Justin Hardee originally made a name for himself under Sean Payton in New Orleans
Tributes across the football world have poured in for Sean Payton after the longtime New Orleans Saints head coach stepped down on Tuesday afternoon. Among those leaving well wishes was current New York Jets cornerback/specialist Justin Hardee, who spent four seasons under Payton’s watch in The Big Easy.
Hardee left his tribute on Twitter, thanking Payton for “the best years of my life playing ball.”
Can’t thank @SeanPayton enough for the opportunity he gave me changed my life. Was fortunate to have 4 of the best years of my life playing ball with you as my head coach
— Justin Hardee Sr. (@jhardee_19) January 25, 2022
In addition to his tribute, Hardee posted a video of Payton dancing with his players after the team’s 2018 Wild Card victory over Carolina. Payton and his jovial, if not awkward, dancing were well known for partaking in his players’ post-game celebrations, which Hardee labeled “great memories” accompanied by laughing emojis.
Talking about great memories 😂😂 https://t.co/pzhmxYSqRt
— Justin Hardee Sr. (@jhardee_19) January 26, 2022
It was Payton who gave Hardee his first major NFL opportunity, signing him shortly before the 2017 season kicked off. Hardee had entered the league as an undrafted free agent out of Illinois and spent that preceding summer in Houston’s system. He was scooped up by Payton and the Saints five days after the Texans bid him farewell.
Hardee would go on to become one of the most impactful special teams players in the NFL and eventually earned a three-year, $5.25 million deal from the Jets last offseason.
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“He has a little grit and attitude to him,” Payton said of Hardee during the latter’s rookie season in 2017, per Herbie Teope of NOLA.com. “He can run, he’s tough, we saw that on his preseason film. And I’ve been encouraged that he has become a core player for us.”
Payton had been the Saints’ head coach since 2006 and amassed a New Orleans-best 152 wins at the helm (which included a 3-1 tally against the Jets). The former New York Giants offensive coordinator took the formerly downtrodden franchise to illustrious heights, guiding them to their first conference title game after his debut season and their first Super Bowl three seasons later.
New Orleans reached the playoffs in nine of Payton’s 15 seasons with the headset, earning a 9-8 postseason record in that span.
In his departing statements on Tuesday, Payton did not rule out a return to coaching, insisting that his vacating was not a retirement. New Orleans is coming off a 9-8 season that fell short of an NFC playoff berth thanks to a lost tiebreaker with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Some have already tried to link Payton to the Dallas Cowboys, where he served as the associate head coach and quarterbacks supervisor under Bill Parcells before New Orleans made the call. The Saints have Payton under contract for the next three seasons and would be entitled to compensation if another team hires him before the end of the 2024 season.
“I still have a vision for doing things in football,” Payton said of his future per Brett Martell of the Associated Press. “I’ll be honest with you, that might be coaching again at some point. I don’t think it’s this year, I think maybe in the future. That’s not where my heart is right now.”
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags
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