After 16 seasons of Hard Knocks spread across 21 years, we have a good handle on what the HBO show does well and where it struggles.
The reality show is at its best when humanizing the players on the fringes of bloated preseason rosters, the ones regarded as faceless chum because they are rarely afforded media avenues to be seen for who they really are: human beings with stories as—and, often, more—interesting than the players ahead of them on the depth chart. You likely had no opinion going in on Azur Kamara, the Ivory Coast immigrant clawing his way past final cuts, or Isaac Alcaron, the Mexico native and member of the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program. Now we know their stories, and we’re better for the experience.
The show’s unquestioned nadir, meanwhile, arrives every time it serves us Zack Snyder-esque cuts of preseason football, treating week-old, inconsequential games as if they were Important Athletic Spectacles.
The in-between—and what tends to make or break a given season—is the minutiae: candid, silly moments that plug the holes throughout the dreadfully boring camp grind. They’re the mortar that holds the big storyline bricks together, and the more they mine, the more enjoyable each hourlong episode becomes.
This season was less tolerable than others, largely due to a real dearth of entertaining material. Sure, Trevon Diggs’ son, Aaiden, might be the most adorable tiny human toddling the planet, and, yes, we got a lot of mileage out of moments like Dak Prescott’s phobia of haunted houses or, somehow, special teams coach John Fassel’s vasectomy. But it often felt like the show was straining to fill the hour runtime, which leads us to moments like the segment in Episode 3, when we were treated to five full minutes on undrafted rookie running back JaQuan Hardy losing his contact lens.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a blow by blow of this glorious slog.
23:08 – We begin in Hardy’s hotel room, where the camera zooms in on him attempting to insert a contact lens. His eyeball peels inward, and you can see the veins spiderwebbing through his retina. He blinks, trying to get the lens in. He fails. It is intensely uncomfortable to watch.
23:36 – Attempt No. 2. Once again, he blinks many times trying to work the lens in. Then, with his eyeball closed, he takes index finger, and—look, I am a journalist, and it is my job to use language accurately, so please believe me when I tell you I take no pleasure in reporting that what goes down can best be described as JaQuan fondling his eyeball, the fingertip probing up, down, and around the eyelid. This goes on for a while. I am filing a complaint to the FCC on the grounds of indecent exposure.
24:00 – “She’s in.”
24:03 – JaQuan, now wearing glasses, recounts his brush with disaster during the Cowboys’ preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals, when he’s tackled face first after a run up the middle. A contact lens pops out of his eye.
24:27 – Flash back to the scene of the crime. JaQuan, in full gear between downs: “It popped out!” He finishes the drive because “I love the game, and I make sure I don’t take anything for granted,” which is football for “I am probably losing my job if I go to that sideline.”
25:03 – A lowlight reel of JaQuan’s missteps on the drive with one good eye. In a shocking turn of events, Cowboys running backs coach Skip Peete was not a fan of Hardy playing when he could barely see.
25:18 – Back to the game, and Hardy. “I’m one and one right now,” he exclaims on the sideline, in reference to having one lens in and one out. Absolutely no one understands him. He then proceeds to reinsert the contact. An unnamed Cowboy asks what is on Hardy’s eyeball. What’s on any of our eyeballs, really?
25:55 – Second-string running back Tony Pollard repeats the “one and one” line to Ezekiel Elliott on the sideline. “I ain’t ever heard that shit!” he hoots in laughter. Alright?
26:03 – Last year’s third-stringer Rico Dowdle joins them. Pollard re-creates the whole scene, nose to tail. He giggles. He guffaws. Dowdle and Elliott seem marginally into it, but they’re clearly not as invested as Pollard. Probably just a him thing, which, hey, no judgment. Humor is in the eye of the beholder, after all–right? Did you get that? The whole “eye” thing? OK, fine, it’s trash, but it’s better than the one-and-one bit. That is objectively unfunny.
26:20 – Peete, in the meeting room: “Hey, where’d you get that term, though? The one and one?” “I just made that shit up,” Hardy replies. Several Cowboys chuckle. “I ain’t ever heard of the one and one,” Peete replies. Now he’s reenacting the sequence on the sideline to widespread amusement. Seriously, what the hell am I missing here?
26:42 – Hardy, back in his hotel room, has a solution: rec specs. Oh yeah, baby!
26:55 – The narrator pops in with this gem: “Undrafted rookie JaQuan Hardy is trying to visualize success… [dramatic pause] but it’s hard to see your future when you can’t even spot the football.” Come on. Twenty seconds of silence ensue as we watch Hardy trying to slide his helmet over the goggles. I have never felt so alive.
27:30 – Hardy apparently has prior experience with the rec specs: in college, while playing for the Dragons of Tiffin University in Tiffin, Ohio. We watch highlight footage of Hardy demolishing the competition. Gotta stick with the specs, IMO.
28:10 – Finally, to the practice field, where Hardy’s teammates have moved on from “one and one” to comparing him to a character from the video game Ratchet and Clank, a generic create-a-player in Madden, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, three-time Pro Bowl running back Chuck Muncie and, of course, SMU legend and NFL Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson. Still not funny, but at least they’ve got range.
Annnd … scene! Hardy wound up making the practice squad, a true victory for a small-school guy who wants an NFL career so badly he planned to do 30 pushups every time a team passed on him from the start of the fourth round onward (he tapped out after 53 picks, which still equates to a seriously impressive 1,590 pushups!).
I’m pulling for him. I’m also pulling for all of us to never be subjected to five minutes like that ever again.