Browns sign former Glenville High star Hardee

CLEVELAND — Pro Bowl special teams ace Justin Hardee helped the Jets beat his hometown Browns two seasons ago with a huge play, and now he’s joining them.

The Browns on Tuesday signed the former Glenville High star and Cleveland native to a one-year deal to help bolster their special teams.

Originally signed by the Texans as an undrafted free agent receiver out of Illinois in 2017, Hardee, 30, spent his first three seasons with the Saints before joining the Jets as a cornerback and special-teamer in 2021, making the Pro Bowl in 2022.

His claim to fame with the Jets, where he was a vocal leader and special teams star, was recovering the onside kick in their improbable 31-30 come-from-behind victory over the Browns in Week 2 of 2022 in which Joe Flacco threw two touchdown passes in the final 82 seconds to crush the Browns’ souls.

Of course, it wouldn’t have been possible without Hardee’s crucial recovery of the onside kick with 1:22 remaining, after Flacco’s secondary-splintering 66-yard touchdown pass to Corey Davis.

“Man, it was unbelievable,” Hardee told team reporter Eric Allen the following week on the “The Official Jets Podcast.” “I wanted this ever since I found out we’d be playing the Browns. I’ve been dreaming of this day. I’m ecstatic. So happy. To do it against my hometown team is special.”

With about 100 friends and family members in attendance, including his high school coach Ted Ginn Sr., Hardee (6-1, 200) made it possible for Flacco to beat the Browns for the 18th time in his career, 17 coming with the Ravens.

“I grew up a Browns fan,” Hardee said. “They still can win every game after this; I don’t care unless we see them in the playoffs. It was special before family and friends to be able to be the hero and still the hometown hero. For them, it’s a special moment they won’t ever forget. My family really embraced me, they were happy and at the same time they were like, ‘You did that to us, we’re glad it was you.’ They were surreal moments I won’t ever forget. It was special to be home. I hadn’t played at home since high school. I played at the stadium senior year — we didn’t even win that game. To be able to win this one 10 years later tells me there must be a higher purpose. This is my moment.”

Hardee noted that he had driven past Cleveland Browns Stadium “a thousand times” while growing up about 15 from it. When he pulled up on it that day, the significance hit him hard.

“I was smiling like wow,” he said. “This is where I’m really from, where I grew up. Just wow, I made it through all this, from being from the inner city and just to see where I came from. I know how the city is about the Browns to see everyone out there and just being able to play in the game, even if I didn’t make a play, just playing there would be special. Just how everything played out was crazy, this was the first game ever in my life that didn’t feel like an away game.”

After Hardee signed with the Texans in 2017, he joined the Saints that season and put himself on the special teams map by blocking a punt and returning it 7 yards in a 30-10 victory over Tampa Bay. He earned NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for the play.

“He brings some juice and some energy,” then-Saints coach Sean Payton told reporters. “He’s one of those guys that comes to work, man, and gives you great effort. A play like that the other day was significant because it wasn’t a designed block. It was actually more of a return. It’s one guy really working his technique, and it’s a huge play in a game like that.”

For an encore of his onside kick in 2022, he forced a fumble on a punt return against the Steelers in Week 4, which the Jets recovered. They went on to win, 24-20, and the big plays helped Hardee earn his first Pro Bowl berth. Overall, he’s played in 100 games in his seven season, with one interception, one forced fumble, one blocked punt and 78 tackles.

When Flacco helped the Browns clinch a playoff spot with a victory over the Jets in Week 17 at Cleveland Browns stadium, Hardee shook his hand and urged him to win one for The Land. “You know this is my city, man. Bring my city a ‘ship.”

Former Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins weighed in after the Hardee news on Tuesday.

“You may find people who are AS Cleveland as Justin Hardee… but you won’t find a soul who is MORE Cleveland. Great signing Browns,” he posted on X.

Like every other special teamer and their coordinators, Hardee is excited about the new kickoff rule adopted last week that will result in many more kickoffs and many more creative and exciting plays. He’ll help replace Mike Ford, who signed as a free agent with the Texans.

“Around this time everybody forget how Special Teams win and lose games until it’s too late! But we gone see,” Hardee posted on X.

Hardee also brings something that was lost when Kareem Hunt was allowed to let walk in free agency: a player who will run through a wall for his hometown team and leave it on the field every play to help the Browns win a Super Bowl.