NEW ORLEANS -- There's nothing quite like a blocked punt return for a touchdown in the Superdome -- a play made so famous by New Orleans Saints legend Steve Gleason when the Dome reopened after Hurricane Katrina that there is a statue of his block outside the building.
Rookie special-teamer Justin Hardee still has a ways to go before he gets his own statue. But his blocked punt and touchdown return in the first quarter Sunday set an exhilarating tone in the Saints' 30-10 rout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
And in the process, it allowed Hardee to prove something to all the teams that passed on him when he went undrafted as a receiver out of Illinois.
Hardee spent the offseason with the Houston Texans but didn’t make their 53-man roster. The Saints then signed him to their practice squad -- with plans of converting him to a defensive back and special-teams specialist. He was promoted to the active roster in Week 3 and has been a core special-teams player ever since, highlighted by some terrific punt coverage before the block.
“Just wanted to show everybody that they missed out on me,” Hardee said. “I didn’t get drafted, obviously nobody believed that I was good enough to get drafted. But there were a lot of guys that (were drafted) before me and that stuff ... and I’m doing something to help my team.
“But just to remain humble, I’m just glad for the opportunity. Obviously, New Orleans saw something in me that no one else did. I’m just glad that I was able to help this team win.”
Hardee said he learned the specific technique he used on Sunday’s block from Saints veteran special-teamer Michael Mauti -- a New Orleans native who also blocked a punt and returned it for a TD in the Superdome two years ago. Gleason, who now suffers from ALS and has become one of the world’s leading advocates for those with ALS and other neuromuscular disorders, was in the building for both of them.
“We worked it all week, we worked it after practice,” said Hardee, who noted he was surprised to see his path to Bucs punter Bryan Anger as clear as it was. “It was crazy, it was wide open.”
Then when the ball bounced up right in front of him, Hardee said his instincts took over.
“Catch and run,” Hardee said. “I played wide receiver, so I just had a wide receiver mindset then.”