One Last Time In The Fick
Thursday night’s game does not offer any kind of serious significance for the East Carolina football team. Even with a victory, it would not be in a position to earn even a share of the American Athletic Conference Championship and the Pirates earned bowl eligibility more than a month ago. But try telling the 19 seniors ECU will acknowledge prior to kickoff that its primetime matchup with UCF isn’t important. Among those seniors is the most prolific offensive duo in ECU’s history, commonly referred to known as “Cardy” — consisting of quarterback Shane Carden and receiver Justin Hardy — which will be making its final appearance inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium Thursday. “It’s weird,” Carden said. “The last couple of years you play for other people in senior games and you tell them, ‘This is for you, we’re going to win this one for you,’ and now it’s my turn to be in these shoes. It’s going to be different.” Fifth-year ECU coach Ruffin McNeill has been through this song and dance before. As a defensive back for the Pirates under legendary coach Pat Dye in 1979, McNeill still remembers vividly the last time he stepped off the grass field at then-Ficklen Stadium. “No regrets, that’s the first thing that comes to mind. No regrets, not one. (I think of) family, friends that now we text. We won,” McNeill said of his weekly news conference, referencing the Pirates’ 49-16 victory against North Texas. “A lot of great memories go through my mind right now.” Thirty-five years later, McNeill remains at his alma mater and his approach has changed slightly. He is now the father of the ECU football program and he admits that emotions will be high for him during the seniors’ farewell Thursday, especially since many of the seniors were a part of McNeill’s first recruiting class. “They are my sons and it’s not lip service. They know that. I love them more than I love them as a football player. I love the person inside the uniform,” said McNeill. Naturally, when you have done anything over the span of years and you know that it will soon be coming to end, you tend to think about the beginning. For Carden and Hardy, they first met each other in 2010. Both undervalued prospects on the scout team, they built a bond that has only been strengthened through wins, losses, records and everything else. The duo’s first game together inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium was Sep. 29 against UTEP. In a game that was suspended for over an hour due to weather, Carden looked to Hardy … early and often. Hardy finished with 11 receptions, including a remarkable touchdown grab that was initially ruled an incomplete pass in the corner of the end-zone, but was overturned after video replay showed the former walk-on from Vanceboro somehow got one foot inbounds. It was a go-ahead score just before halftime and ECU won 28-18. “That was a game to remember,” Hardy said. “It was probably one of the better games I’ve played and Shane played a great game as well.” Carden added, “We had some good things go on early and I definitely got one to him in the end zone in that game. Thinking about it now is kind of crazy.” Carden and Hardy own pretty much all of ECU’s passing and receiving records and in the case of Hardy, he has caught more passes then anyone in FBS college football history. Also, the tandem has linked up for 26 touchdowns, which is more than any other duo in the country. Their level of consistency has never wavered. In a surprising defeat at Tulane last year, Hardy and Carden set single-game school records for passing and receiving, and against the Bearcats about a month ago, Hardy hauled in 15 receptions in a road loss. So take a moment — maybe two — to appreciate everything this duo has done Thursday night. Take a mental picture of burly Shane Carden, outfitted in his No. 5 jersey with East Carolina imprinted across the front, and the undersized and overlooked Justin Hardy in his No. 2. Because after 60 minutes against UCF and a bowl game, the next time you might see them again is playing on Sundays, likely separated and wearing different uniforms. But no matter where they end up or what happens next spring and in years to come, “Cardy” will forever be linked together in the school record books as the two most essential players of quite possibly the greatest era of East Carolina football.
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