ORONO — There was a moment in the University of Maine football locker room, just before the players poured onto the field to take on Boston College, that belonged only to John Hardy and John McCabe.

They looked at each other and smiled, their shared five-year ordeal forming an unspoken bond. Two unheralded Maine kids – who dreamed of playing at their state’s Division I university, fought through injuries, sacrificed thoughts of glory to accept special-teams assignments, pushed aside thoughts of giving it all up – were about to get their reward.

“I kept saying, ‘Life is good and we made it,’ ” McCabe told Hardy before the Sept. 5 opener. “Even if this year doesn’t go quite as planned, and there’s not as much playing time, no one can ever take that away from us.”

Hardy, a graduate of Deering High, got his first start at wide receiver and snared just the second reception of his career. McCabe, a backup middle linebacker from Winslow, registered a career-high three tackles, one in the red zone that forced the Eagles to kick a field goal in their 24-3 win. With starter Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga out with a leg bruise, he’s in line to get his first career start Saturday at Tulane.

None of this was promised when the two Johns arrived in Orono as freshmen. Hardy was a walk-on. McCabe got a partial scholarship of $1,000, enough to dissuade him from heading to Holy Cross.

They redshirted that first year, became roommates in the second year and have remained so to this day.

Hardy saw some time on the kickoff return team his next two years while dealing with injuries, appearing in three games. McCabe tore the meniscus in his left knee as a redshirt freshman, had surgery and missed the entire season. He got into two games as a sophomore and hoped for bigger things as a junior, but tore his hamstring in the first scrimmage of the summer and could never fully heal, tearing it four more times throughout the fall. He got into five games, with his biggest contribution in a win at Rhode Island that he helped seal by rushing the quarterback into a hurried throw on the final play.

He had one tackle in 2014. Hardy made one catch, in the opener against Norfolk State. Not much to show for four years of toil. But quitting was never an option.

“They’ve been persistent, never for a second given up, in a day and age where I think that happens way too often,” said Coach Jack Cosgrove.

This summer, Hardy had a terrific camp to rise to the top of the depth chart as a slot receiver, in addition to his special-teams duties that include serving as the holder on field goals and extra points. At 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, he relies on his smarts and a willingness to work in the middle of the field, where the big linebackers roam.

“Here, everyone’s my height, everyone’s my weight, and typically faster, so I need to be able to squeeze my way around the inside,” said Hardy, who caught 51 passes for 942 yards and nine touchdowns as a Deering senior. “If I have to take a hit from a linebacker, I’ll take a hit from a linebacker. If I have to block one, I’ll try my hardest to go block a 250-pound linebacker.

“Running the shorter routes, running the crossing routes, I don’t mind as much because I’m not much of a vertical guy. If I can get in to them, I can collision them and get them to bounce off of me so I can get open and just swallow the ball up and take a hit if I have to.”

McCabe, fully healthy now, has earned playing time in a crowded field of linebackers. But he also is the only Black Bear to start on all four special-teams units – kick and punt returns, and kick and punt coverage. At 6 feet, 220 pounds, he too is known more for his dependability than sparkling athletic skills. The nutrition major has become a fanatic about exercise and eating healthy.

“If I go get something in the kitchen, he makes sure that it’s suitable for an athlete to eat,” Hardy said. “I like having him around actually. He’s my own personal nutritionist.”

McCabe laughed and admitted the truth in Hardy’s statement.

“He splurges a little bit, he loves his sweets, but he’s really good about it, very dedicated,” McCabe said.

Both players credit their families with instilling the proper work ethic. Hardy comes from a long line of Portland firefighters, including his grandfather, great-uncle, father, uncle and older brother. He intends to be a high school physical education teacher and coach.

McCabe, who has three older brothers, forged a respect for craftsmanship through long hours of working with his father, Timothy, in the “man shed” behind their home. They form oak and ash into furniture, tables and rocking chairs, for family use or as wedding presents.

It’s not dissimilar to football, where small mistakes that fans don’t see show up on film.

“Imperfections that others might not notice bother me,” McCabe said, speaking of his hobby, but alluding to his sport. “No one will see it but I know it’s there. I want to make sure it’s perfect.”

Just like their senior year.

“They’re really guys that make you smile when you think about meeting them as an 18-year-old and seeing them as 22-year-old fifth-year seniors and the ground that they’ve covered,” Cosgrove said. “The way they represent the program, that it’s important to them, and the message they send to others through their success.”

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