Described as a “gentle giant” by the coaches who knew him in his more formative years, Hobbton High legend and University of North Carolina standout Dee Hardison, who went on to a long career in the NFL, passed away Saturday leaving family and friends to mourn the loss of a big man with an even bigger heart.
William David “Dee” Hardison, formerly of Newton Grove but living in Linden in his later years, died at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, where he had been hospitalized for several weeks. A former North Carolina defensive tackle in the late-1970s, Hardison was a member of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame and the Sampson County Sports Hall Of Fame. He was enshrined in the local HOF in 2003, its inaugural year.
Hardison was named to The Associated Press All-America first team in 1977. He was co-captain of the 1977 team that went 8-3-1, won the Atlantic Coast Conference title and finished ranked 17th after losing to Nebraska, 21-17, in the Liberty Bowl, Hardison’s third bowl trip while at UNC.
He would receive numerous accolades at the high school and collegiate level, but never bragged, never showed it off and was modest to a fault.
Jimmy Byrd, Hardison’s football coach for his junior and senior years at Hobbton, recalled meeting the 6-foot-4, 220-pound sophomore in the beginning of 1972. It was in the midst of basketball season, another sport that Hardison played during his time at Hobbton.
“He was big and strong, and just a great football player in the state of North Carolina,” Byrd said. “What made him so good is he was just such a good person too.”
Hardison was tailback and middle linebacker at Hobbton, an imposing presence for the Wildcats’ 1A team.
“I used to get on him about running harder (as tailback). I told him if you run harder before they hit you, and not after, they won’t be in front of you next time,” Byrd recalled with a laugh. “I tried to get tough on him.”
Hardison was able to flip that switch on the football field, but he wasn’t mean, and his kind spirit quickly endeared him to those he met, including Byrd. His old coach paused as he spoke about Hardison, remembering his years as a young coach still finding his way.
“He helped me as much as I helped him,” Byrd said of Hardison. “I got to know him, got to know his family. We were close, though we didn’t see each other much after (his) graduation.”
The Hobbton team went 9-1 in Hardison’s sophomore year, 7-2-1 in his junior year, but struggled to a 3-7 mark during his senior campaign, despite the best efforts of Hardison to lead his team. It was a double-edged sword, as success ushered in by the young tailback meant Hobbton moving up to the 2A ranks between his junior and senior seasons.
Hardison was still a force, a man among boys, but it was tougher as his high school career went on as teams game-planned for him and stacked the box in an effort to form a human blockade against the Wildcats’ star.
But college scouts took notice of Hardison’s effort and his natural abilities. UNC recruited Hardison, often eyeing talent at key offensive positions for the possibility of molding those players into stars on either side of the ball, something Hardison was no stranger to being part of a varsity squad that once dressed 18 total players. Hardison was offered a full scholarship to become a Tar Heel. He went from the offensive backfield to the defensive line, putting on some 30 pounds of muscle in the process.
Al Britt, who currently serves as the athletic director for Sampson County Schools, came back to Hobbton High as head football coach in 1979, Byrd staying on as his defensive coordinator as the two led the Hobbton football program for the next quarter century.
While Britt didn’t coach Hardison, he recalled the Hobbton legend coming back to mentor the students and student-athletes coming up at his alma mater in northern Sampson County. He beat the odds to become a force at the highest level of football and he imparted to the young students the wisdom that comes from experience.
“When you’re a rural 1A high school, that doesn’t happen very often,” Britt said of Hardison’s Division 1 football scholarship, “but Dee was an exceptional athlete. Not only that, he was an exceptional person.”
While they didn’t see each other often in those later years, Byrd watched proudly from afar.
“We’d travel and go see him play,” said Byrd. “We went to see as many games as we could.”
Byrd went to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis in December 1977 to see Hardison, who would embark on an 11-year NFL career in 1978, when he was a second-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills. He played there for three seasons, before spending five seasons with the New York Giants, two with the San Diego Chargers and a year with the Kansas City Chiefs before retiring after the 1989 season.
Byrd also went to see the Bills play at Baltimore against the Colts when Hardison was blossoming as a rookie.
“It’s just an opportunity most high school coaches don’t get — to sit in the stands and see someone you coached play at the highest level,” said Byrd, whose voice still swelled with pride some 40 years later.
And all of that success was much deserved, the old coach said.
“He was a people person, he liked people and he liked talking with people,” said Byrd. “It was a shock that he’s no longer with us. It’s tough. As good as he was on the football field, he wasn’t cocky or anything like that. He was humble. That’s how he played football and how he lived his life.”
In separate conversations with The Independent, Byrd and Britt used the same alliterative phrase to describe Hardison — “gentle giant.”
“When he was at UNC and after he got into the league, Dee would come back,” Britt recalled. “His size and his stature didn’t match his personality. He was a gentle giant. By today’s standards, he would’ve been a multi-millionaire.”
And not just in his bank account, they said. He was rich in life and passed that on to those he met, whose lives in turn became a little richer as a result.
Hardison will be laid to rest at noon this Saturday, April 28, at Northwood Temple in Fayetteville.
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