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Panthers LT Michael Oher, Cowboys DE Greg Hardy had visions of NBA stardom

Michael Oher will go up against former Ole Miss teammate Greg Hardy on Thursday. Jim Dedmon/Icon Sportswire

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Had things worked out the way Carolina Panthers left tackle Michael Oher and Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy envisioned in high school, they wouldn’t be squaring off on Thanksgiving Day.

"I mean, we both thought we were going to the NBA at one point," Oher said with a laugh.

Oher and Hardy grew up in Memphis, Tenn. They faced each other at rival high schools before both wound up a year apart at Briarcrest Christian. They also were teammates at Ole Miss for several seasons.

Had the Panthers (10-0) re-signed Hardy after his domestic violence charges were dropped in February, they could be teammates now.

But it wasn’t basketball prowess that got these two to where they’ll be on Thursday.

For Oher, it was his ability to protect the quarterback’s blindside, which turned into a 2009 Hollywood movie. For Hardy, it was his ability to sack the quarterback.

Now their worlds literally will collide at a time when most of America will be eating leftover turkey and dressing.

"He’s a great player," Oher said. "He really gets after it. He has a great instinct in getting to the quarterback. So I’m just going to have to bring discipline, play with technique and get after it like we do every week."

Oher said Hardy lines up over the left tackle most of the time, from what he’s seen on film. How Oher handles that matchup will have a lot to do with how successful Carolina is offensively.

The Panthers are the first to admit Hardy is disruptive. Outside linebacker Thomas Davis called him a "game-changer." Cornerback Josh Norman said Hardy, who had a team-high 15 sacks for the Panthers in 2013, is practically unstoppable as a pass rusher.

Oher likely will get plenty of help from his tight ends and running backs, just as he would when the Panthers faced other great pass-rushers this season.

Oher doesn’t feel like he’ll be underprepared just because this is a short week.

"I’ll watch all the games I normally do," said Oher, who is usually one of the first at Bank of America Stadium breaking down film. "I just have to double up games. Background, I just know he’s a talented athlete."

Oher knows Hardy better than most because of their time growing up. He didn’t put the two of them in the same category as Memphis basketball great Penny Hardaway, but he seemed to include them when he talked about all the "local legends."

Oher and Hardy still keep in touch, although they’ve never discussed Hardy’s domestic violence case. Oher didn’t want to talk about that now, either.

But Oher didn’t mind talking about Hardy as a basketball player. He insisted Hardy was "pretty good." Hardy probably would agree. He said two years ago he could beat LeBron James one-on-one.

Oher and Hardy have squared off only once in the NFL, in 2010 when Oher was at Baltimore and Hardy was a rookie with Carolina. Hardy had a sack while playing right end. Oher played 67 snaps that game at left tackle.

Oher couldn’t remember the details of that day. He’s sure he’ll have his hands full on Thursday, but he’s not concerned that Hardy will be so fired up playing against his former team that it will be an impossible task.

He’s also not worried that Hardy will try to hurt quarterback Cam Newton as some on social media have suggested.

"I don’t think he’s that type of guy," Oher said.

Oher suspects their battle will be just as it was in high school.

"Two guys just trying to get better every day," he said. "Getting after it. I’m competitive, he’s competitive."

But neither is in the NBA.