CLEVELAND — A facility for offensive linemen might be reviving the career of a Cleveland Browns running back.
Montario Hardesty was in a tough place last season, struggles on the field exaggerated by criticism off.
But as Friday’s preseason opener in Detroit approaches, he has a chance to re-establish himself. With Trent Richardson out due to knee surgery, Hardesty will get the start.
Success will come because of what he did in the offseason
“I’m definitely excited,” Hardesty said after the Browns Family Night practice. “I love this game I’m playing for a living. I put a lot of hard work in and I finally had a chance to get back healthy.”
Hardesty’s work came at LeCharles Bentley’s O-Line Academy, a facility in Avon run by the former Saints and Browns center whose career was cut short by a staph infection. Bentley usually doesn’t take backs — among the linemen in his group are Jason Pinkston, Shawn Lauvao and Oneill Cousins of the Browns — but in Hardesty’s case he made an exception.
“I know what it’s like when things don’t go exactly as planned,” Bentley said. “A lot of people don’t understand what you’re going through from a mental, physical and emotional standpoint. I just kind of related to it, and to him.”
Hardesty’s career since the Browns traded up to get him in the second round of the 2010 draft has been difficult, to say the least. He was slated to contribute as a rookie, but tore his ACL in his first preseason game. He came back in 2011, but averaged just 3.0 yards per carry, played in only nine games, and at times looked overmatched.
Hardesty was caught in the cycle of many pro athletes, which pits them between recovery and the pressure to play. He developed an infection after surgery, which set back his recovery and rehab. That meant he wasn’t completely well by the time the season started. But eager to prove himself he played through the problems. He wasn’t himself. Overcompensating contributed to a torn calf muscle injury and seven missed games.
All led to self-doubt.
Hardesty had to be built up — physically and mentally.
“I understand dealing with injuries,” Bentley said. “Dealing with expectations, the mismanagement of expectations. I understand being a high draft pick and from the outside people are looking at you as if you’re a failure.”
Hardesty contacted Bentley in February, before OTAs, after seeing Bentley’s Twitter post about an article he had written for his web site o-lineworld.com. The story dealt with the muscle group called VMO, above and to the inside of the knee, which Bentley wrote is often the most overlooked during knee surgery rehab.
The two talked and bonded through shared experience. Bentley worked and worked out with Hardesty one-on-one, after his commitment to the linemen was finished. He tailored workouts and exercise specifically to strengthen Hardesty’s knee.
“We did a lot of explosion things,” Hardesty said. “He helped me work on getting that ‘pop’ back. Explosion and building the strength in my quads and hamstrings. Sled walks and explosive jumps.”
Hardesty even did things like pull trucks, which he said he never believed he could do.
“If you have a great athlete and you can push certain areas that are deficient, it will make everything else more efficient,” Bentley said.
Hardesty candidly admits he needed it.
“I wasn’t as strong as I needed to be last year,” Hardesty said. “It wasn’t all the way healed yet, wasn’t as strong as I needed it to be.”
He called his infection “little” and said it wasn’t staph. But no infection is little when recovering major surgery.
Bentley knew he could fix the physical part of Hardesty — Bentley trained alongside to show Hardesty that if his damaged knee could do it, so could Hardesty’s — but he also worked with his psyche.
“He really got me mentally over being scared to do some things,” Hardesty said. “I told him experiences, things I was feeling. He knew exactly where I was coming from. We talked a lot about football.
“And he also showed me how to watch film. He watched film a lot.”
“If you can’t do it,” Bentley said, “there’s always another guy waiting who can. That’s the nature of the game, the nature of the business.”
That proof came draft night, when the Browns traded up to get Richardson. Hardesty said, though, that he’s never thought about playing for another team. He wants it work with the Browns, and he recognizes what he faces. It might take a miracle for Richardson not to start.
But when camp started Hardesty almost immediately drew attention. He looked quicker and more fluid than he did a year ago, and he’s moved to backup on the depth chart, behind Richardson and ahead of Brandon Jackson. The next step is games where he has to get it done, and staying healthy. If it’s going to happen for Hardesty, even as a backup, it might need to now.
He said it’s all sprung from an academy for offensive linemen.
“Without a doubt,” Hardesty said. “I was able to get my leg back stronger again. And he got me over that last mental hurdle. I didn’t believe I could do certain things. He got me over that.
“Since minicamp I definitely have my confidence back. I can go out and play football and not think about things, which I was doing last year.”