000 signing bonus as part of a two-year deal worth $230,500 in each, plus an additional $6,000 in all-star incentives.

The Bombers were not going to be able to reach that deep into their coffers with big raises due to stars Brady Oliveira and Dalton Schoen, though it took Hardrick some time to come to terms with a departure. Once he did, Saskatchewan emerged as the front-runner for reasons that had little to do with the eventual windfall.

“It took me a while for me to realize that I was hitting the market so when I started reaching out to names I’d seen on there and I was seeing who they were having to talk to,  I was seeing all of the same things: (Corey) Mace,”  he said, referencing the Riders’ new head coach. “‘Mace is a great guy.’ ‘Mace is a leader of men.’ It was just one of those things I’ve been sleeping on for months now.”

Just five years older than his new offensive tackle, Mace’s playing career in the CFL overlapped with Hardrick’s for two seasons. The first-time head coach’s player-first approach and attitude struck a chord with his former opponent during the negotiation process, matching exactly what he was looking for.

“He talked to me and my wife, he talked to the kids. It was basically what I’ve been in and what I’m looking for,” Hardrick said. “Being a family, coming to work every day not looking at the results. Trying to come in and do the right things, do the little things, and the wins will come on the field after we do those things. That was basically what I wanted to come in and preach.”

He watched many of those same cultural elements blossom into championships with the Bombers and hopes to be a catalyst for the same in Saskatchewan. While the Regina pressure cooker is a different beast than even football-rabid Winnipeg, Hardrick has been on the green side of the prairie rivalry before.

The Nebraska product was previously with the Riders in 2015, starting eight games in just the second season of his CFL career. At the time, his football future was very much in doubt but after his release from the team the following February, he was able to develop into a three-time all-star one province over.

“I go back and look at that film, good god, I’ve come a long way but I know I have a lot of work to do,” Hardrick laughed.

“The biggest (difference) from ’15, I think I became a better person, a better father, better husband. That’s a big shout-out to my wife, my kids, the coaches over there, (Mike) O’Shea, the sports therapist. It was a lot of people, it wasn’t just me and I know that’s what the Rider deal is gonna be all about.”

Saskatchewan begins the 2024 season on Saturday, June 8 when the Riders travel to Edmonton to take on the Elks.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.