|Mosley wears No. 32 in honor of childhood pal Robert Hardy, who died six years ago. (Getty Images)|
C.J. Mosley moved his crutches as quickly as he could toward the podium to catch the trophy presentation for last season's national championship. He had suffered a hip injury in the third quarter of the 21-0 win over LSU, but by intercepting Jordan Jefferson on the same play he got hurt, he deserved some camera time. As he approached the steps to the elevated platform, a sobering reminder caused him to stop.
He remembered who pushed him to get this far, and the promise he vowed to fulfill. With teammates passing him up the steps, Mosley placed his head down for a few seconds, eyes closed. He enjoyed what he calls a "celebratory cry," and not because he beat rival LSU, which lost again to the Tide on Saturday night. He cried for Robert Hardy, his best friend, a friend gone for the last six years, the reason he wears No. 32 dipped in crimson. Mosley had dedicated his football career to Hardy long before he became a Parade All-American out of Theodore (Ala.) High School or emerged as a constant force on an Alabama team vying for back-to-back titles. Mosley and Hardy were supposed to win a football championship together, feel the confetti fall to their shoulders as they laughed about it. They talked about that dream since Pop Warner ball.
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Mosley made sure they shared that moment.
"I promised I wouldn't forget," said Mosley, 20, a junior. "I promised his family."
It was June 2006, and Mosley was hanging out at Hardy's house on a sticky summer day in Mobile, Ala.
Celebration was in order. Hardy got good news from his doctor, who cleared him for all activities. Hardy was born with a small hole in his heart, according to his mother, Co'Tina Rogers. On this day, after several monthly check-ups, things appeared under control. This prompted a full day of video games and backyard trampoline jumping.
Everything was a competition between these two, from football to who had the crispest trampoline flips. Mosley was the linebacker, No. 22, and Hardy was the fullback, No. 32. They met through the Mobile County youth football scene at Navco Park, and together they overpowered opponents on their way to Hankins Middle School. Mosley was reserved and Hardy was outgoing, but on the field they were extensions of each other -- hit hard and fast.
"I felt like we were invincible," Mosley said.
Mosley said "see you" later that day, then went home. But he never said goodbye.
Two days later, Hardy was playing in a basketball tournament in Gulf Shores, Ala. Mosley was on the way to watch Hardy with his mom, Tracey, when Hardy's girlfriend called, hysterical. At first, Mosley thought the two broke up or something. But Hardy, at 13 years old, was in the hospital after collapsing at the free-throw line during the game. He had a heart-related complication that Rogers said was more a miraculous incident than a result of the athletic activity. The car ride was somber for Mosley, who looked straight and said nothing, concentrating on getting to the hospital.
"When you're that young, it's hard to gather your emotions," Tracey said. "He didn't know what to do, really."
Everyone was already gone, Mosley said. He got the news too late. He remembers walking into the hospital lobby, feeling completely alone. He knew.
Teenage friends come and go. Not this one.
"I always knew I would play football, but this changed things," Mosley said. "I was going to be the best I could be for him."
That was the only way he could show him how he really felt.
A friend's loyalty
Those who know Mosley say he's humble, quiet, never brags about his football. His father, Clinton, often asked C.J. the same question throughout his youth to lend perspective: "What's the worst that could happen?" Applying that advice was difficult after Hardy's death. Tracey said Mosley was silent around the house for a few days, then finally broke down at the funeral, where he was a pallbearer. Mosley called Rogers a few days later. He had to make his feelings known. The two talked about how Hardy was "an angel visiting for a short time," and the lives he affected.
|Hardy died after collapsing at the free-throw line during a basketball game. (Provided to CBSSports.com)|
"I told him thank you, and that I was proud of him," Rogers said. "But when I saw it actually happening, that meant the world to me. He really wants to keep Robert's spirit alive."
It was a sweet gesture to a grieving mother, but Mosley was offering more than sweetness.
He wanted to honor Robert's name with speed, tenacity and focus on the field. That's what football brothers should do, he thought. "That's what he would have wanted," Mosley said. "It was that simple."
It started with Mosley's yearning for big plays that led to wins. Give yourself a reason to celebrate Hardy's life on the field, Mosley thought.
When he returned an interception 97 yards for a touchdown in a high school game, he dropped to his knees for an end-zone prayer. When his mom asked him what he said, he told her he was talking to Robert. He told him he wants to make him proud.
Mosley finished as Theodore's all-time leading tackler with more than 500 stops, and each tackle for a loss prompted a palm to the sky.
He wore No. 32 in high school, in All-American games and now with Alabama, where Mosley is the Tide's leading tackler this season with 69. Nico Johnson and Trey Depriest are the team's second-leading tacklers with a distant 44 apiece.
Through nine games in 2012, Mosley has become a Swiss Army knife for undefeated Alabama, with 3.0 sacks, two interceptions, four pass deflections, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery on the year.
One SEC assistant coach calls him the most instinctive Tide linebacker of the Nick Saban era, which is high praise at a school that produced Rolando McClain and Don't'a Hightower in recent years.
Talent is a catalyst. Loyalty brings out his spirit on the field.
"He loves real hard," Tracey said. "If he's your friend, he's really your friend. You never know how deep a friendship goes. That's just his character."
Protecting a legacy
A few days after the national championship game, Mosley's parents organized a celebratory dinner for him at a banquet hall in the Mobile area. Tables were filled with "a mixture of soul food and party food," Rogers said. Friends and family told Mosley how proud they were.
Before they prayed over the meal, Mosley rose for a toast. He expressed his next goals: To win another national title and, if the NFL doesn't work out, to get his degree and provide for his family.
Then he paused. And he thanked Hardy for inspiring him.
"He was pretty emotional," Tracey said. "I think he realized how far he had come."
The NFL should be there. Mosley could be a first-round pick in the next two years.
He's not on this journey alone. The Rogers family -- including Hardy's brother, Mobile Christian running back Tyler Rogers -- has surprised Mosley at two games this year, including the home win over Mississippi State on Oct. 27. Mosley told Tyler, 17, that he's his big brother now. He's been to a few of Tyler's games, often sends him texts of encouragement and has had him over to stay in Tuscaloosa. Tyler is a shifty 5-foot-9 tailback who rushed for 350 yards and three touchdowns in a September win over Flomation High.
Mosley feels like a protector for Tyler and his own little brother, Jamey Mosley, who's also in high school. "It's just amazing to know him," Rogers said of Mosley. "He means so much to our family, and we're all family -- his and mine are together, always."
For all his motivation to play inspired football, to honor his friend, Mosley's ascension feels like it's happened so fast, he said. One moment he's making tackles in the backfield for Hankins Middle while Hardy's watching, the next he's a defensive cornerstone for a national power. His surroundings change, but he starts every day the same way.
"Thank God for another week of my life. Keep me able through His strength. Pray for my family, everybody I love. Robert, I'm going to make you proud."