Hardman caps Chiefs return with Super Bowl-clinching touchdown, not that he remembers

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Hardman caps Chiefs return with Super Bowl-clinching touchdown, not that he remembers

LAS VEGAS — After Mecole Hardman’s three-yard touchdown grab clinched the Kansas City Chiefs’ third Super Bowl win in five seasons, it all went dark.

“I blacked out,” Hardman said on the Allegiant Stadium field an hour later. “After I caught it, I can’t remember a thing that happened next.”

What happened next: a mob of teammates rushed towards him while the elation of back-to-back world championships started to sink in. Same as the previous two, Kansas City’s 25-22 overtime win over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII required a 10-point second-half comeback, and again, Andy Reid, the Chiefs’ veteran head coach, was at his best, pulling the right strings as offensive play-caller amid a 13-play 75-yard drive in overtime that culminated with Mahomes hitting Hardman for the walk-off score.

All of the Chiefs knew what had just happened, and what it meant.

Except Hardman. For a few moments, the fifth-year receiver was in a daze of disbelief. He held the football up with his right hand. Mahomes darted towards him. A sea of red followed.

“Can I tell a quick funny story?” the quarterback said later, interrupting Hardman’s postgame interview on NFL Network. “I threw a touchdown to this dude at the end of the game, and he looked at me and he had no idea. I said, ‘Dude, we just won the Super Bowl.’ He didn’t even celebrate at the beginning.”

“I swear,” Hardman said, “the first thing I remember is Pat yelling at me, saying, ‘Bro, you a champion!’”

For Hardman, it was a surreal moment. Nothing about his past two years hinted this was coming; not after the Chiefs let him walk in free agency last spring, not after he signed with the New York Jets only to barely get on the field.

Certainly not after the biggest scare of all, a rare groin injury suffered in 2022 that Hardman later revealed kept him in the hospital for 10 days, unable to walk for five. An osteitis pubis diagnosis cost Hardman nine games last season. After returning, Hardman tore his groin during the 2022 AFC Championship Game, sidelining him from last year’s Super Bowl win over the Eagles.

“Scary as hell,” he called the ordeal.

It would pave the way for his exit from Kansas City in the spring, but that wouldn’t last long. Never able to get on the same page with the Jets’ coaches, he made all of one catch in five games. Hardman landed back in Kansas City in October after the teams agreed to swap late-round picks. The Chiefs needed receiver help. And Hardman, if nothing else, was a familiar face.

According to Reid, Hardman was succinct with the coaching staff when he returned to the Chiefs’ practice facility: “Hey, I just wanna help you guys win.” But it would take time.

“A roller coaster,” Hardman called the last few years. “A lot of ups and downs. I was going through a lot, especially with the injury, trying to start over with a new team, and didn’t really play. Kansas City welcomed me back with open arms.”

Entering Sunday, Hardman had caught just 17 passes since returning, including only two in the Chiefs’ playoff run. But in Super Bowl LVIII, he finished with three receptions for 57 yards and the game-winning score, the team’s second-leading receiver behind only tight end Travis Kelce.

Before the clincher, Hardman’s biggest moment came early in the second quarter when he snuck behind the 49ers’ secondary for a 52-yard catch — Kansas City’s longest play all night. But an Isiah Pacheco fumble one play later on the 49ers’ 9-yard-line left the Chiefs without any points.

The play that won Sunday’s Super Bowl, which goes by the name “Tom and Jerry,” is a cousin of the one Reid dialed up in the fourth quarter of last year’s Super Bowl. That one, affectionately called “corndog,” starts with a receiver going in quick motion, which helps Mahomes identify whether the defense is in man coverage or zone. Last year it resulted in a short throw to a wide-open Kadarius Toney that tied the game.

The Chiefs love “Tom and Jerry” against man coverage because it calls for a tight end to run a corner route, and if that tight end is Kelce, that usually means two defenders follow him. That’s what happened Sunday night, if only for a split second. But it was enough to free up Hardman, who peeled into the flat untouched.

It was one of the easiest balls Mahomes threw all night.

“I knew,” Hardman said. “I knew they were gonna double Trav, and as soon as I saw the corner drop off, I knew I was getting the ball.”

According to fellow receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling, if Mahomes had Hardman continued his motion, the play would’ve been a jet sweep to the other side of the field. “And if it’s a jet sweep, he walks in the other way,” Valdes-Scantling said in a raucous postgame locker room, cigar dangling from his mouth. “Either way, seals the game.”

Teammates who saw Hardman’s struggle up close were thrilled for him Sunday night.

“I’ve played with Mecole for a long time,” Mahomes said. “He’s always ready for the moment … just like last year, you never know how it’s gonna be.”

“I knew we were gonna need him at some point,” Valdes-Scantling said.

“Shoot, when you talking about a dude who’s been injured, who’s been trying to figure it out this year?” cornerback Trent McDuffie said. “Man, so proud of him. So proud of that guy.”

While it all soaked in — another championship, the culmination of a trying two years — Hardman stood on the field, asking one last question: Who has the football?

“Man, you dream about that as a kid, making these game-winning catches, but I don’t think I ever dreamed about doing it in the Super Bowl,” he said. “The biggest game? I hope one of the equipment guys got that football, because I need to get that back.”

(Photo: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)