Chrystal Thomas was never surprised when she saw Mecole Hardman free her students from the wires and tubes that tethered them to a mostly sedentary existence.
It didn’t surprise her to see Hardman ease into one of her classroom’s rocking chairs and pull one of her students up with him.
She smiles now, retelling the stories of those little moments.
Few students at Elbert County Middle School have interacted with her special needs students with such ease and confidence.
But Hardman was a natural, displaying his gift for working with the special needs community since he began escorting them at the county’s yearly pageant as a sixth grader.
Hardman is a lot of things to a lot of people.
Son, brother, football star, wide receiver, Chiefs second-round draft pick.
To the special needs students in Elbert County, Georgia, though, Mecole Hardman is just their friend.
Through his work with Friends Helping Friends, a local organization that partners students with their special needs counterparts, Hardman has formed a lifelong bond with a group of people who don’t care that he became the Chiefs’ first draft pick a couple months ago. Or that he can fly, with a 4.33-second time in the 40-yard dash. Or that he’ll be sharing a field with the NFL MVP this fall.
They care that he cares about them. That he spent nearly all of his free afternoons with them, rocking them in rocking chairs or going with them on field trips to Turner Field and the Fox Theater.
While most people define Hardman for what he can do on a field, the special needs community in Elbert County knows him best for what he does off of it — and that’s what matters most.
“Those kids, they don’t see me as Mecole the football guy: ‘Oh, he’s in the league,’ or, ‘He’s doing good,’” Hardman said. “They just see me as Mecole, the loving guy. They just see me for me, as myself.”
Kendra and Bekkah
Falling in love with Kendra Turman was easy.
A girl about Hardman’s age with a big smile and a word for everyone, Kendra was a magnetic personality in Thomas’ class for students with moderate disabilities at Elbert County Middle School.
The two became fast friends, and it didn’t take long for Kendra to develop her own term of endearment for Hardman: ‘friancee.’
A mashup of friend and fiancee, the term elicited a big smile from Hardman as he talked about her.
“We always have a little game,” Hardman said. “She’d be like talking to other people, so I’d be like, ‘So you’re cheating on me right now?’ She’s like ‘Nooo, not cheating on you.’ It’s all love.”
His friendship and work with Turman made Hardman even more passionate about working with those with special needs.
“She was like my baby,” Hardman said. “When I started falling in love with her, I started falling in love with all the kids. That’s when I really started taking it seriously.”
Through his friendship with Kendra and the other kids in Thomas’ class, Hardman was forced to grow up and mature in ways he never could have predicted.
In eighth grade, Kendra’s best friend, Bekkah, died unexpectedly. A social butterfly like Kendra, the young woman with Down syndrome passed during the middle of a school day.
Just like that, she was gone.
Though he didn’t want to go, Hardman attended the memorial service with the rest of the class.
Danyell Hardman saw something change in her son that day.
“He took that pretty hard,” Hardman’s mom said. “We took the kids to the funeral home to visit and that did something to him because he was so close to them.
“He didn’t really say it, but you could see it on his face. He just wanted to go and support the other kids.”
A couple years later, Hardman’s life was shaken by another serious situation, this one involving Kendra.
Visiting hospitals made Hardman uneasy, and he tried to avoid them at all costs. But all that changed when his friend was admitted.
Hardman made the hour and a half journey south to visit her at the Augusta, Georgia facility one afternoon, mentally preparing the whole way to see a depleted version of his friend. She hadn’t opened her eyes in days and was nearly motionless in the hospital bed.
But when Hardman walked in the room, Kendra opened her eyes and smiled. She sat up in the bed. These things were crucial steps toward her eventual recovery.
“She was trying to give up,” said Traci Montgomery, Kendra’s mom. “But with him being there, coming to see her and all the other kids that came with him, it meant a lot. Because that meant she was trying to fight to see him. It really meant a lot to me.”
‘This guy, he’s just different’
Hardman’s gift for working with special needs students was apparent even during his earliest days at Elbert County Middle School.
Thomas saw Hardman and the way he interacted with her students, always making time to talk with them or make them laugh.
The official Friends Helping Friends Club was in its infancy at the high school, and a middle school branch was available to eighth graders. Though Hardman was only in sixth grade, Thomas knew he needed to be involved. So she went to Sandy Adams, one of the club’s founders, and made her case.
“This guy, he’s just different,” Adams remembers Thomas telling her. “He wants to be involved with our kids. He’s a super athlete. He’s a great role model.”
That spring, Hardman volunteered with the annual pageant, escorting some of Thomas’ students and hanging out with them in the classroom while they waited for their turn to strut their stuff in the school’s auditorium.
“We never do that,” Adams said of allowing sixth graders to volunteer with the special needs class. “But he was an exception: He has so much energy. You can tell when our children with special needs love someone, trust someone. When they walk in the room, their eyes light up, their hands go up, they reach for them, they want to be around them.
“Mecole is that person. It started around sixth grade, and it has not stopped.”
After that year, Hardman became more and more involved with the club. He became Thomas’ official classroom helper in the eighth grade and was even named an officer of the club once he reached high school.
“A lot of the other guys would say, ‘Oh the kids don’t want us, they just want Mecole. He’s a football star,’” Thomas said. “And we were like, ‘No, they don’t know he’s a football star.’ He’s just a guy that comes in and plays with them no matter what. That was just his personality.”
As demanding as his football schedule was, he always made time to volunteer with the students. He attended plays with them at Atlanta’s Fox Theater and went along to Braves games. Even as he moved on to Georgia for his college career, Hardman made sure a stop at the Friends Helping Friends camps was included in his summer plans.
And if he couldn’t get to a camp, he still stopped by the schools to see his friends.
“He was one of the ones who stood out from everybody else,” Adams said, “because he wanted to participate in absolutely everything that we did because he truly loved the kids.”
A ‘true friend’
During Hardman’s freshman season at Elbert County High, a couple members of Thomas’ class attended one of his football games.
They sat in the stands with a homemade sign that proudly proclaimed, “No. 4, We love our boy in blue!”
He stayed late afterward, making sure he took pictures with everyone who came to support him — including his group of friends.
The game was important, but this, this was more important than any outcome on the field.
That moment, and all the moments Hardman spent with Friends Helping Friends, remains close to his heart. Those experiences ground him as his life lurches forward at breakneck speed and give him a perspective not many 21-year-olds possess.
“I think we’re so spoiled that it actually makes you look at it and be like, all right, I need to be thankful for what I’ve got,” Hardman said. “I like to give back to them, and I fall in love with them every time I see them. It’s always smiles. I never have a bad day with them. Even when they bad, it’s always good to be with them and I love to be around them.”
As the Chiefs’ first selection of the 2019 NFL Draft, Hardman enters his professional career with a mountain of expectations to climb.
He’s expected to be a key member of a high-powered offense and a game-changing special teams unit.
So many people want him, need him to be so many things.
But the label that matters most to him is the one assigned by the kids in Elbert County.
“Our kids don’t understand who Mecole has become,” Adams said. “They know who Mecole is, and always has been, to them, which is their friend.
“Their true friend.”