This Saturday, “The Mayor” officially moved on from Miami, as Heath Harding signed a free agent deal with the Atlanta Falcons shortly after the end of the 2018 NFL Draft.

This weekend didn’t go the way many eight months ago thought it would — Harding was coming off a junior campaign in which the Dayton-native earned first team All-MAC honors, but after an injury-hampered 2017 season, the once sure-fire draft choice slipped out of the draft.

To the 32 teams that selected 256 players ahead of Harding: you missed out on a hard-nosed football player, a proven leader and a true professional. But, don’t take my word for it. Take a look at his five years here at Miami and you’ll have all the evidence you could ask for.

Heath Harding’s college football career did not look promising after much of his high school career. Though Harding accumulated 5,124 yards on the ground during his career at Dayton Christian High School, other top prospects reeled in the college offers while Harding had none until later on. Eventually though, colleges began to take notice of All-State performer.

“I was anti-Miami,” Harding said Saturday, as he reflected back on his decision to come play for the Red and White.

Rather than playing in Oxford, Harding was keen on playing for rival Ohio Bobcats. However, Miami ended up being the best choice for Harding, as he grew close to the other recruits in his class and took into account Miami’s proximity to his home during the sickness of both his mother and grandmother.

When Harding arrived on campus in 2013, the RedHawks’ program was at rock bottom. The ‘Hawks went 0-12 under then-head coach Don Treadwell who was replaced by current head coach Chuck Martin.

Despite the hardship the RedHawks faced, the Ohio Mr. Football nominee stuck with Miami after Treadwell’s removal — Harding says he and his teammates saw a competitive fire in Martin that instantly made the team become more competitive.

However, this would not be the first time Harding would face adversity. Following sophomore year, in which Harding battled to earn a starting spot, injury took away his third season as a RedHawk. But, in typical Heath Harding fashion, the corner took the MAC by storm in his Redshirt junior year, earning First Team All-MAC.

“I’ve lived a life of having to prove people wrong,” Harding said. “It’s only fitting that I have to continue doing that.”

That 2016 season was huge for Harding, not just for him personally, but also for the trajectory of the Miami football program. The ‘Hawks turned an 0-6 start to the season into a 6-6 finish and a bowl berth. Harding says the 2016 season brought Miami football back to relevance.

“I hope when they think of me and of my class, we’re known for bringing Miami football back,” Harding said.

Going into the 2017 campaign, there finally seemed to be buzz around the football program. It was also Harding’s last chance to play in Yager Stadium. As easy as it would have been to make the star corner’s final season on campus about himself, Harding used the opportunity to give himself back to Miami.

It started as early as June during first-year orientation sessions — each one ended with Heath Harding joining Athletics Community and Fan Engagement Director Lindsay Sparks promoting the upcoming season. Harding stayed after every session to sign autographs, take pictures and pass out schedules.

“It was my duty as the mayor to show people that we want your support,” Harding said. “I took time out of my summer. I didn’t have to, didn’t get paid for it, but it was something I wanted to have this last season be an awesome experience for the guys.”

According to Sparks, this was only the beginning of Harding’s investment in the student body. He was the face of the preseason when the program was looking up, momentum was going the way of the ‘Hawks and a winning season looked probable.

Then, the Cincinnati game happened.

In front of nearly 4,400 students, the RedHawks melted down, blowing a late lead. Suddenly, all the energy around the football program dissipated. But, Harding wasn’t going anywhere.

Not only was he the only player to address the media following the most crushing defeat the team had been a part of in years, he also asked Sparks to write an email to the entire student body thanking them for their support.

“He’s a fan’s player,” Sparks said. “He’s always available, never too busy.”

Throughout the rest of the season, Harding was a major part of enticing students to games, even coming up with the idea of giving away hand warmers for a Tuesday night game against Akron.

“I’m going to miss him a lot, but he’s not unique to Miami football. That’s our team,” Sparks said.

She gives credit to Coach Martin for bringing in players similar to Harding – all personable and willing to help however possible.

So now Harding’s time as a RedHawk is officially up. He is a professional, and fans will no longer see number 24 locking up opposing receivers, blowing up screen passes and bringing his physicality to MAC opponents.

Undoubtedly, “The Mayor” has left his mark on this community.

“Hopefully it is going to be a while before people forget about me here,” Harding said. “I hope when people look at the 24 jersey, it’s weird for them, like, ‘Dang that’s not Heath.’”

The days of Harding overcoming adversity are not over. Though many hoped and believed the former RedHawk would have heard his name called during the Draft this weekend, the selection process came and went. And, though the Falcons invited Harding to mini camp, he knows the fight is not over.

“I appreciate the Falcons taking a chance on me, but I’m also very motivated because I feel like I should have been drafted,” Harding said. “Obviously, it would be nice to be a first or second rounder, but it’s not my story and not what God has planned for me.”

This is not a new storyline — from an unorthodox recruiting process, to a coaching change, to injuries, to dealing with family illness, Heath Harding is more than comfortable being in the underdog role. And I would never dare count him out.

This man will pour his heart and soul into whichever team is smart enough to pick him up. Five years ago, we were lucky enough that Harding chose Miami over Ohio. Miami football has returned. There is a new buzz around the RedHawks that didn’t exist five years ago. And, a large part of this is due to Heath Harding.

So from all of Miami, let me say thank you, Heath. Keep on fighting and know that we are behind you through thick and thin, just like you were with us.

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