CLEVELAND: Fighting through injuries and working his way back up through the depth chart is nothing new for Montario Hardesty.
Hardesty, a Browns second-round pick in 2010 and backup running back this season, did it in college at the University of Tennessee, battling his way past knee injuries while fighting for playing time with Arian Foster.
Sunday, Hardesty proved he had it in him to do it as a pro.
When starter Trent Richardson was hobbled by a right rib an injury suffered on the Browns’ first possession, Hardesty filled in and helped lead the way to a 34-24 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
“It’s never easy,” said Hardesty, who rushed 15 times for 56 yards and a touchdown. “But my whole [football career] hasn’t been easy, so none of this has been hard because I’ve been through it before.”
When the Browns selected Richardson, the University of Alabama bulldozer with the third overall pick in the April draft, it appeared Hardesty’s days in Cleveland might be numbered. Instead, his presence on the roster provided the Browns with a valuable safety net for Richardson, who said he would have X-rays done. Adam Schefter of ESPN reported on Twitter that Richardson is scheduled to have an MRI today.
“I took a shot, but I’ll be back,” Richardson said. “I’ll be ready for next week. I was in and out of the game and I tried to do as much as I could. Coach [Pat Shurmur] didn’t want to take the risk of me being injured even more.”
As a rookie, the injury-plagued Hardesty suffered a knee injury in the final preseason game that wiped out his whole season. Last year, he battled more injuries and made just four starts in 10 games while seeing limited time playing behind Peyton Hillis.
This season, Richardson quickly became the media darling. Most days after games and during the week after practices, so many reporters gather around Richardson’s locker Hardesty is often blocked from getting to his locker nearby. But every time, the quiet-spoken Hardesty just patiently waits for the crowd to clear.
“It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “All our guys are close. We all want each other to do good. I want Trent to do good. When he comes out of the game, we talk about what’s going on while we’re on the sideline. I want to do whatever I can to help him because I know he’ll do the same for me when it’s my turn.”
Hardesty’s turn finally came Sunday. He proved he could carry the load late in the first quarter when he earned his first rushes of the season on the Browns’ third series that led to their first score — a 71-yard touchdown pass from Brandon Weeden to Josh Gordon.
Hardesty later proved he could be a difference-maker, too. He set up his first NFL touchdown — a 1-yard scoring plunge on the first play of the fourth quarter — with a 12-yard gain two plays beforehand.
“For Montario to come off the bench, with basically very few reps, and play the way he did to put us in the situations he did, I thought he played great,” Weeden said.
Hardesty blamed himself for not earning more carries sooner.
“I haven’t been able to get a lot of reps, but I made the mistake of putting the ball on the ground,” Hardesty said, referring to his preseason fumbles. “But I’ve been working every week, and I put a lot of work in coming into this season. I knew my time would come at some point and I wanted to capitalize on it.”
In the locker room after the game, Hardesty was asked what he planned to do with the ball from his first NFL touchdown.
“I left it out there,” he said. “I’ll just have to save the next one.”