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New Orleans Saints defensive back Justin Hardee sets sights on entrepreneurship 

'I just told myself I wanted to be an off-the-field millionaire, just without ball'

Bucaneers Saints Football Justin Hardee, Bryan Anger
New Orleans Saints defensive back Justin Hardee (34) blocks a punt by Tampa Bay Buccaneers punter Bryan Anger, which Hardee returned for a touchdown, in the first half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

The lightning-bolt moment struck New Orleans Saints defensive back Justin Hardee , between his first and second NFL seasons, and it amounted to something along these lines:

You're too smart to get complacent.

"I was like, I'm sitting here, I'm working out," he said. "I've got three degrees and I'm just sitting here, depending on (football) – and I'm definitely going to bank on myself on ball any day – but I'm like I'm sitting here with these three degrees, I've got to do something."

He's doing something.

Hardee is a new Papa John's franchise owner; the franchise is scheduled to open in July and is located at 3001 Tulane Ave. in New Orleans. And, yes, you read correctly. Three degrees – a bachelor's degree in communication, and master's degrees in education and sports management.

Hardee, entering his fourth NFL season, agreed to terms in March on a one-year deal with the Saints. In three previous seasons, he played in 46 regular-season games and led the Saints with 24 special teams tackles. He also blocked a punt, caught a 10-yard pass and defensively, he intercepted a pass and returned it 77 yards, defended two passes and had 15 solo tackles.

He maintains high aspirations for his football career. But his off-field hopes at least are as high.

"I really just came to my senses," Hardee said Thursday night, during an interview with local media. "Really, like, how can I be sitting here with three degrees and really not have nothing else, not really be getting money from another stream. I just told myself I wanted to be an off-the-field millionaire, just without ball. I want to go crazy on the field as well, but I feel like I was just raised different.

"My mom, I want to do so much for her. I want to be the best human being, the best football player, the best businessman, for her. I want to do so much. I wish she was here to see it all. Since she's not, I've got to do everything I can – the right things, not just anything. The right things. I've got so much more in store. I'm just really looking forward to it."

Hardee's mother, Estella Perryman, died in 2013. She, and his son, Justin Jr., are driving forces behind his entrepreneurship. Hardee said he's aiming for 20 Papa John's, as well as other business ventures.

"I just want to make my mom proud," he said. "There's so much I want to do. There's so much I want to give back to my son, because he means so much to me.

"I want to go down as one of the guys that just took advantage of every opportunity that God gave him. I remember when we were about to play against the Saints when I was playing for the Texans (as an undrafted rookie in 2017, in a joint training camp practice), and the (Texans) special teams coach came up and told me, 'Either you're going to make this play, or I don't know what to tell you.'

"I got that one opportunity that I wasn't even supposed to get in on, a guy came back from a long route and he was like, 'Hardee, get in.' I ended up making three plays back-to-back against the Saints. Got cut by the Texans, and my guy, (Houston linebacker) Whitney Mercilus, telling me it'll be a blessing in disguise.

"Then going somewhere where I'm loved, where it's all love – it was just that one opportunity that I received that I took advantage of. You just never know; you may only get one. So just taking advantage of those one opportunities that you may get can go a long way. It's brought me a long way. I'm going to keep believing in God and trusting Him."

Hardee said restrictions involving the Covid-19 pandemic interrupted plans to open his franchise earlier and originally, he had a partner but that union dissolved and allowed him to be sole owner.

But he has benefited from the patience learned through the process. And he has continued his progression of taking advantage of his openings.

"Growing up, from high school and even in college, didn't have the numbers in either one," he said. "Was never like a highly recruited guy. As you see for the Saints, I just pretty much had to get it out the mud, and that's how I made it here on this level – just by always believing and just the hard work, not knowing where the hard work would ever take me. Honestly, I just did it.

"I always worked hard for my mom. I told her that I was going to make it in the NFL. Just to be able to be in this position and keep going, the sky is the limit."

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