Looking Back: Jeremy Tardiff 'tremendous' in football and baseball

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Jeremy Tardiff with his family. Tardiff won the 1994 Fitzpatrick Trophy and then signed a professional baseball contract with the Boston Red Sox. (Brewster Burns photo)

Rarely during his high school football career was Jeremy Tardiff ever stopped in his tracks.

Nowadays, the former award-winning and record-setting Oxford Hills running back gets stopped by both locals and strangers when he’s out of town working on jobsites building concrete foundations, and they bring up those glory days that are now nearly a quarter-century gone by.

“I meet people all the time that say they came and watched me, and say they never seen anybody play like that before,” Tardiff said. “I’m close to my town where I grew up in, so I see all those people all the time anyway. But I do see a lot of people out of town, Lewiston/Auburn and other places, that say they came and watched my games and they couldn’t believe it.”

Before gridiron greatness

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While Tardiff gets stopped in the street primarily because of his prowess on the football field, his athletic career actually started on the baseball diamond, around the time he was four years old, Tardiff estimates. Baseball was the only sport he played as part of an organized team growing up, but would play other sports recreationally, including football with the neighborhood kids.

It wasn’t until he was in the eighth grade that someone asked Tardiff, who by that time had turned into a mountain of a young man, if he would try out of the middle school football team.

Tardiff said he went home and inquired with has father, who thought football would be a great idea.

The future skill-position star started his career as a two-way tackle, put there due to his size. When he got to high school, the freshmen team coach moved him to the backfield.

“I knew he could run, so I don’t want to take full credit, but he would have ended up at running back no matter what, but that’s kind of where I put him from day one,” said Mike Loveless, who first met Tardiff as a 15-year-old playing Babe Ruth All-Stars.

Nate Danforth, a former teammate and Tardiff’s friend ever since, remembers Tardiff’s last day as a lineman.

“I was a fast kid in high school, and also sprinted on the track team. The linemen that day started our preseason testing with the 40-yard dash and we did it on the track,” Danforth, now an Oxford Hills assistant coach, said. “At this point, I did not know Jeremy, and as I stepped to the start line he stepped in beside me. We were timed in pairs, and Ted Moccia, our head football coach, had Jeremy’s lane. As we flew down the track, Jeremy beat me by at least five yards, and I had run my fastest 40 ever.

“I noticed a brief discussion by the coaches, and that was the last time Jeremy Tardiff played offensive line. That day we all realized Jeremy was going to be special, especially me as I was the first one to chase and not catch the best high school football player to ever play the game.”

Special on special teams

While Tardiff’s speed made him stand out early on, it didn’t mean a starring role just yet. He had to earn his way into the Vikings’ starting backfield, and he did that through his play on special teams.

“When he was a sophomore he returned kickoffs for the varsity — was so talented at it,” Moccia said. “I remember we were in an all-conference selection (meeting), and one of the other coaches said, ‘I don’t know the kid’s name, he’s a sophomore from Oxford Hills, he should be the guy who gets first-team kickoff return, because he’s that talented.’ So it was clear that his talent was obvious from other people, it wasn’t just us.”

Tardiff estimated he ran nine kickoffs back for touchdowns his sophomore year, and had two more called back because of penalties. Loveless remembered a freshmen game against Waterville when Tardiff returned three or four kickoffs in that game alone.

Star of the show

By the time Tardiff was a senior in 1994, a star was born. He set a state single-season rushing record with 2,448 yards, along with 30 touchdowns. Not only that, Tardiff said, but the Vikings improved from one win during his junior season to one win away from the state championship game.

“His senior year was a special year,” Moccia said.

One of Moccia’s former assistant coaches, Jeff Ramich, remembers Tardiff running for more than 300 yards in a game twice that season. Having a good team that year helped, but so did Tardiff’s natural ability.

“We were supposed to run toss right, but for whatever reason Jeremy went left and (quarterback) Kevin Thurston had to shove the ball to his left after turning to the right, and Jeremy catching it right in front of the (defensive end) and he stiff armed him and turned the corner and ran it in untouched for about a 60-yard TD run,” Ramich said. “Coach Moccia looked at me and said, ‘We need to put that play in the playbook.'”

There were memorable moments on the other side of the ball, as well.

“I remember we were playing Cony … they fumbled the ball, and he was playing linebacker and he did a scoop-and-score (and) broke three or four tackles. It just couldn’t have worked out any better than he did,” Moccia said. “Everybody talks about his offensive prowess and what he could do. He was pretty nasty on defense. We would blitz him, and it was just a major collision wherever he got.”

Moccia said Tardiff was a “human highlight reel.”

The highlights, and the statistics, were enough to win Tardiff the 1994 Fitzpatrick Trophy, which is awarded to the best senior football player in Maine.

Spring in his step

Tardiff’s special senior season trickled into the spring, and to baseball. While there was no one to hit — at least not intentionally — Tardiff’s speed once again made him stand out.

He had it in his arm, as well as his legs.

Loveless remembered Tardiff throwing a no-hitter against Lawrence (“He walked about seven guys, and he might have hit one or two, but it was a no-hitter,” Loveless said) and gunning down a runner against Mt. Ararat who “took a wide turn on a single to center field, and just kind of took his time getting back to first base. And before he knew it, the ball was there and Jeremy had thrown him out.”

Tardiff started to turn heads that spring, and not just from opponents and fans, but next-level personnel.

“A scout from the Pittsburgh Pirates showed up one day,” Loveless said. “After practice, he had Jeremy hit some balls with a wooden bat, and he did pretty well. And then he timed him from … first to second. And the first reaction he got when he looked at his stopwatch was he kind of shook it, almost like it was broken. And he had him do it again, but it was the same time, and it was pretty, pretty fast. He was impressed.”

Tardiff said he was told the Pirates wanted to draft him that year, but the draft came and went without a call. He was about to turn back to football, with plans to gain a few needed credits at Andover College in order to be eligible to play college football, but a tryout for the Red Sox came up.

“So we went up to Augusta and went to one of them clinics, and after halfway through the guy’s like, ‘Do you want to stay after?'” Tardiff said. “Actually, it was after I ran. I ran like 120 feet in 6.8 seconds with hiking boots on. I had forgotten my baseball cleats. He said, ‘Do you want to stay after and hit some balls?’ So they had me hit off one of the pitchers. And next thing you know he’s asking me to go sign a contract at Day’s Inn in Westbrook.”

Pros and cons

Tardiff did sign a contract with the Red Sox, who shipped him down to spring training in Florida. He eventually made his way to the Red Sox’ Gulf Coast League rookie team, where, according to Baseball-Reference, he appeared in 10 games, recording three hits (single, triple home run), and played nine games in left field.

Tardiff called his first year “good.” His second year, though, things went bad.

After just four games, and one hit, Tardiff complained of pain in his stomach. A trainer figured it was just a pulled abdominal muscle, but Tardiff believed otherwise, saying he was “pretty much hunched over,” and asked for a plane ticket home.

Upon arrival back to Maine, Tardiff’s mother brought him straight to the hospital, and one push on his stomach from a doctor later, he was brought in for emergency surgery to take care of a cyst that had burst.

Once he recovered, Tardiff was sent to play with the Bangor Blue Ox of the Northeast League. That was short-lived, however, with the team folding after Tardiff’s lone season. Then the Red Sox notified Tardiff that he had been released.

“It was hurtful,” Tardiff said. “It was a hard time. But I was still young, and still playing, and there was another place for me to go.”

Padded landing

The other place for Tardiff to go was back to football. A former friendly rival from his high-school days brought up the Southern Maine Raging Bulls semi-pro team to Tardiff, who jumped at the opportunity.

It didn’t take long for Tardiff to fit in, and he spent the next decade playing for the franchise.

“Jeremy was a big pick up for us. He is the type of talent that changes things immediately,” said Ronnie Bates, who played with and then coached Tardiff with the Raging Bulls. “Jeremy was an impact player on offense and special teams. There were times we utilized him on defense and he had no problem in laying the wood.”

Tardiff suffered a torn patella tendon during his Raging Bulls career, but recovered and played for a few more years. By the end of his playing days he had transitioned to solely defense.

Not done playing

Even after Tardiff stopped playing for the Raging Bulls, he didn’t stop playing sports. He still plays co-ed softball and flag football. He also transitioned to coaching. He coaches his son, 12-year-old Hunter, in both baseball and football.

“Now that he’s playing, yeah, I’ve slowed down a lot, and it’s pretty enjoyable to watch him,” Tardiff said. “I believe he’ll be as good as me, if not better.”

That’s high praise from someone who is still talked about as one of — if not the best — high school football players the state has ever seen.

“I guess the biggest compliment I could give Jeremy is that he was probably more talented than Joe Dudek was,” said Moccia, referring to his former Plymouth State teammate and 1985 Heisman Trophy contender.

“Just a tremendous ability.”

Former Oxford Hills football standout Jeremy Tardiff with his son Hunter. Tardiff won the 1994 Fitzpatrick Trophy, helping the Vikings advance within one game of the state championship game. (Brewster Burns photo)

Jeremy Tardiff spent a decade playing for Southern Maine Raging Bulls semi-pro football team. (Portland Press Herald file photo)

Jeremy Tardiff, of Oxford Hills, runs the ball against Waterville. (Submitted photo)

Jeremy Tardiff, of Oxford Hills, runs behind the blocking of Wayne Millett against Waterville. (Submitted photo)

Jeremy Tardiff, of Oxford Hills, looks for open field against Waterville. (Submitted photo)

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