CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Sometime Sunday morning, Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy will get up from his locker stall at Bank of America Stadium, stand in front of the bathroom mirror with his eye black and Beats by Dre, and begin his transformation.
"He'll go right into that bathroom, put his contacts in and his headphones on, and when he comes back out he's the Kraken," Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell said.
The Kraken is a mythological sea creature Hardy adopted as his alter-ego in 2011, during his second season with the Panthers. Or maybe it's not his alter-ego.
Hardy said he and the Kraken are one and the same.
"That is the real Greg Hardy. It's all me, man -- the fun, the seriousness," Hardy said last week. "There's a time to play and a time not to play. Just don't catch me on a bad day or you're going to get something that you're not going to like."
The Panthers (12-4) like what they've gotten from Hardy the past two seasons, particularly the past three weeks. With free agency on the horizon this offseason, Hardy has raised his game.
Hardy has bunched eight sacks over the past three games, including a franchise-record four in a 21-20 victory at Atlanta on Dec. 29. He finished the regular season with 15 sacks, tying the franchise record held by Kevin Greene.
Hardy said there's been no progress in the contract talks between him and the Panthers, who have 21 players eligible for free agency this year. That list doesn't include quarterback Cam Newton, who is the team's top offseason priority as he enters the fourth year of his rookie deal.
Hardy figures to play a prominent role in Sunday's NFC divisional-round game against San Francisco (13-4) at Bank of America Stadium, where he'll run out of the tunnel during introductions with a piece of black tape on the back of his jersey with "Kraken" written in silver marker.
Hardy will have his face painted with the eye black. He hasn't decided whether he'll wear the cat-eye contacts that sometimes are part of his Kraken getup.
Kraken or Hardy -- his teammates don't care what he calls himself, as long as he keeps producing.
"He might be a couple tacos short, if you know what I'm saying. But he believes it," Mitchell said. "He puts his headphones on and his contacts in and Greg's out the door, and now you get to see the Kraken. I believe in him."
Flipping the switch
Panthers coach Ron Rivera isn't always sure what to make of Hardy. Asked about Hardy after his four-sack game against the Falcons, Rivera smiled and took several seconds before he spoke.
The face paint and cat-eye contacts help Hardy prepare for the role, but Rivera said Hardy doesn't become the Kraken until something sets him off during a game -- usually an opposing offensive lineman.
"It's interesting because he can flip the switch on and off so quickly in terms of when he's on the field and comes to the sideline," Rivera said. "It's like last year watching us warm up for San Diego. Somebody said something and he came into the locker room and said, 'OK, it's time to go. Let's flip.' And he flipped the switch, put the war paint on and went out and had a big day against the Chargers."
The same thing happened against the Falcons two weeks ago, when Hardy engaged in what Rivera called "a little tussle match" with one of Atlanta's lineman.
"So he had to show him," Rivera said.
The question then posed to Rivera was: Shouldn't Hardy's switch be flipped all the time?
"Nah," Rivera said. "Because then he'd get tired too fast."
Hardy was a three-time All-American at Mississippi -- including freshman All-American honors in 2006 -- and was athletic enough to line up at wide receiver and also play a season of basketball for the Rebels.
Yet, he fell to the sixth round in the 2010 draft before the Panthers took him. Hardy's supposed lackadaisical attitude and concerns about his character and work ethic are what caused his draft stock to drop.
In his first NFL game in the new Meadowlands against the Giants, Hardy blocked a punt that went out of the end zone for a safety and forced a fumble that the Panthers recovered.
Hardy's 2011 season was nearly derailed by a motorcycle wreck in Tennessee that left him with a concussion and severe abrasions on his arm, leg and foot. Hardy said his head slammed into the back of a truck on Interstate 40 near Knoxville, causing his helmet to split.
"It was bad. I don't know how I didn't break anything. ... I was knocked out," Hardy said. "I was fully padded. That's what saved my life."
'I don't think it's an act'
Hardy, 6-4 and 290 pounds, finished with four sacks in 2011 during his first season as a starter. But he broke through for 11 last season, and the legend of the Kraken began to take off.
Defensive end Charles Johnson has played with Hardy for four seasons and has a locker a couple of stalls down from Hardy's.
As for Hardy's split personality, Johnson said: "I don't think that's an act. From what I know, he thinks that's the real deal."
"That's his character," Johnson added. "If he can play like he always plays and call himself the Kraken, hey, be my guest."
Teammates say Hardy is smarter than people realize. Hardy made the honor roll one semester at Ole Miss and plans to return for his art degree.
But Hardy is more willing to talk about the Kraken than Hardy. His family -- mother, father and two of his three younger siblings -- moved from Memphis to Charlotte a couple of years ago.
Hardy's dad, Greg Sr., also played at Ole Miss and is the football coach at Alexander Graham Middle near SouthPark. His mom, Lan, is a former police detective in Memphis.
Hardy will occasionally pop into the gym when his 11-year-old brother, Jacobi, has a basketball game.
But Hardy has repeatedly declined to talk about his family, saying he keeps football and family separate.
Hardy did say he acts the same around his family as he does his teammates.
"Same Kraken, the same Greg," Hardy said. "You make me mad, I'm going to be (really mad). If you make me happy, I'm going to make you smile.
"If you're on the football field, I'm probably going to try to hurt you. It's just how I play. Nothing more, nothing less. I wear it all on my sleeve. I say whatever I feel like saying."
Hardy's antagonist Sunday will be 49ers left tackle Joe Staley. The Pro Bowler held Hardy without a sack in the teams' Nov. 10 game, although Hardy had a tackle for loss and got pressure that led to an early sack of Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Staley said he enjoyed playing against the fiery Hardy.
"He's a little wild and it's fun to go against a guy like that. It brings out the competitive side of everybody," Staley said. "He's a big guy with tremendous athleticism. You don't see that a lot."
Hardy drew a big crowd of reporters during Friday's open locker room period, as he always does. Hardy's media sessions can be bizarre and funny, but are seldom boring.
The topical questions were about Hardy's recent sack rampage and his (maybe) pending free agency.
"Yeah, I'm dominating on a certain level, a certain plane. But I'm not completely 100 percent the best yet. I'm not the best that ever lived and played the game," Hardy said. "Just get better -- and that's all it's been since two days before camp all the way up to the Atlanta game.
"They're talking about four sacks (against the Falcons) and I'm talking about, man, I should have had five. I don't feel like I went hard enough on two or three plays."
Hardy has missed his share of practices for various ailments. But when he's there, he's not taking plays off, according to Panthers defensive tackle Dwan Edwards.
"His work on the practice field goes way beyond what I've seen a lot of people put out there. It's pretty fun to watch actually, the kind of effort he gives at practice," said Edwards, a 10-year veteran. "He's playing his (butt) off in practice and it's shown up in games. I'm happy for the guy."
Hardy, 25, twice in recent weeks has said he'd be willing to take a hometown discount from the Panthers. But he made it clear Friday he's expecting to land a deal commensurate with his status as one of the best young pass-rushers in the league.
The Panthers could use the franchise tag on Hardy to keep him under contract for at least another year, for about $12 million.
Someone asked Hardy if he should be the highest-paid defensive end.
"I should be paid because I'm Greg Hardy," he said. "That's just the way I was born. I'm sorry. I play football. Somebody's got to put a price tag on it and we'll go from there."
Staff writer Rick Bonnell contributed to this report.
(c)2014 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)
Visit The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.) at www.charlotteobserver.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services