When you picture the man who is known as the oldest living member of the original Los Angeles Rams team in 1946, one might conjure up images of a retirement home where patients are pushed around in wheelchairs to arts and crafts or movie night.
Then you meet 93-year-old Jim Hardy, and he bounds up the stairs of the LA Memorial Coliseum like a spry stag leaping through the hills. He's healthy, active, and more fit than most 30-year-olds.
It's no coincidence that Hardy and the Coliseum were born just a week apart. They each represent strength, stability and a legacy. The historic home of the Olympics, MLB, USC, and the Rams is Hardy's church, and he's ready to preach.
He may be in his 90s, but behind the eyes of the oldest living member of the inaugural Rams team is simply an eight-year old boy who fell in love with football.
"One day in 1931, when I was eight years old, my father took me and my brother to our first Trojan football game at the LA Coliseum," Hardy says, taking us on a trip down memory lane. "It was the last game of the season and they beat Georgia 60-0. I have been a Trojan fan ever since that day. I have seen every home game and every Rose Bowl game since 1931."
It is a conceit of the modern era of football that so many talented athletes auction themselves off to the highest bidder. Gone are the days where posters of favorite players adorn the walls of the NFL's future stars whose sole motivation is loyalty to a team or city.
In a time where college athletes coined the term "one and done," and consistently receive improper benefits by programs in exchange for a commitment letter, Hardy has remained loyal to the Trojans since 1931.
He made it his mission to play football for USC and allow other eight-year old kids to come to the Coliseum and have their eyes light up when they watched the Men of Troy take the field. So Hardy worked hard and played quarterback at USC for four years, he led the Trojans to two Rose Bowl victories in 1944 and 1945, the latter of which he was named the MVP after USC tore apart the Tennessee Vols, 25-0.
The country was at war during that time, and after the Trojans season Hardy spent the next few months in the Navy stationed on the battleship, Maryland, located in the Pacific. After the war ended, he married his college sweetheart, Henrietta, and entered the 1945 NFL Draft.
The Washington Redskins took him eighth overall in the first round, but with the birth of their first son, he didn't want to move his young family across the country. Simultaneously, the reigning NFL Champion, Cleveland Rams, had announced they were moving to Los Angeles. So Hardy asked to be traded and signed with the Rams.
He called it, "the dumbest thing I ever did."
Hardy's biggest rival during his collegiate career was cross-town quarterback Bob Waterfield. The future Hall of Famer led the UCLA Bruins to the Pacific Coast title in 1942 and a Rose Bowl birth in 1943. After a blowout loss to Hardy and the Trojans in 1944, he was selected 42nd overall by the Cleveland Rams.
Waterfield won the Rookie of the Year and was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player as he led the Rams to the Championship in his first season. So the following year, when the Rams moved to Los Angeles and Hardy joined the team, the two heated rivals had to compete for the starting job with Waterfield having the advantage as the incumbent.
"That was just terrible. It appalled me. I couldn't stand it and I couldn't get into a game in the first year," Hardy said of having to be the backup to a Bruin in Los Angeles. "Bob and I were rivals, we didn't like each other, and it wasn't healthy."
Hardy and Waterfield competed against each other for three seasons with the Rams as Angelenos steadily flocked to the flame of the Olympic Cauldron to watch their newest NFL franchise.
"The Trojans owned the town back then," Hardy said of when the Rams arrived. "There was no Lakers, no Kings, no Dodgers. The Trojans were the only act in town. So when the Rams came in, all the Trojans fans became pro football fans, especially, people who didn't go to USC or UCLA. I think the people of LA have been waiting all these long years to have the NFL back with us in Los Angeles."
In Hardy's three seasons with the LA Rams he played alongside NFL greats like the aforementioned Waterfield, Kenny Washington (the first African-American to play in the NFL), former Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon, Fred Gehrke (who designed the Rams famous logo) and Red Hickey (who invented the shotgun formation).
"We had some all-time greats on that team," Hardy recalled. "The team had good players back then and now they have to rebuild on that. Kenny Washington was my best friend back then. Kenny was an all-time great then and he would be an all-time great now."
As the NFL became integrated in Hardy's first season, he had a front row seat to the racial divide that plagued Los Angeles after World War II. Despite the attempts of many NFL teams and their owners to block Washington's entrance into the league, Hardy saw his friend simply as a great person and talented football player.
"When we would go out of town, Kenny and those guys would take me with them," remembered Hardy. "They took me to Harlem, the Black Bottom in Detroit, all the black neighborhoods. I became friends with black entertainers and I had a ball with them."
In addition to witnessing the desegregation of the sport, Hardy and his teammates were also part of an era that wore leather helmets. There were no mouthpieces, facemasks, or state of the art protective gear. Ironically, there were also fewer concussions.
"In today's game, everything is an improvement with the equipment except for this huge facemask and that rock they put on their heads that weights a ton," Hardy said of the modern day helmets. "They don't have a bar, they have a fence. You could hit them with a 2x4 in the face and not hurt them."
In Hardy's day, without the protection around the head, defensive players were forced to hit with their shoulders. In today's game, many players lead with their head creating helmet-to-helmet contact that shocks the brain, leading to rampant concussions across the league.
"In my day, you might get a tooth knocked out or break your nose, but that all heals in a week or two," Hardy explained. "In today's game, they break their necks or they get concussions. In my mind, they need to take off that plastic thing on their head and put back on the leather headgear. Yeah, you're going to get a broken nose or one of your teeth knocked out, but you're not going to end up in a wheelchair."
Hardy left Los Angeles in a trade to the Chicago Cardinals in 1949 and set an NFL record that still stands today in his second season with the team when he threw eight interceptions in a single game.
"An hour before that game I was in an automobile accident and totaled my car. I didn't get to the ballpark in time to warm up, I literally ran out and just started in the ball game," explained Hardy of one of the worst days by a quarterback in NFL history. "I don't even remember playing in the game. I played so poorly they should've jerked me in the first quarter. You usually never let a quarterback stay that long in the game. I played so bad they probably should've fired me and released the coach on the same day."
Hardy redeemed himself by throwing six touchdowns the following week (an NFL record at the time), and got revenge on the Eagles—the team that intercepted him eight times—when he led the Cardinals to a 21-10 victory in Philadelphia later that year. Despite the bevy of lifelong accomplishments under Hardy's name, his interception record is one he hopes people forget.
"I can tell you the one place that record won't be," he said with a wry smile creeping across his face. "It's not going to be on my gravestone."
Thankfully, the highlight of Hardy's career came a few years later when he helped lead the Detroit Lions to the NFL Title in 1953. An accomplishment he called "the pinnacle of everything you play for," but his championship ring pales in comparison to his achievements inside the Coliseum while wearing the Cardinal and Gold.
He retired from the game in 1953 after seven seasons in the NFL, but his passion for the game never requited. For the next 63 years, Hardy regularly attended USC practices and home games, a habit he still continues today despite his nearly 130-mile commute from La Quinta, California.
Even his love affair with the Coliseum continued long after he left the field, as Hardy became the General Manager of the Coliseum Commission from 1973 to 1986. His relationship with one of the most famous stadiums in America makes the Rams return extra special, especially when they host former Trojans coach Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks in the first NFL game at the Coliseum in over two decades.
"I'm going to be at the game and I'm going to root for the Rams," said Hardy who plans to attend all the Rams home games this season. "With Pete Carroll coming, he's one of my favorite all-time coaches, but I'll still be a Ram fan."
Hardy is a walking, talking, encyclopedia of the Los Angeles Rams. He joined them when they became the first NFL franchise in the city, was teammates with the first African-American player in the league, watched Gehrke paint the horns on his helmet and saw the formation of the "Fearsome Foursome."
Hardy held court as the Dodgers, Lakers, Kings and Angels all joined the Rams as professional sports franchises housed in the City of Angels. He watched from the sidelines as the Rams went to their first Super Bowl in 1979, and then headed South down the 405 to Anaheim as former USC head coach John Robinson took over the team.
As the dark period in Rams history hovered over the franchise in the early 90s, he observed as owner, Georgia Frontiere, moved the team to St. Louis, and waved goodbye as they traveled halfway across the country under the Gateway Arch.
Twenty-two years later, Hardy has lived through it all as the Rams story comes full circle in their return to Los Angeles.
"I'm glad to see the Rams come back. They were an organization, ownership and talent-wise that has changed a lot, but I'm glad to see the Rams come back to LA because it's a good football town," he said. "People support the team and they'll be home here in the Coliseum for a few years and then go to their own stadium in Inglewood. I think they'll prove to be one of the best teams in the NFL."
Someday, Hardy will have time to look back and reflect on his football life, but for now he's having too much fun living it. There's no doubt that he will be in the stands of the Coliseum on Saturdays and Sundays this season with more energy and vigor than the other 90,000 fans in attendance.
He says his secret is he walks and jogs every morning and goes to the gym four-to-five times a week. Thankfully, the Rams have returned while he's still young and he has no plans of surrendering his love for football anytime soon.
"I have long-range plans. There are a lot of things I haven't done yet," he said in his homespun way. "The good Lord has been good to me and I'm appreciative. I have a healthy outlook. I have a happy life. I have a healthy life and barring I don't get hit by a bus, I'll still go to practice one day a week. Fight on!"