Leon Hardeman was among Georgia Tech’s wealth of stars at its greatest height. One of the all-time great Yellow Jackets, Hardeman died Monday at the age of 87.
From LaFayette in northwest Georgia, Hardeman starred for Tech at halfback 1951-53, when coach Bobby Dodd’s Jackets were 32-2-2. They won the Orange Bowl twice and the Sugar Bowl once and were in the midst of an eight-game winning streak over Georgia.
In 1952, the Jackets were 12-0 and were named national champions by the International News Service. In that season, Hardeman ran for a career-high 776 yards and was one of an astounding six Tech players to be named to at least one first-team All-American team. Hardeman also was named SEC player of the year by United Press.
He was MVP of the 1953 Sugar Bowl, a 24-7 win over Ole Miss that completed the undefeated season, the last Tech team to finish the season unbeaten and untied.
He was one of a handful of Tech players to earn All-SEC honors three times. He was inducted into the Tech and Georgia sports halls of fame. In his career, he ran for 1,794 yards and 22 touchdowns. Those totals remain in the top 20 and top 10, respectively, in school history.
Hardeman ran low to the ground and bounced off defenders, said Pepper Rodgers, Hardeman’s quarterback and later Tech’s coach in the 1970s.
“Leon was a great back,” Rodgers said Tuesday by phone from his home in Reston, Va. “He had great balance, he could cut back on a dime. He was a wonderful blocker, and he did it all.”
Naturally, the colorful Rodgers had more memories. Rodgers said that he and Hardeman organized a basketball team from the football roster that went out and played teams around the state. At the end of warm-ups, Hardeman got on his hands and knees near the basket, and Rodgers launched himself off his back to dunk the basketball. This stunt went on, Rodgers said, until Rodgers nearly got his ring got caught in the net and “I almost tore my finger off.”
“I was always a great admirer of Leon,” Rodgers said. “A tremendous person.”
Hardeman was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in 1954 in the 23rd round (three rounds after they selected Hall of Famer Raymond Berry) but instead he chose to join the U.S. Army, serving as a first lieutenant in Germany. After his military service, he worked for 30 years with Owens-Illinois, a glass bottle manufacturer, retiring as a vice president.
Hardeman is survived by his wife, Margaret, three sons, a stepson, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his first wife and daughter.
Graveside services will be held at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Chattanooga National Cemetery.
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