New Orleans Saints defensive back Justin Hardee (34) and New Orleans Saints free safety Marcus Williams (43) signal no catch after Hardee defended a pass in the end zone intended for Washington Redskins wide receiver Maurice Harris (13) during the second half Monday, Oct. 8, 2018, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. The Saints won 43-19.

Justin Hardee hadn't intercepted a pass since his senior year at Glenville High School in Cleveland.

So to finally get another one, seven years later, on such a grand stage — the Saints' 43-19 Monday night victory over the Washington Redskins — is a moment Hardee won't ever forget.

Hardee stepped in front of an Alex Smith third-quarter pass intended for Maurice Harris and and returned it 77 yards to the 4-yard line, setting up a Saints touchdown.

"It was surreal," Hardee said. "I didn't think it was real. I thank God for every opportunity and blessing he sends my way."

For the second-year cornerback, this opportunity was a first. He had never taken a snap at cornerback in a regular-season game. He's made his mark more as a special-teams player but was forced into action when cornerback Marshon Lattimore left the game with a concussion in the first quarter.

"You can't let the moment be too big for you," Hardee said. "I didn't expect to play on defense this game and was all in on special teams. But I'm in the DB meetings and locked in, because I know I'm the next man up. I got thrown into the fire and I'm just glad I was able to be accountable to my team and make a play."

Hardee finished the game with four tackles, including a tackle for loss, and broke up two passes to go along with his first career interception.

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He credits Lattimore, who also attended Glenville High, for helping prepare him for moments like this one. Lattimore has been his mentor and his toughest critic.

"People don't even know how hard Marshon was on me," Hardee said. "Sometimes I wanted to cuss him out. He would just let me know that ain't gon' cut it here. He never sugar coats anything or lies to me."

So to see his good friend Lattimore go down with an injury wasn't easy. Ted Ginn Jr., the other Glenville high alum on the Saints roster, wasn't there either. He was inactive for the game because of a knee injury.

"I know those two are probably more happy for me than anybody," Hardee said. Those are my brothers. ... I didn't put any pressure on myself. I said I'm going to go out there and play. My first play, I missed a tackle, and everybody was getting frustrated. But I had confidence in myself and my teammates had confidence in me."

It's that confidence that has helped Hardee get this far in the first place. He went undrafted out of Illinois, where he played as a receiver. The Saints converted him to defensive back, the position he was originally recruited to play in college. But he's excelled mostly on special teams.

"He can run, it's important to him, he’s smart and he's physical," Sean Payton said about Hardee last week. "His background, having played corner, I think helps him and it stood out to us when we saw him initially on film. But I think it's the combination of his skill set, his talent, but also his makeup and his ability to tackle.”

Hardee came just 4 yards short of getting his second NFL touchdown.

His first one came last year as a rookie when he blocked a punt and scooped it up for a score in a home victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Which play does he think was better?

"I would say they were similar because nobody expected anything," Hardee said. "I didn't either. It was just a play of me lining up and playing hard. I'm going to go hard every play, regardless."

Hardee still remembers the exact date of that touchdown a year ago.

"Nov. 5, 2017, " he said. "Now I've got to remember this one."

He glanced at his watch to check Monday's date.

"10-8-18. Man, that's a blessing."

Follow Rod Walker on Twitter, @rwalkeradvocate.