PITTSBURGH – All those years, whether Joey Porter was scowling at the 50-yard line or posing on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the "Most Feared Player in the NFL," some players on the Pittsburgh Steelers say they knew better.
With Porter gone, some will now admit that he may not have been the most feared player in his own locker room. Porter's fellow outside linebacker, James Harrison – he was the one who scared people.
"He's the wrong guy to (mess) with," said linebacker James Farrior, whose Steelers meet the Jacksonville Jaguars in Saturday's AFC wild-card game. "He's quiet, but he has such a crazy, aggressive attitude. If you leave him alone and don't bother him, he won't bother you. But if you start something, it's going to get ugly."
"Like a bee's nest," a visitor suggested to Farrior.
"A lot worse," he said with a chuckle.
What Farrior has witnessed for years, the NFL at large has finally gotten acquainted with this season. Not only has Harrison been one of the league's fearless hitters at outside linebacker, he's actually been an upgrade over Porter, who was cut by the Steelers in the offseason. At no point was that more apparent than Nov. 5 at Heinz Field, when Harrison used the stage of Monday Night Football to incinerate the Baltimore Ravens. By the end of the night, he had dominated the game defensively – in a fashion reminiscent of Lawrence Taylor – racking up 3½ sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and an interception in Pittsburgh's 38-7 win.
Even now, his teammates talk about the performance with stars in their eyes. A lasting admiration that might be one of the reasons Harrison surprisingly edged quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for team MVP. And after leading the Steelers in tackles (98), sacks (8½) and forced fumbles (7), that respect extended beyond the Pittsburgh locker room. Snubbed by fans in Pro Bowl voting, the ballots of the league's coaches and players propelled him to a starting spot last month – perhaps his final stamp of approval as an NFL game-changer. All of this for a player who went undrafted in 2002, played in NFL Europe and got cut four times before finally sticking on Pittsburgh's roster in 2004.
"Honestly, nothing against Joey Porter, but we thought we wouldn't lose very much with James starting," said linebackers coach Keith Butler, who coached Porter for four seasons. "Joey's a good football player. But so is James. We really felt he'd be as productive at that position as Joey, if not a little bit more, because of the fact that he's kind of a self-made man."
But that self-made man needed plenty of shaping along the way. Harrison's struggle early in his career was that of an intense and often frustrated player. One AFC scout said Harrison had the tag of being a difficult player when he came out of Kent State, a likely contributor to his falling out of the NFL draft despite leading the Mid-American Conference with 15 sacks in 2001.
He carried what some on the team called "a chip on his shoulder" straight into the NFL, getting cut by the Steelers three times in his first two seasons. His final release by Pittsburgh came in the middle of 2003, when he lost his spot on the practice squad after a long and strained relationship with former linebackers coach Mike Archer. After that, Harrison sat out the remainder of the season before being picked up by the Ravens and allocated to NFL Europe.
When Harrison finally joined Baltimore for offseason workouts prior to 2004, he clashed with teammates and coaches and was cut after only 10 days. It was then, for the first time, Harrison had to contemplate life after football.
"Getting cut four or five times and then the whole sit-around-and-do-nothing thing for almost a year – I did that," Harrison said. "I did the whole NFL Europe thing. I was undrafted. Any long shot you have getting into this league, I've been there.
"But the hardest point is finally past. I got to the point where I was sticking with a team – where I wasn't looking over my shoulder every five minutes to see if they were going to need my roster spot if some other guy at another position got hurt. For me, the hard part was keeping from getting cut. Now that's over. All it's about now is just reaching that high standard."
Surely, there were days when the Pittsburgh coaching staff wondered if that would ever happen. But an injury to Clark Haggans prompted the Steelers to give Harrison one more shot before the 2004 season. And it was his mastery of controlled chaos on special teams that initially kept him around, not to mention being in the sights of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
"I just remember that my first look at him, I didn't see anybody blocking him," LeBeau said. "It was just a matter of letting him get comfortable with all the other things you're going to ask him to do. I was confident that at the point of attack he was going to play good football. … All of our linebackers take time picking up the defense, and he was no different."
Added Butler, "He's so strong and gets so much leverage. … I like to call him Mike Tyson in pads. He's got such a powerful punch from six inches away. It reminds me of watching Mike Tyson in his day, when he could punch from six inches away and knock people out."
The "knockout" analogy is no accident. Harrison has been carrying that reputation since 2005, when he leveled a streaking fan in a road game against Cleveland. Farrior still shakes his head while recounting that infamous moment, when drunken Browns fan Nathan Mallett interrupted play in the fourth quarter during a 41-0 blowout win by the Steelers.
After weaving through a few players while running from security, Mallett made the mistake of getting close to Harrison on Pittsburgh's sideline. What happened next became fodder for YouTube videos that have been viewed over 150,000 times, and WWF-style pictures that have been wallpapered all over the internet.
"I watched the whole thing," Farrior said. "(Running back) Verron (Haynes) was running away from the fan, and the whole time, I could see James was sizing this guy up. I saw James looking at him and I just thought 'uh-oh, he's getting close to the wrong guy. Something is about to happen.'"
To the delight of the Steelers, who repeatedly watched the incident in the film room, it did. Harrison wrapped his arms around Mallett, flipped him upside down and hammered him into the ground, before sitting on his head as security rushed over.
"And this guy was a big guy," LeBeau said with a laugh. "James picked him up like a feather and that was the end of it."
Little did anyone know, that was just a preview of the havoc Harrison would be wreaking on the league only two seasons later.
"There was definitely a question mark at that spot when Joey left," Farrior said. "We knew James was a good player, but I don't know if anyone truly expected him to do this well. For him, to see what he came from, to get cut so many times and then do what he's done, it's something we all like to see as players. People need to see it. He's not just the guy who's replacing Joey. He's his own guy now."
All that's left now are the magazine covers.