From the top: Hardwick playing at Essendon in 1995; his then coach Kevin Sheedy in 1996; Hardwick playing with Port in 2002; Mark Williams and Hardwick celebrate a semi-final win over Essendon in 2003; Hardwick coaching Richmond against St Kilda this year. Photos: Getty Images, Vince Caligiuri, Bryan Charlton and Sebastian Costanzo
DAMIEN Hardwick's playing journey to the AFL's 200 club came under the senior tutelage of just two men - Kevin Sheedy and Mark Williams. While Sheedy at Essendon would never have believed his ruthless defender would finish up coaching, Hardwick's transformation at Port Adelaide convinced Williams he was made for the job.
And today, for the first time, Hardwick will take on his two old mentors combined as their young Giants challenge Richmond at Skoda Stadium. The paths of the three men have crossed many times, but the sliding doors that have led them to this round 12 clash could have been so very different.
Despite their friendship and mutual admiration, Hardwick has twice rejected working under Williams as an assistant coach. Immediately after Port Adelaide's 2004 premiership, Hardwick retired at the age of 32 and knocked back an opportunity to remain at the Power, instead joining another Williams assistant, Alastair Clarkson, in his first season at Hawthorn.
''He was a major contributor to the way we won the premiership and the way we wanted the team to play,'' Williams told The Saturday Age. ''We recruited him from Essendon to play a specific role and he delivered in spades. We probably took him away from being a bit-player in the Bombers' flag [in 2000] to a major contributor in ours. He gave the players around him certainty, players like Josh Carr and Byron Pickett. There was no nonsense when he was around. No backward steps.
''At the end of 2004, I wanted Damien to stay and be an assistant coach, but I think his family wanted to go back to Melbourne. In fact, Damien came up with the tag: 'Happy wife, happy life.' Anyone who knows him knows who runs the show in that house, and you can put that in and everyone will laugh in agreement.''
Hardwick responded with a laugh: ''He [Williams] can talk! He's right, though. I'm certainly not the boss in my house.''
Williams and Hardwick came together again at the end of 2009. Port Adelaide's long-time coach had been recontracted but his relationship with the club was deteriorating and both coach and club believed Hardwick returning as part of a potential succession plan could invigorate both parties.
Hardwick flew to Adelaide to meet Williams, former Port chief executive Mark Haysman and football boss Peter Rohde, but was already heavily involved in the process for the Richmond position and took the senior job when it was offered.
''I've got no doubt our paths will cross again at some stage,'' said Hardwick of Williams. ''I've always loved teaching kids and that's probably the thing I learnt from 'Choco' [Williams]. I'll always maintain he was one of the best teachers I ever had.''
Hardwick's old teammate Matthew Lloyd has often commented that Hardwick was the last person of those he respected as a player who would turn to coaching. Lloyd joked on 3AW recently that Hardwick hated warm-ups and his idea of warming down after training was to turn on the seat warmer in his car on the drive home. Hardwick was also notorious in his disdain for meetings.
That observation was put to Kevin Sheedy this week and Sheedy - under whom Hardwick earned not only a premiership but All-Australian honours that year and a best-and-fairest two seasons earlier - responded with a high-five in agreement.
Agreeing that his attitude had changed by the time he moved to Port, Hardwick commented on Lloyd's observation. ''The meetings are quicker now and more to the point and more meaningful. I also think having kids changed me and I became a father quite young - at 24.
''I've been really privileged to be part of two very, very good sides, but when I came to Port Adelaide I couldn't believe how advanced they were in areas like IT, which I love. We probably went from Essendon which was, well, OK in that area, to Port which was cutting edge.''
Sheedy and Hardwick were both running late for Wednesday night's Hall of Fame induction ceremony and found themselves walking in together. The two men enjoyed catching up, although Sheedy spent much of the conversation attempting to extract details of Richmond's team for today's game.
It is a fascinating exercise to consider what may have happened if Hardwick had replaced Sheedy at Essendon at the end of 2007, as he so very nearly did. In fact the two men both made it to the final stage of the Melbourne senior coaching process that year - the job going to another Williams and Sheedy protege, Dean Bailey. And Sheedy famously put up his hand for the Richmond position two years later after Terry Wallace was removed.
It is a matter of public record that Hardwick's computer malfunction helped cost him the Essendon job Sheedy had held for 27 years. But it is also true that he was nervous, did not sufficiently engage his interviewers and did not satisfy the Bombers' board with some of his answers.
Hardwick was also up against it from the start, pitched against Bendigo Bombers coach Matthew Knights, who had won the admiration of then chief executive Peter Jackson.
Hardwick's admirers at Hawthorn - by the end of 2007 he had worked under Clarkson for three years - were surprised by his treatment at Essendon and stunned that a board would not send him away and instruct him to begin again after his technology had failed him. But Hardwick would say now that he was perhaps not quite ready for senior coaching.
Either way, it is an intriguing question whether James Hird would be coaching the club now had Hardwick and not Knights won the job. Both Sheedy and Hardwick made it through the first stage of the Melbourne coaching interviews that year. Sheedy was burnt out, tired and had little knowledge of the Demons' side and seemed unprepared. Hardwick was raw and perhaps too Hawthorn-centric in his coaching assessment. And yet some who took part in the Demons' search for Neale Daniher's replacement felt he should have been more strongly considered for the job as a young, developing coach who could have gone all the way with a young, developing team.
While not as educated where Melbourne the club, its culture and therefore the team was concerned, Hardwick was university educated and came across as intelligent - more sincere and less of a salesman. In terms of his knowledge of the team he wanted to coach, this was a failing Hardwick would more than rectify in interviews with Richmond two years later.
Richmond respected Sheedy enough to speak to him about the coaching position in 2009 - he held a meeting with football chief Craig Cameron - but as far as the Tigers and Sheedy coaching them was concerned, that ship had already sailed. Sheedy withdrew his application, reading the play.
Despite Williams' thoughts about the pull of family back to Melbourne, Hardwick says it was also about wanting to climb on board with his great friend Clarkson at Hawthorn.
Williams lost so many staff after the 2004 premiership that he barely had time to smell the roses of his club's first AFL flag and Hardwick, too, regrets that the demands of his life now afford him little opportunity to reunite with both his 2000 and 2004 premiership sides.
But Williams still takes great pride in the fact that four of his Port Adelaide men - Hardwick, Brendon Lade, Blair Hartley and Matt Hornsby, are working off the field to revive Richmond.
Hardwick mused that Sheedy and Williams were similar in many ways. He singled out Sheedy for his consistency in ''always making you feel special and always knowing about your family and understanding your background.
''He was always trying to get the best out of me.
''They are two great examples of the human side of football and the wonderful people you can meet.''