Grieving Hargrove delivers strong performance

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- There’s something you need to know about Anthony Hargrove’s performance Sunday.

The Saints' defensive tackle scored the first touchdown of his NFL career on a fumble recovery to seal a 30-20 victory against the Carolina Panthers. But you already know that.

What you didn’t know is that Hargrove was playing in pain. The kind that made his voice crack as he fought back tears in the postgame locker room. The Saints had won, but Hargrove was dealing with loss and struggling.

Hargrove was visibly upset about the death of a close friend Friday. Hargrove said his friend, whom he met while playing for the Buffalo Bills and worked on some musical endeavors with, was shot and killed in Buffalo. Hargrove didn’t want to go into intimate details, but he was extremely somber on what should have been one of the happiest days of his life.

“It’s really just starting to sink in and it’s hitting me hard,’’ Hargrove said. “It’s a rough world out there. It makes you realize life is short and you have to make the most of each day.’’

That’s a lesson Hargrove has learned repeatedly in recent years and all indications are he’s taking it quite seriously. Even before the death of his friend, Hargrove had been dealing with adversity, but he’s the first to tell you all that has made him stronger.

Signed as a long shot back in the offseason, Hargrove has turned into a staple on the New Orleans' defense. With Kendrick Clancy out for the season and Sedrick Ellis temporarily sidelined with an injury, Hargrove suddenly has become a starter and a force on the defensive line.

Sunday’s game was the best of a star-crossed career and it also makes you think there’s potential for more growth from Hargrove, if he can continue to handle adversity well. Hargrove made three solo tackles, forced a fumble and recovered two fumbles.

Not bad for a guy who hadn’t recovered a fumble since 2005 and was out of the league all of last season.

“Never in a million years did I expect it to be like this,’’ Hargrove said.

Truth be told, the Saints probably didn’t expect anything like this from Hargrove when they took a low-risk shot and signed him to a contract. He was viewed as possible depth at defensive end and defensive tackle at a time when it appeared starting defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant each might have to serve a four-game suspension to start the season. As it turned out, Smith and Grant were not suspended, but the Saints had to prepare for a worst-case scenario.

Hargrove came to training camp with no guarantee of making the roster. But now, he’s solidly entrenched in the starting lineup.

“To his credit, he’s been able to take it one day at a time and work hard,’’ New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. “I think the support cast and his decision to seize that opportunity. ... We’re real proud of him.’’

The Saints should be proud of Hargrove. He’s part of the reason the team is undefeated. That’s largely because Hargrove has fought off problems from the past. Once a promising prospect with the St. Louis Rams and Buffalo Bills, Hargrove’s career appeared to be very much in jeopardy -- or maybe even over -- in recent years.

It started on Aug. 11, 2007, when it was reported that Hargrove had violated the league’s substance-abuse policy and would be suspended for the first four games of the season. But Hargrove missed more than those four games. He didn't return to the Bills that season and on Jan. 18, 2008, it was reported that Hargrove had failed another drug test and would be suspended for the entire 2008 season.

Somewhere in that year off is where Hargrove turned his life around.

“I think I’ve grown up a lot in the last year or so,’’ said Hargrove, 26. “I had to grow up. It was past time to grow up. I think the biggest thing I learned was how important each day is and making the most of every opportunity in life.’’

Hargrove’s making the most of this opportunity. He convinced the Saints to give him a chance and that’s a decision that no one regrets. In fact, Hargrove has turned out to be a major cog in a defense that’s thrived since going through some major offseason rebuilding.

“I’m truly having fun out there,’’ Hargrove said. “This is a fun defense to play in. We all play off one another and no one guy is bigger than the team. It’s fun to be a part of something like this.’’

But Hargrove said the death of his friend was putting a big damper on his ability to fully enjoy Sunday’s victory. Hargrove said there’s a lot to sort through with the emotional aspects of his loss.

That will take time. But if Hargrove can once again overcome adversity, he might come out of this even stronger.

“I just have to keep reminding myself every day about the wonderful chance the New Orleans Saints have given me,’’ Hargrove said. “They gave me a chance to play again when nobody else was really doing that. They gave me an opportunity and what’s happened the last couple days has really reinforced that you have to take advantage of every opportunity you get because you never know when opportunities will stop coming.’’