When Panthers left tackle Michael Oher and Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy would play one-on-one games before basketball practice at their Memphis, Tenn., high school, things would get so heated their coach finally had to call them off.
John Harrington, the coach at Briarcrest Christian outside Memphis, said Hardy and Oher never came to blows. But there were a couple of big bodies banging against each other every afternoon inside the school’s gym.
“It was like a daily event, but I had to stop it because it got so physical,” Harrington said last week. “Not fighting physical. Just two big bears who were just going at it. Neither one of them wanted to lose. They were competitive and, of course, they were both big human beings.”
After several years as teammates at Briarcrest and later, the University of Mississippi, Oher and Hardy will line up across from each other Thursday when the Panthers travel to Dallas.
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There are several interesting storylines surrounding the Thanksgiving day game. The matchup between Panthers cornerback Josh Norman and Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant has some sizzle.
But the battle between Oher and Hardy has history.
Oher smiled Monday when someone mentioned the after-school basketball scrums with Hardy at Briarcrest.
“Just competing. That’s how we’ve both been since high school,” he said. “Wanting to win, wanting to be the best, and that’s why we’re at this level now.”
Oher was a first-round draft pick in 2009 who won a Super Bowl with Baltimore during the 2012 season. Hardy fell to Carolina in the sixth round in 2010, and he signed with Dallas during the offseason after the Panthers decided to part ways in the wake of Hardy’s domestic violence arrest.
While both men have made millions playing football, Oher said their first love was basketball growing up in Memphis, a hoops hotbed that has produced such NBA players as Penny Hardaway, Thaddeus Young and Marc Gasol.
“We both thought we were going to the NBA at one point,” Oher said. “I was pretty good.”
Oher and Hardy formed the starting frontcourt for a Briarcrest team that finished second in the state in Oher’s senior season. Oher said the two were never football teammates at Briarcrest because Hardy had enrolled too late.
Hardy followed Oher to Oxford, Miss., where he played in 15 games for the Rebels’ basketball team as a freshman. Hardy scored six points and grabbed seven rebounds as a reserve in the SEC tournament against eventual national champion Florida.
Former Rebels coach Ed Orgeron used Hardy as a receiver on occasion, and he caught a 23-yard touchdown pass his first season.
“He could have played receiver and D-end” all the time, Oher said. “Great hands. Whenever you’d throw it to him in a game, he’d go up like he was a tight end or something.”
Oher said he and Hardy have stayed in touch, although Oher said the two haven’t spoken recently. Oher declined to comment on any of the off-the-field issues that have surrounded Hardy.
The Cowboys move Hardy around the line, much like the Panthers did. But the majority of his snaps since returning from a four-game suspension have come at right end -- across from the left tackle.
Oher said he’s expecting an energized Hardy on Thursday. Oher won’t rely on his historical knowledge of Hardy’s pass-rush techniques: It has been too long since he faced him every day.
“I can only go off what he’s doing now,” Oher said. “The games I watched he does different things. But he gets after it.”
The Cowboys list Hardy at 6-foot-5 and 279 pounds, but Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he looks heavier. But Rivera said Hardy, who has 4.5 sacks in six games, still has explosion off the line.
“He’s working himself back into shape for obvious reasons,” Rivera said. “As he gets more and more playing time, he becomes more and more disruptive. He’s a disruptive football player.”
Hardy tied a Panthers’ season record with 15 sacks in 2013. Panthers cornerback Josh Norman said Hardy was “unblockable” during Hardy’s Pro Bowl season in ’13.
But he played in only one game for the Panthers last year after going on the commissioner’s exempt list in the midst of his domestic violence trial.
Hardy called the Panthers “just a nameless, faceless opponent” this week, although fullback Mike Tolbert predicted Hardy would play “like a chicken with his head cut off” when he faces his former team.
While Oher will try to keep Hardy off Cam Newton, Oher doesn’t believe Hardy would try to intentionally hurt the Panthers quarterback.
“I doubt it. I don’t think he’s that type of guy,” Oher said.
This will be the second time Oher has faced Hardy during the regular season. The two met in 2010 during Hardy’s rookie season when the Panthers were drubbed by Baltimore 37-13 in November while Carolina was on its way to a 2-14 finish.
Late in the game, Hardy lined up across from Oher but looped inside and sacked Joe Flacco for a 3-yard loss after getting past one of the Ravens’ interior linemen.
Oher plans to cram as much film study as he can into this short week, but he said he can’t prepare for just one Hardy move.
“He can do a lot of different things,” Oher said. “So I’ve just got to play with technique, stay disciplined and get after him.”
Just like old times.