On Thursday, one of the great mysteries of 2022’s Kansas City Chiefs season was finally solved.
A day after returning to Kansas City through a trade with the New York Jets, wide receiver Mecole Hardman had the opportunity to finally address the mysterious injury that sidelined him for the second half of last season.
Leading up to the Chiefs’ Week 10 matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Hardman was held out of practice all week with what the team originally described as a “pelvis injury.” Later, the team would alternately describe it as an “abdomen injury” or an “illness” — but it was always clear the wideout wasn’t expected to be available.
The following week, Hardman was placed on injured reserve.
Hardman revealed that a severe medical situation that required 10 days in the hospital began after the Chiefs’ Week 9 victory over the Tennessee Titans — starting with an urgent phone call to Rick Burkholder, who is the team’s vice president of sports medicine and performance.
“I was at home,” Hardman recalled. “It was after the game, on Monday. We’re off on Monday... It was just me and my girl... [she] was going to get some food. I was playing a game [and] felt some discomfort; I got a cramp. I went to lay down, got up — and literally every hour, it got worse and worse and worse.
“I called Rick and told him, ‘Something ain’t right. I’m hurting.’ He said, ‘If you get worse, call me back.’ I called him back five minutes later. [I] was in tears like, ‘I can’t do this.’”
What he had initially believed to be a minor issue eventually became so painful he couldn’t walk. He was rushed to the hospital.
“The bed that I got in at the emergency room was the bed that I was in for 10 days,” said Hardman. “It was kind of one of those injuries that we didn’t really shed much light onto last year — we didn’t really need to.
“Now that we’re here, it’s one of those injuries that make you think about a lot of things. I’m just happy to actually be here and healthy — and able to do things that I normally was able to do.”
Losing his ability to walk hit home for a player known for game-breaking speed. His constant pain in the hospital also made his stay anything but restful.
“Scary as hell,” he confirmed. “Not being able to move your legs is one of those things that make you just think, ‘Is this it?’
“Obviously, the feeling came back. The doctors were very particular that it would come back; just give it time. That gave me a little hope. I know that the ten days I was there, I think I slept eight hours — [maybe] 10 hours max.
“I was in so much pain. I think I got medicine every two hours... As soon as two hours hit, I was like, ‘Hey, I need medicine.’
“[It was] definitely one of the low points in my life, but I definitely got through it — and I’m happy to be here.”
Eventually, Hardman was diagnosed with osteitis pubis — an inflammation of the joints in the pubic bones. The diagnostic process itself was an ordeal — and the diagnosis still left room for doubt.
“I had a few specialists that came out,” said Hardman, “and each of them had different opinions... I tell you what, I got a lot of blood taken; I’m talking about tubes. I’m like, ‘Bro, what are y’all going to do with this?’”
After over two months of cryptic updates on Hardman’s status, he returned to practice to play in the AFC Championship against the Cincinnati Bengals — where Hardman then injured his groin making a crucial catch to extend a drive. He was quickly ruled out of what would be a 23-20 Kansas City victory — and he would not play in Super Bowl LVII against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Shortly after the championship game, Hardman had surgery at the Vincera Institute in Philadelphia — a hospital specializing in core muscle repair.
Though he missed playing on the sport’s biggest stage, Hardman knows his body needed a chance to get right.
“[I was] on my road to recovery,” said Hardman, “also to get back to play in the AFC Championship, [for] which I was 65 or 70 percent. I ended up tearing my groin on the last play I played — which was a blessing in disguise for me, honestly, so I could really have surgery and repair everything.”
While there is never a good time for a professional athlete to require hospitalization, the timing for Hardman was especially unfortunate; it was the final season on his rookie contract before reaching free agency. While the speedster did not slide into the top wide receiver role vacated when the Chiefs traded Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins, Hardman had still scored five touchdowns over his previous three games.
“That kind of hit me hard as well,” he lamented, “knowing that was the last year — contract year especially. The first year Tyreek wasn’t here, I thought it was a change where I could really step into a role to help this team.”
I wish people would stop saying I be hurt a lot, that just shows who actually pay attention! Played every game for 3 years straight and had a freak injury half way through year 4. A injury where none of y’all don’t even have the slightest idea of what I dealt with when the injury…— Mecole Hardman Jr. (@MecoleHardman4) September 27, 2023
Hardman would end up settling for a one-year, incentive-laden contract with the Jets. But in addition to the financial opportunity lost, Hardman was identified by some fans as “injury-prone.”
The wideout definitely takes exception with that description — because before his hospitalization, he had appeared in every one of the 66 games the Chiefs had played since his arrival in 2019.
“How am I injury-prone?” he demanded. “I don’t understand. First of all, I played [more than] three years [in] every game. That right there tells you [I’m] not injury prone.
“I got into my fourth year and got into a freak injury — that people don’t even have an idea about — which left me hospitalized the next day... I was in the hospital for 10 days.
“I literally had no feeling in my legs for four days. I couldn’t walk for four or five days... In this league, you’re going to have knick-knack injuries, but nothing [I had] ever really kept me out — or [was something] I couldn’t play through.
“That one just happened to be something that I actually had to have surgery and be in the hospital for where I couldn’t come back and play.”
Hardman appeared in five games for the Jets, collecting just one catch for six yards on three targets. You can bet that in Kansas City, he wants to prove that he can not only demonstrate that he isn’t injury-prone, but that he deserves another chance at a good contract.