James Harrison is one of the more unconventional players the Steelers ever had. He had one of the more unconventional careers of any player in league history. His story should have ended a decade ago, which is exactly why he became one of the best players in team history.
Originally published March 9, 2013
I remember my siblings and I teasing my dad when he was laughing and crying at the same time, listening to Terry Bradshaw's Hall of Fame presentation speech for longtime teammate Mike Webster.
As Bradshaw worked the crowd into a frenzy, he hit the emotional climax with, " "Oh, what I would give to put my hands under Mike Webster's butt one more time," after he pulled out a football from the podium.
I was old enough to understand Jerry Rice's significance on the history of the game, but too young to have experienced first-hand an era in which the Pittsburgh Steelers racked up championships like it was their divine mandate. People in my generation didn't live through a media age in which access to players was as exclusive as the ability it took to play in the league. In an age without Combines or approximately 2 million draft experts, there were stories about the personalities of the players as much as there was write-ups on their accomplishments.
Few were bigger than Bradshaw's, which wasn't fitting, on the surface, with the desires of my dad as far as that boyish athletic hero-worship most American males have. Webster was his guy. Speak softly and carry massive biceps. Dominate in the background.
He loved the speech all the same, Bradshaw's massive personality aside.
It was funny, I enjoyed it thoroughly. I never had that connection with Bradshaw, or Webster or any other Steel Curtain members. Mine was the mid-90s Blitzburgh Steelers. Cowher Power. The mammoth-sized Levon Kirkland and the scarily demonstrative Greg Lloyd. And my personal favorite, the do-it-all Carnell Lake.
I cheered the way most boys my age did at the heroes of the game. When players retired, I was more anxious to see the younger guys replace them. I remember (probably incorrectly) arguing with my dad (the biggest fan of centers the world has ever seen) about how the retirement of Dermontti Dawson is probably a good thing because of the salary cap, and how they could sign other younger players.
James Harrison joined the team in 2002. he bounced around, from Baltimore to Germany and back, and in 2004, because Clark Haggans was hurt, Harrison made the team. The loud and brash Joey Porter was the attitude of the team at that point, having fully replaced, and added much more to what Jason Gildon left behind.
Harrison always stood out when he got in there. He stood out because it never looked like he was standing up, and it never looked like he was moving backward. He was like an approaching wide-based glacier. Insanely strong, but sort of wayward and aimless.
By the time the loquacious Porter put a fist behind his words in pregame before what would be another whipping of the Browns, Harrison was known only to Steelers fans. In an era of Pittsburgh that no longer produced steel, James Harrison was a throwback; a tough, hard-nosed player who single-mindedly went about his job, both to the amusement of the crowd and the angst of his coaches.
Harrison hit the big time when a Cleveland Browns fan made the tragic mistake of wandering too closely to the man Bill Cowher labeled "Silverback."
A classic reaction in this video from the fan, too. He blamed his trespass on alcohol, and hating to lose to the Steelers.
Not only was an all-time NFL and YouTube classic born that day, so born was a legacy of unplanned but spectacular violence against the league and those in his way.
The years of coaching had gotten through to Harrison, and by 2006, it was obvious he would replace Porter the following season. Still not old by any means, there were some pangs of nostalgia as I hacked away on a tribute to J-Peezy, mostly focusing on the Joey Porter Rule (the rule implemented after his brawl with Green, that, ironically, might have prevented Harrison from having a chance to play in Porter's spot for a full game), his exposed abs in pregame...a lot of stuff in pregame.
A lot of talk. A fair amount of production and attitude.
It didn't take long into 2007 to see a guy who spoke very seldomly and was clearly the biggest badass on the field. Silverback turned into the more socially friendly and understandable "Deebo," from the hit movie "Friday," and Harrison went about his job like that unstoppable glacier plowing through land.
His performance in a midseason Monday Night win over Baltimore was perhaps the greatest individual defensive performance the league had seen in nearly two decades.
It was as close to a no-hitter as an NFL defensive player could get. The total damage, 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, 10 tackles and an interception. He may have taken a year or two off Ed Reed's career with one of those forced fumbles (on a punt return).
James Harrison, the opposite of Joey Porter, yet, so oddly fitting my dad's kind of hero, had become mine long before that Monday Night game in 2007. He was my player of ownership; the guy I wanted to watch in preseason games, and cheered whenever I saw him out there.
I wrote how it would be a travesty if he wasn't given the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2008. They wouldn't have dared deny his 16 sacks (team record) and seven forced fumbles that honor.
Polamalu makes the plays you knew he could make. James Harrison made the plays you never thought he could.
Harrison seemed more confused than even Kurt Warner did, on that goal line play at the end of the first half. The Steelers shifted to Harrison's left, showing a middle blitz. Harrison took a hard step inside, and dropped back, as if he thought about rushing, then bailed out into an overloaded zone. Warner saw the receiver break over the goal line, and if Harrison wasn't where he was, it would have been a touchdown.
Instead, it hit Harrison between the nine and the two. The immediate thought is the excitement of preventing points, which is obviously awesome. But over the next what seemed like four minutes, Harrison rumbled down the field, completely ignoring Ike Taylor's insistence he lateral him the ball.
He moved off Ryan Clark's block, and off LaMarr Woodley's. Everyone braced as he made it to the 20 yard line, where he would have to engage in a footrace with Larry Fitzgerald.
You wouldn't think James Harrison would have made the Steelers roster in 2004 anymore than you would have thought he would have made it to the goal line. And I'm firmly convinced if he did not get cut several times before, and learn to handle that adversity, Fitzgerald would have caught him at the 2-yard line, if not earlier.
Harrison did not become the Defensive Player of the Year because he was talented. It was because he wasn't, and he refused to accept it.
You never would have thought Mike Webster would have played in nine Pro Bowls, or snap a ball to Bradshaw "one more time" during his Hall of Fame introduction speech. That ball crossed the goal line, and Harrison laid on the ground, exhausted, only a bit more tired and breathless than every Steelers fan in the world who was shrieking in utter disbelief that the first undrafted player ever to be named Defensive Player of the year now made the longest interception return in Super Bowl history.
Nothing James Harrison ever did was conventional. He never looked athletic, particularly in pass coverage. He got lazy in technique, too, which caused more of the fines and reputation than anything else. It was perhaps the only thing lazy about him, though. Hours after that 100-yard run, and the celebration from the game, the Steelers arrived back in Pittsburgh. Some may have left with family and friends. Harrison went back to the weight room.
And he was pissed at his teammates for not being in there.
He would get severely criticized because he doubted the sincerity behind the White House's traditional hosting of league championship teams for lunch. He was called stupid, and ignorant, and incredulous holier-than-thous cast a shadow of superiority over him because he dared question the sanctity of attending an informal, staged grip-and-grin photo session with the President.
It does seem odd, but it's also so very James Harrison. Rumors have circulated he never really liked to fly, and that could have been part of his lack of desire to go. But at the same time, coming from the man who would rather have skipped the team's celebration parade to work out, and who, at one point in his career, said all he really does is workout and watch Cartoon Network with his child.
Does someone like that seem like someone who's going to be overly excited to tell people he shook the President's hand?
It absolutely seems weird to normal, conventional people. That's not James Harrison. He's not going to change for you or me or Mike Florio or Roger Goodell. Harrison is who he is.
During the Scapegoating years of the NFL, he'll likely be remembered for these things. No one called him dirty the night he beat the Baltimore Ravens on his own. He stayed a static character in Goodell's play of hypocritical dynamics.
Maybe down the line Harrison will be seen more as an extremely physical, violent player who was paid by the game - the same one that had no problem with how he hit people in Week 3 of the 2010 season - to be extremely physical and violent.
It seems less likely to me he'll be remembered for anything other than the fines by anyone outside SteelerNation. Even less likely is the Steelers finding another player like James Harrison. They've had a remarkable run of talent at that position, from Gildon to Porter to Harrison, and the size of shoes Jason Worilds must fill are beyond comprehension.
But what I take away more than anything else from James Harrison's career in Pittsburgh is that feeling of connection. I didn't feel the need to defend Ben Roethlisberger when accusations flew like bullets over his head. My blood pressure rises when someone refers to James Harrison as a thug. Some people aren't comfortable yet with the idea of an extremely large man of a different race speaking his mind, even if it is conventionally simple. Outside of that, Harrison played the game the only way he was ever taught; as if it would be his last. He played as if the Turk was not waiting for him off the field, but was the guy with the ball, or the player trying to block him.
A thug is a cheap, cheating and exploitative person who takes from and injures those weaker than him. James Harrison plays a game. He made mistakes, such as a domestic abuse charge, for which he owned up, apologized and served his time.
The Cleveland Browns are the only people crying about how Harrison hit them since then, and this is a fan base that roots against its rival more than it roots for its team.
That's not the feeling I've learned to understand about my dad that day in 1997, when you could see the old emotions and memories pour out of his eyes with that youthful laugh coming out of his chest. That connection to a player, and to an era, is undeniable.
My daughter came into this world at the end of the most recent Steelers dynasty. She may not ever have any kind of connection to the Steelers, and that's fine. While it's unlikely Harrison will ever be put into the Hall of Fame, the comfort I get is she won't see my tears as I think about James Harrison making it to the goal line against Arizona. She won't see my face light up when I talk excitedly about how Harrison beat the Ravens on his own.
Maybe she will, though. And when she does, maybe she laughs at me too. I'll laugh right back, because, as I know now, you really don't understand how you can laugh and cry at the same time, like I am, watching Harrison destroy the shoulder of a Browns fan, or watch him go through a gut-churning 100+ yard run that would highlight a career that, by all rights, should have been over five years earlier.
As painful as it is today, as old as I felt when I typed the words "Steelers release James Harrison" in the headline box of that story, I'm still laughing and crying at the same time. The fact it came today only means it came a decade after it would have for a normal person, and that's what makes James Harrison great.
Just don't tell my daughter I was crying. My dad didn't live that down for a really long time.
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