But the jokester wore a frown this time last offseason. The man with the smile and the in-tune blocking techniques was trying to stiff-arm a number of other things and none of them wore a rivals' uniform: Pain and doubt.
This season, those two obstacles are removed.
"I'm really enjoying this offseason and can't wait to get the season going," Nick Hardwick said.
Last offseason saw him wearing a cumbersome foot boot after undergoing serious foot surgery. At first the Chargers had hope the injury would heal on its own. But as the offseason dragged on, Hardwick was still dragging around his ailing foot. Finally, two months after the season had ended, Hardwick underwent an operation, one in which would have him miss last season's first three games.
C Nick Hardwick
"When I first got hurt, they said there was a 50-50 chance that I would play again," Hardwick said. "I had a lot of down time. I was non-weight bearing for three months, so there was a lot of time to think about what was going to happen. I was stressing out actually."
The Chargers felt the same way.
Hardwick is not only responsible for the getting the blocking calls right, but he makes right a team when things look bleak. No matter the situation or what the scoreboard may say, Hardwick was the one constant his teammates could rely to keep an upbeat attitude. To keep things in perspective. To crack a joke as easily as popping a defensive tackle to spring LaDainian Tomlinson on a long run.
But it's hard to be the life of the huddle when not in it. It's hard to be a leader when the team runs out of the tunnel on Sunday and the leader is in street clothes.
And even when he did return last season, the fine line between being a Pro Bowler and being just another guy was one Hardwick was starting to know all too well. The mind was willing but the foot -- not so much.
"That's such a big part of it, being able to do the things you want to do and put your body in position it needs to be in to perform," Hardwick said. "Sometimes there's a 6-inch difference about where you put your foot. But if it's painful to put my foot back and bring my knee forward, the performance is off just a slight amount, which can be the difference between success and a slip up."
But what's up with Hardwick this offseason? A new confidence that his foot and the front line will return to its past glory.
"I'm not limited at all right now," he said, "which is great."
He has tattoos covering his arm and a goofy sense of humor which covers his intellect.
Center Nick Hardwick might like to play the ah-shucks, Midwestern role which comes from growing up in America's Heartland and attending Purdue.
But Hardwick is no country bumpkin -- far from it.
C Nick Hardwick
That's why his offseason calendar included attending the NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program, a series of courses designed to prepare players for something all too few of them consider: life outside of football.
Really, the game does end some day. And Hardwick has started to prep for it.
Hardwick attended classes at the University of Pennsylvania with other NFL players.
"The funny thing is that most of the guys in there were on the verge of retirement or coming off of a serious injury, so we all had time to think about not being able to play anymore," Hardwick said after a recent workout at the Chargers' offseason coaching sessions. "I seriously believe about 90 percent of the guys in there were in that position. Those guys got a slap in the face by reality, who said, 'Hey, man, this gig's not going to last forever, so you might want to start thinking ahead.'"
Hardwick's come to reality moment came this time last year. He was rehabbing from a serious foot injury and there was no guarantee he would return in 2008.
"It was the worst period of my life, not knowing if I would play again," the personable Hardwick said. "It was terrible."
But that down time also came with a focus on the future. It made Hardwick consider earning a paycheck other than bending over and hiking a football between his legs.
Hardwick knew of the pain he felt through most of the 2007 season. He knew of the pain which stretched into 2008, an offseason which saw him undergo an operation and start a rigorous -- and painful -- rehabilitation.
It was in that quiet time that the noise of a football-free future couldn't be ignored.
And part of that thought process landed him at the University of Pennsylvania.
"I was happy I went," Hardwick said. "I met some good guys out there, and learned a decent amount. They didn't get real technical with us, which was a bit of a disappointment. Out of every four classes, three of them were good."
Hardwick is good to go this season. His foot is right and so is, in some ways, his mind when thinking about the pads no longer find his shoulders on Sundays.
"There are a lot of options out there, but obviously I want to focus on football right now and be as good as I can at this," said Hardwick, a former Pro Bowler. "But when you have some down time to let your mind escape, it's a good idea to keep pushing yourself and trying to grow as a person."
--QB Philip Rivers can't help but notice -- and he is not alone: RB LaDainian Tomlinson looks good in the workouts after an offseason in which there was speculation Tomlinson wouldn't return to San Diego. "It seems to have put another pep in his step," he said. Rivers went on to say he thinks Tomlinson could have another big year. "I don't see why not," Rivers said. "We're one season removed from him leading the league in rushing."
--With the NBA playoffs hitting full stride does TE Antonio Gates, a former collegiate player, ever regret turning his professional career toward football rather than basketball? "I never regret things I do; I regret things I don't do," he said. "(Playing football) was the best choice for me at the time. When I first came to the NFL I really missed playing basketball, but now football is my life. It's who I am. I've met a lot of good people playing football. I've met a lot of 'greats' just because of the game of football. Early in my career I would always talk about basketball but now as I mature, football is my life."
--OLB Larry English, the team's top pick, isn't taking the offseason coaching sessions and team conditioning lightly. "This is an important time of year," he said. "Over the next month, I'm pushing myself physically to get in the best shape I can. Mentally, I want to become more and more comfortable with our scheme and just continue to grow. Hopefully once fall gets here, all this work will pay off."
--There is another new proposal to build a stadium at the current site of Qualcomm Stadium, but the Chargers have yet to lend their support to it.
--There's been a familiar face at some of the Lakers playoff games -- and he's in a good seat: coach Norv Turner, a big-time hoops fan.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm glad we never had to find out." -- QB Philip Rivers on what the Chargers would be like without LaDainian Tomlinson, who had to restructure his contract to return this season.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
FRANCHISE PLAYER: RB Darren Sproles: Tendered at $6.621M (signed April 28).
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--C Jeremy Newberry.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
--OT Jeromey Clary: ERFA; $460,000/1 yr.
--WR Malcom Floyd: RFA; $1.545M/1 yr.
--OG Kynan Forney: Potential UFA; $4.8M/2 yrs, SB unknown.
--CB Cletis Gordon: RFA; $1.545M/1 yr.
--RB Darren Sproles: Franchise FA; $6.621M/1 yr.
--LB Kevin Burnett: UFA Cowboys; $5.5M/2 yrs, $2M SB.
PLAYERS LOST--RB Eldra Buckley (released).
--OG Mike Goff: UFA Chargers; $3.5M/2 yrs, guarantees unknown.
--LB Marques Harris: UFA 49ers; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--DE Igor Olshansky: UFA Cowboys; $18M/4 yrs, $8M guaranteed.
--LB Anthony Waters (released).