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NFL: Higher tax bracket, fresh start for Hargrave

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

CHARLOTTE — Javon Hargrave, a 2011 graduate of North Rowan High, agreed to a three-year, $39 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles on March 16, and it became official two days later when the NFL’s “league year” began.

With the first two years guaranteed, it’s a massive, stunning contract for an interior defensive lineman.

Hargrave, 27, earned a bit over $2 million for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2019 in the final season of his rookie contract, but in 2020, he’ll be hauling in more than six times that. A hold-your-ground nose tackle with the Steelers in a 3-4 defense, he’ll be one of a pair of attacking tackles in the Eagles’ 4-3 defense. He’ll line up next to respected, five-time Pro Bowler Fletcher Cox, who will be third best-paid defensive tackle in the league. Hargrave is now eighth on that list.

In 2019, Hargrave’s salary ranked 47th among NFL defensive tackles, so he’s made a quantum leap from underrated to highly appreciated.

“In my North Rowan days, this was all just a dream, but it’s all real now, very real,” Hargrave said. “It’s crazy to think about, to think about where I came from, and where I am now. More people have been asking me lately about my story.”

•••

A lot of his story starts on Oct. 25, 2014.

It’s a Saturday afternoon. South Carolina State’s football team is playing at home in Orangeburg, S.C., against Bethune-Cookman.

It’s an intense, meaningful rivalry in the world of HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) football, but Bethune-Cookman is the larger school and is located in Daytona Beach, Florida. Bethune-Cookman has significant recruiting advantages over a school in Orangeburg (population, 13,000). Bethune-Cookman usually wins.

Bethune-Cookman, Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference co-champion in 2013, is rolling with a 6-1 record in 2014 and is ranked 14th in the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) poll. On the other hand, South Carolina State is 4-3, including a 73-7 loss to Clemson. The most recent outing for the S.C. State Bulldogs was a disappointing home defeat against North Carolina Central, a game in which the Bulldogs’ defense was punctured for 48 points.

S.C. State hasn’t beaten Bethune-Cookman at Oliver C. Dawson Stadium in 10 years. The script isn’t expected to change.

But a lot changes. The biggest changes are in the life of Hargrave, a 21-year-old defensive lineman.

“I remember that day and remember that game like it happened yesterday,” Hargrave said. “I guess that’s the day I woke people up. The crazy thing is I had this MCL sprain in my knee. I didn’t even know if I’d be able to play.”

Hargrave was listed as doubtful in the pregame report, but he played. Oh, how he played.

When the dust settled in Orangeburg, South Carolina State fans were celebrating a miraculous 20-14 triumph and Hargrave had carved out a place in the record books. He made 11 tackles. Six of those tackles were sacks. His sixth sack came on the final play of the game and sealed victory. He tied MEAC and FCS records for sacks in a single game.

“After Bethune-Cookman, all sorts of scouts started coming around,” Hargrave said. “Seeing those scouts, that’s one of the best feelings you can have as a player.”

•••

As his freshman year was beginning at North Rowan, Hargrave still believed his best sport was basketball. Coaching opinions on that were changed forever shortly after his one-game jayvee football career with the Cavaliers got underway. When the lights came on against Carson on Thursday, Aug. 23, 2007, Hargrave was a different player than he’d shown in practice. He had fire in his eyes. He was unblockable, a runaway truck. After that game, he was promoted to the varsity.

Those weren’t awesome football days for North Rowan. The Cavaliers competed in the 2A Central Carolina Conference Hargrave’s freshman and sophomore seasons. As enrollment dipped under 700 students, North played in the 1A Yadkin Valley Conference Hargrave’s junior and senior years.

When Hargrave was a sophomore, North was 1-10. That lone win came via forfeit, a gift from rival Salisbury after the Hornets had routed North 52-8 on the field. West Rowan, with K.P. Parks and Chris Smith, stampeded North, 60-0.

During Hargrave’s last two football seasons, the Cavaliers did well enough in their 1A league, winning 11 out of 14 YVC games. But they went 0-fer outside the conference and o-fer inside the county.

Hargrave obviously was good. He set county records for fumble recoveries in a season (8 in 2009) and a career (18). But there weren’t any individual county accolades for Hargrave, who was listed in those days at 260 pounds. It was an era in Rowan County when West Rowan and Salisbury fielded elite teams. In 2010, Hargrave’s senior season, the Hornets and Falcons were both crowned state champions.

“I kid (former West Rowan star and new Carolina Panther) Chris Smith all the time that they stole all my hype in high school,” Hargrave said with a laugh.

There were fun times for Hargrave on high school basketball courts. He didn’t play much as a varsity freshman in the winter of 2007-08, but he averaged 8.2 points as a sophomore. He scored 12.8 per game as a junior for the YVC champs, coached by Kelly Everhart.

Hargrave’s senior year in Spencer (2010-11) was coach Andrew Mitchell’s first with the North Rowan boys program. Hargrave averaged 10.5 points (second on the team) and helped the Cavaliers go 27-5 and win the 1A state title. Hargrave finished with 903 career points. He was hard to move in the paint. He probably had more rebounds than points in his career.

In July of 2011, there was one last high school football hurrah for Hargrave.

Salisbury’s Joe Pinyan was the head coach for the West squad in the East-West All-Star Game and he made sure Hargrave was on the West roster and on his side. Pinyan’s own quarterback, John Knox, was named offensive MVP after a 19-7 West victory. Hargrave, who recovered a fumble on the first snap of the game and produced three tackles for loss, earned the defensive MVP honor.

But the months that followed that summer night of glory in Greensboro were a terrible ordeal for Hargrave. A victim of testing anxiety, he’d struggled for months to achieve the ACT score required to be able to take the next step to college football. He stayed holed up in his bedroom from August to December, worrying about tests and test results.

“Lots of schools were interested, but no one was offering me because I couldn’t get that score,” Hargrave said. “My future was shaky. My friends were all off at school or working. I was sitting at home, out of shape, feeling down.”

Catawba College wanted Hargrave badly, but couldn’t get him in.

Shortly before Christmas 2011, Hargrave got the word that he’d finally gotten the score to meet NCAA requirements. South Carolina State called with an offer shortly after that and provided instructions for Hargrave to start classes in Orangeburg in January of 2012.

In February, out of shape from long months of inactivity and over-eating, Hargrave was brutally bad in his first days of winter conditioning with South Carolina State. On his 19th birthday (Feb. 7), his back locked up. Cramping, he lay on the field and couldn’t get up. Teammates laughed. Coaches shook their heads, certain that they’d made an awful mistake offering the chubby kid a scholarship.

By spring, however, things were looking up. The pads were on by then, and Hargrave, though still not totally in shape, was having his way. He was throwing blockers around. He was beginning to earn his “Gravedigger” nickname.

In 2012, Hargrave was a FCS Freshman All-American. He played in 10 games, made 45 tackles and accounted for three sacks.

He was just getting started.

In 2013, he had 12.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, but he was only third team All-MEAC. That was humbling, but the motivation was priceless.

“That season told me I wasn’t there yet,” Hargrave said. “I needed to work harder.”

That epic Bethune-Cookman game was the highlight of Hargrave’s breakout 2014 season. He was the defensive player of the year for the MEAC — and for all of HBCU football. He finished third in FCS with 16 sacks. He made the Associated Press All-America team.

As a senior, he repeated his dominance. He took home his second straight MEAC defensive player of the year award, as well as his second straight Willie Davis Award, as the top defensive player in HBCU football. He had 13 sacks and 20 tackles for loss and again made the AP’s FCS All-America team. He finished his college career with 29.5 sacks and 45 tackles for loss.

In two postseason all-star showcases for seniors, the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl, Hargrave held his own, and then some, against the best from the big schools. That raised his stock.

Hargrave put up draft-worthy numbers at the NFL Scouting Combine. He showed enough potential that four NFL defensive line coaches — from the Cincinnati Bengals, Tennessee Titans, Steelers and Eagles — traveled to South Carolina State’s Pro Day to get to know Hargrave better prior to the 2016 draft.

“The Eagles always were one of the most interested teams,” Hargrave said. “I thought they might draft me, but I guess the Steelers stole me.”

As it turned out, the Steelers pilfered Hargrave with a third-round pick. Eighty-eight players were picked ahead of him.

Plenty of people wondered why he was selected as high as he was. They questioned that he ever could be more than a backup in the NFL. He wasn’t tall enough. He wasn’t long enough. His arms were too short. His hands were too small. His rump was too broad. His thighs were too thick. He was too raw. He hadn’t played against strong competition in college. On and on and on.

“My whole life, that’s been the case,” Hargrave said. “My path to the NFL was different than most. I played 1A in high school, so there were doubters. I played HBCU, so there were doubters. I was always the underdog, always the guy with something to prove.”

But Hargrave (6-foot-2, 305 pounds) is quick off the ball, tough and strong. He’s disciplined. His motor is non-stop. He’s durable. He’s good in the locker room. His character is off the charts. He was thrilled to be a Steeler and he’d always liked the Steelers. He punched the clock each day, determined to prove nay-sayers wrong.

Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense was all new to him. There were adjustments to make. His job wasn’t to chase quarterbacks, or even to make tackles. It wasn’t glamorous. It was primarily dirty work — take on two blockers, disrupt the interior of the line, allow teammates to make plays.

But he got more effective and more impactful at his role each year. He missed a game with a concussion when he was a rookie, but that was the only game he missed in four seasons as a Steeler. His tackle numbers rose each season — from 27 to 32 to 49 to 60.

He often came off the field for the Steelers in obvious passing situations, but he still made 14.5 sacks, including four in 2019. Quietly, he became the most feared pass-rushing nose tackle in the league. He played only 63% of Pittsburgh’s defensive snaps in 2019, but his efficiency numbers — his production per snap — were impressive.

“When I was drafted by Pittsburgh, people said, ‘Well, maybe he’ll be OK,’ ” Hargrave said. “But I didn’t want OK. I wanted more than OK. I took care of  myself off the field. I stayed focused. I kept my head down and I worked. I was surrounded by great players in Pittsburgh, guys like Cameron Hewyard and Stephon Tuitt, and things went well for me.”

The Steelers are paying Heyward and Tuitt a lot of money. They didn’t have the cap space to try to keep Hargrave, as well.

But the Eagles see Hargrave as a force who is just now hitting his prime — big enough at 305 pounds to stuff runs, but nimble enough to create havoc on pass plays. He’ll be playing a lot more snaps for the Eagles, so his stats are likely to increase in 2020.

“People ask me about adjusting to the Eagles’ 4-3 defense, but that’s not an adjustment for me,” Hargrave said. “High school and college, I played in a 4-3. I’ve been a 4-3 guy most of my life. The 3-4 in Pittsburgh, that was new. I’m excited about Philly’s defense. It’s an aggressive defense. It’s an attacking, get-up-the-field defense. It’s a good fit.”

Hargrave, who scored a touchdown as rookie with a fumble recovery against the Cleveland Browns, is working out in Charlotte, looking forward to days without virus concerns. He rides his state-of-the-art Peleton bike for marathon, sweat-drenching workouts.

“It’s definitely tougher to get the work in now, with places closed, but I’ve got the bike,” Hargrave said. “I’m not going to complain about anything. I know that I’m blessed beyond words.”

In February, Hargrave was named as the 2020 recipient of the Black College Football Pro Player of the Year presented by the NFL Players Association. That award, his first major NFL honor, meant a lot to him. He’s proud that he went to South Carolina State, a school that also produced NFL Hall of Famers Deacon Jones, Marion Motley, Harry Carson and Donnie Shell.

If not for COVID-19 concerns, Hargrave would be home more and seeing his family more. He’d be celebrating that wonderful contract with them and celebrating his new beginning with the Eagles.

He remembers where he came from. He donated bikes for all 111 students at Essie Mae Kiser Foxx Charter School in East Spencer last Christmas.

There’s no doubt he’ll do more good things for East Spencer, Spencer and Salisbury in the years to come.

Hargrave doesn’t project that wide-open, charismatic joviality that his friend Smith does, but he’s equally nice. He’s more soft-spoken, but just as friendly. He’s accessible. Philadelphia fans are going to love him.

That money, when those monster checks start rolling in, will mostly go in the bank — for his future, his family’s future, for the future of charitable causes.

“I’ll buy a house in Philadelphia, but I’m not really a big spender,” Hargrave said. “I have some goals in my head for this season, but I’d rather not say what they are. It will be my best season. I’ll work every day to live up to the contract.”

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