Rodney Harrison(notes) was once my favorite player in the National Football League. Even when the Chargers were at their worst, through the era of Ryan Leaf, Craig Whelihan, and Kevin Gilbride, Harrison wasn't only a bright spot on the team, he was something that was still fun to watch.
Even if the Chargers were on their way to 1-15 and everyone else on the team looked like they wanted to go home and cry, Harrison still showed up and still brought the pain.
His passion for the game was always evident in his play. He played through the whistle -- every whistle, whether it was in the first quarter of a playoff game, or in the final seconds of a 42-10 loss.
That was a big, big thing for me. Try to imagine being a fan of a 1-15 team, and still watching every minute of every game. The entire franchise is miserable from top to bottom. Not only is your young "star" quarterback terrible, but the front office hates him and the feeling is mutual. The whole thing is poisonous and soul-crushing. But imagine, too, that there were one or two players on that team you could enjoy and take pride in. You'd develop a pretty strong attachment to those guys for helping you power through an absolutely miserable season.
Outside of his passion and effort, though, Harrison also viewed the league's official rules as loose guidelines, and developed a knack for hitting opponents at the exact point between "acceptable" and "late." He made the ref make a decision on every single play. He believed in violence when there was no need for it. He was football's Bob Probert. When your team has nothing else going for it, it's hard not to love.
But over time, my appreciation for Harrison faded. The tough guy act doesn't play as well when he's also getting beaten with the deep ball, as Harrison was towards the end of his time in San Diego. I matured a bit myself and started becoming a little more concerned about player safety in the NFL, and I lost my taste for the "to hell with the rulebook" attitude. Then the Chargers released him, the Patriots resurrected his career, and I was closer to loathing Rodney than loving him.
This morning, he announced his retirement from the NFL, and now I've got to figure out where Rodney Harrison fits in my football memory bank. I don't know if he belongs on the good side or the bad side.
One quote at his retirement press conference sort of sums up the best and the worst of the guy.
“People have called me a dirty player. I’m a very passionate player,” Harrison said. “I also understand that this is not volleyball. This is a very violent, physical game, and if you hit someone in the mouth, they’re not going to be your friend. That’s what the game of football is.”
Yes, you were a passionate player. Yes, it's a violent and physical game. Yes, you excelled at that aspect of it.
But if someone out there wasn't Harrison's friend, it wasn't because he hit them in the mouth. It was because he hit them in the mouth after the whistle and for reasons that had absolutely nothing with making a football play.
Just "playing with passion" doesn't a guy voted as the dirtiest player in the league on three separate occasions. "Playing with passion" doesn't get you more than $200,000 in career fines. No, you don't accomplish those things unless you're dirty. Filthy, pig-pen dirty.
It would all be easier to swallow if he'd just admit he was a dirty player, or even come close to it. Say something like, "Yeah, I stretched the rules a little bit," or "Yes, sometimes I wanted to punish guys just for the hell of it." Saying, "Oh, I'm not a dirty player, I'm just a passionate player" is a complete shirking of responsibility, as well as a giant heap of bull snot.
It makes it harder to reconcile with the fact that he was also a Hall of Fame caliber player. I don't believe he'll get in because most of his career was spent in San Diego, on mostly average-to-below-average teams, in the shadow of Junior Seau. The suspension for the use of HGH won't help, either. Not a lot of safeties make the Hall to begin with, but in his prime, Harrison was every bit as much of a gamechanger as Ronnie Lott.
He'll move into the NBC's broadcast studio now, where I suspect that people will love him. He's clever, he's witty, and he'll add a "this game is getting too soft!" voice to the mix, an attitude I suspect Rodney would still have if defensive players were allowed to bring baseball bats and machetes onto the field with them. People will eat it up.
His passion for the game will show through his commentary just as it showed through his play on the field. In the end, I'll probably appreciate that more than I didn't appreciate the rulebreaking and unnecessary violence.