Jim Hardy: Winning Fishing & Football Championships After a Spinal Cord Injury
Editor’s Note: Growing up, Jim Hardy’s life that revolved around football. He received a degree in communications from Auburn University to prepare himself to better, “Speak to the teams I hoped to coach, the parents of students I hoped to recruit and quarterback clubs and other organizations.” Nothing could prepare him though for the amazing journey his life is taking after his spinal cord injury! He has had not one but two dream jobs as a professional bass fisherman and a football coach.
Jim Hardy – a Football Coach in Training
In high school, I had some scholarship offers from colleges and universities in the North, but I couldn’t afford to go to those schools, even with scholarships. I was one of those young people who was caught in the middle. If I didn’t have a scholarship, I couldn’t afford to go to college. So, I knew I couldn’t walk on and possibly not receive any money for school.
Even before I started college, I knew I wanted to be a football coach. At Auburn University, I became a student assistant to the head football coach and the offensive line coach. I learned how to set-up practice sessions, the training exercises and plays for Auburn’s offensive line. As a student assistant, I worked in all the different areas required to be a college coach and learned the logistics of teaching skills and managing the game on game day – all information I needed to become an outstanding football coach.
I only had two classes left to take at Auburn before I graduated and began my career as a football coach. Then my life changed forever.
The Day Jim Hardy’s Life Changed
In 2001, a friend and I had planned a bowhunting trip during homecoming week at Auburn. I went home to my family’s 500 acres and planned to bowhunt for deer for a couple of days. I was sitting in my tree stand, enjoying being outside, although I didn’t see any deer.
I’d climbed 20 feet up a tree with my climbing tree stand and wore a safety harness, also called a fall restraint device. When properly worn – attached to the tree as you climbed, worn the entire time while in the tree stand and attached to the tree until back on the ground – the safety harness would prevent hunters from falling out of trees.
In those days, most hunters put on their safety harnesses to climb trees, but they didn’t attach their safety straps to trees until coming down, because sliding the strap that went around the tree above your climbing tree stand and then down as you climbed down the tree was such a hassle. Unfortunately I was guilty of making this same mistake.
When I got ready to come down the tree on that day, I took the safety strap that went around the tree off the tree, and I started to use my climbing tree stand that was in two parts to climb down the tree without being attached to the tree. Coming down the tree, the top half of the tree stand came loose. I fell straight backward, and I landed on the part of the tree stand that had broken free of the tree.
For just a second, I could feel all the parts of my body. But then, I couldn’t feel any part of my body from where the tree stand had hit my back. My injury was on my T8 vertebra – about where my belly button was – and everything from T8 down was paralyzed. Although I could use my arms to bring myself to a sitting position, I couldn’t get up.
The first thought that went through my brain was, “Life will be different now.”
My friend I was hunting with came and looked for me. Then he went for help. Paramedics came into the woods with an ambulance, put me on a backboard and took me to the local medical center, before transferring me to the University of Alabama Medical Center in Birmingham, a major trauma center. The doctors there discovered that I had several fractured ribs causing blood to go into my lungs. They also inserted two metal rods on each side of the injury from my T4 to my T10 vertebrae.
I stayed in intensive care for 60 days. I’d always been a positive person but also realized that unexpected things could happen in life. So, I didn’t get into the, “Why me, God,” depression. I just started thinking about, “Where do I go from here; and what can I do?”
As I went through intensive rehab, I learned the parts of my body that would work and the parts that wouldn’t, trying to determine what I could and couldn’t do.
First on my “could-do” list was to return to Auburn University, take my last two courses and graduate with my degree in communications.
Since I enjoyed fishing, hunting and being outdoors, I decided I probably could do some of that. However, I thought my dream of becoming a football coach was pretty much a dead idea. I’d never seen a football coach rolling up and down the sidelines in a wheelchair. As soon as I left rehab, I returned to Auburn and finished my degree.
Jim Hardy Breaks Bass Fishing Barriers
Because I’m so competitive, I wanted to be the best bass fisherman I could be, especially since I’d always loved fishing. Many of the professional bass fishing tournaments have programs that allow you to be an observer (a co-angler) at a bass fishing tournament. If I could ride with them and learn how these pro fishermen fished, I thought maybe I could become a professional bass fisherman.
I went to a Bassmaster tournament to sign up as a co-angler. A tournament official said Bassmaster had talked to some of its anglers, and these competitors had expressed concern that if they fell out of the boat during a tournament, they didn’t think I could help them get back into the boat. Therefore, I would be a liability in a tournament.
Now, I never was told I couldn’t fish as a co-angler on the Bassmaster Circuit. I was just told that the officials didn’t think it was a good idea, and some of the fishermen were concerned about being in the boat with me. (An interesting side note is that since then, I’ve fished on the Bassmaster Circuit, and I’m good friends with everyone in the organization).
Instead of getting my feelings hurt, their concerns motivated and inspired me to get a bass fishing boat.
I started fishing on another bass fishing tournament trail – Fishers of Men – with a good friend, Mark Menendez, at that time one of the hottest bass fishing pros on the top tournament trail. Mark and I did really well on the Fishers of Men tournament trail, and he always encouraged me. But after a few events, Mark couldn’t fish with me due to a timing conflict. So, I fished those tournaments by myself and learned I could be successful.
Next I started fishing the B.A.S.S. Federation and the B.A.S.S. Southern Opens, which were professional tournaments. I made a lot of friends and was accepted as a competitor. I learned how to launch my boat and get it back up on the trailer by myself.
Jim Hardy Takes the Field Again
Three years ago, I was approached with an opportunity I never thought I’d have. Steve Sanders, the coach for Victory Christian High School, near where I lived in central Alabama, knew I had studied football at Auburn. His football team wasn’t doing well, and he invited me to come to practice and see if I could give him some ideas that might help the team. I think he really invited me just to be nice and to allow me to get back into what I really enjoyed doing.
I went to a couple of practices and got to know the team. Every week, Coach Sanders invited me back to help coach, and I went through the entire season with them. Coach Sanders wanted to retire and asked if I’d coach the team. I told him, “Let me think about it.”
I wondered if I could be an effective high school football coach at this small school.
The team had won one game and lost eight the first year I volunteer coached there. I had the same kind of revelation that I had in the hospital when I became fully aware of my situation that, “Things are about to change. Life will be different now.”
I knew how much work I’d have to put in studying football, studying what our team had done in the past and determining what the team needed to do in the future. I knew our team would have to start lifting weights, and I would have to become more physical myself. To be honest, I didn’t know if I could do the job or not.
However, I also realized that my passion for coaching football was so strong that I needed to take the job. I couldn’t make any promises about how good we’d be, but I vowed to give the team my best effort. Because of my faith, the things I believed in, and the fact that I’d been blessed in other businesses making a good income, I didn’t have to take a salary, although the school offered me one.
My first season as the head coach of the Victory Christian High School football team was in 2013. That year we won 10 football games, we didn’t lose any games, and we won the state championship in the private Christian school football league that was very small. Our school didn’t have enough players to compete with major public high schools.
I recognized that our players had talent. Although I wanted to work on helping all the players get better, I never saw the possibility of 10 and 0 and winning a state championship. However, I felt the boys could have a winning season. The school had been playing football since 2001 but never had had a winning season. Their best record was five and five.
Then in 2014, our team went 10 and 0 and won the state championship for a second time! I don’t take any credit for winning those games. I give all the credit to the young men on those two teams.
I just try to point them in the right direction, and they move the ball.
I think I’ve been in the best situation I possibly can be to start my coaching career. Our boys are, “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir,” type boys. When they saw me roll up in my wheelchair, I think they probably said to each other, “Okay, Coach Hardy is a little different, but let’s give him a chance.” At many schools, I think the football players might have looked at me and said, “Okay, this guy is in a wheelchair. Let’s look at some other candidate.”
At the time of this interview, we’re 2 weeks away from starting spring football practice. My mind is totally focused on football. These last couple of years I’ve cut way back on fishing bass tournaments, since I’m pretty much tied up with football year-round. After football season, we have spring training. Then, the boys go through summer conditioning and lift weights. After fall practice, we start the season.
Our football program is continuous. But I’m living my dream – a dream I never thought I’d be able to live after my accident.
When I was in that hospital bed for 60 days, paralyzed from my belly button down, I didn’t want to give up my dream of being a football coach. However, I realized I never had seen a football coach rolling up and down the sidelines in a wheelchair. That was my reality.
When Coach Sanders asked me to practice with his football team and make some suggestions, my mind nearly stripped some gears. I was so passionate about wanting to be a football coach. Coach Sanders offered me an opportunity to do what I’d always wanted to do, and what I had trained in college to do. I’m so thankful for the path this put me on.
Besides being a football coach, I also do motivational speaking, and I operate a nonprofit organization called Outdoor Friends Forever.
Our organization takes children with special needs into the outdoors hunting, fishing and doing whatever they’re interested in outdoors. Nine Bassmaster Elite fishing pros and many volunteers help us put on events for the kids. All the money we raise goes for programs for the kids, and we buy the kids hunting clothes, boots, fishing clothes and the equipment they need to have good times in the outdoors.
I’m often asked what I’m doing next. I’m being moved away from bass fishing and more into football – and I’m certainly okay with that. I’m passionate about football and love to study and coach football. Maybe one day I’ll have the opportunity to coach at a bigger school – not necessarily as a head coach. I’d love to be an assistant coach or a recruiting coach on a Southeastern Conference football team.
I don’t know where the Good Lord is leading me, but I know I’m on the way.
Additional Resources From Wheel:Life on Relationships
Within Reconnecting: Relationship Advice from Wheelchair Users, readers will hear from people who use wheelchairs as they share their perspective on friends, family and relationships including dating, marriage and parenting.
Author Lisa Wells shares real-life examples and success stories throughout the book based on her lengthy career that includes ongoing interactions with disability advocates, non-profit supporters and peer support group members.
Reconnecting: Relationship Advice from Wheelchair Users features interviews with:
- Graduate student & quadriplegic Ather Sharif about connecting on a college campus
- Amputee Thomas Morris on connecting through his unique appearance and personality
- NSCIA [Buffalo, NY chapter] President Natalie Barnhard who connects Wheels with Wings
- Paraplegic Todd Robinson who explains his family connection through the joy of adoption
- Quadriplegic Ashleigh Justice who connects on the quad rugby field and as a young mother
About the Author:
John E. Phillips For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.