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Atlanta Dan
10-31-2010, 07:13 AM
Nice read in today's New York Times on James Harrison

“He’s got the heart of a lion,” said Keith Butler, the Steelers’ linebackers coach. “He’s Mike Tyson in pads. Without all the other Mike Tyson stuff.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/31/sports/football/31harrison.html?_r=1&ref=sports

mesaSteeler
10-31-2010, 07:28 AM
(For those of you who are not registered at the NY Times website. - mesa)

Aggressive Compulsive: Harrison Walks Alone
By JUDY BATTISTA

PITTSBURGH — He finally learned the complex Pittsburgh Steelers defense a few years ago with the help of two wristbands, base defenses scribbled on one, Dick LeBeau’s myriad blitzes on the other. But when the N.F.L. told linebacker James Harrison 12 days ago that the way he thought he had always tackled was wrong, he reacted not with the studied determination it took for him to make it to the league, but with the ferocity that has propelled him to the elite of defensive players.

“My first reaction was, ‘I quit,’ ” he said Wednesday, still not smiling.

It was unimaginable to the rest of the N.F.L. that Harrison, the 2008 defensive player of the year, could consider retiring so suddenly. He had become the face of the N.F.L.’s crackdown on hits to the head.

He was so angry about being fined $75,000 on Oct. 19 for his hit on Cleveland receiver Mohamed Massaquoi — the largest of three fines the league levied that day — that his teammate James Farrior said he tried to persuade Harrison to come to his house “before he did anything drastic.”

Harrison said: “I was just going through the play in my head and trying to figure out what I could have done different. And there was nothing I could think of.”

His remarks about his intention to hurt but not injure opponents, Harrison believes, affected the size of his fine. That reaction — the candor, the emotion, the aggression — provided a snapshot of his circuitous path to the N.F.L., where he has 39 ½ sacks over the past four seasons, including five this year.

Harrison has had brushes with the law: he shot a BB gun in a locker room as a high school senior, and he was arrested after a domestic dispute with the mother of his son after they reportedly argued about having the child baptized. He has struggled with coaches at almost every stop. In high school, he was suspended twice as a senior: once for challenging a coach to a fight, after which interest from college football powerhouses cooled.

At Kent State, where he enrolled without a scholarship, he clashed early with Coach Dean Pees, who is now the Baltimore Ravens’ linebackers coach. Pees demanded that Harrison improve his grades and attend a special study hall with coaches. When Harrison earned a 3.0 grade point average, he pointedly wrote it on every coach’s board.

Harrison eventually grew so close to Pees that he would show up unannounced at Pees’s home and ask his wife what was for dinner. But when Harrison signed with the Steelers in 2002 as an undrafted player, he was so clueless about the defense that he would stop in the middle of plays during practice, driving his coach, Bill Cowher, to distraction.

Mo Tipton, his high school coach, said: “James is not going to do what you want him to. James is going to do what he wants to.”

Farrior said Harrison plays angry, which could explain how someone listed at 6 feet — 3 or 4 inches shorter than the N.F.L. ideal for the position— could become such an explosive linebacker. But Harrison, 32, says he is not sure that anger is the right word. He has been playing the same way since he was about 10, when as one of 14 children in his Akron, Ohio, family, he was athletically gifted but not self-motivated.

“I play intense, I play focused,” Harrison said. “You can’t go out there happy-go-lucky; it’s not that type of sport. To some point, everyone plays with a little anger or chip on your shoulder. My dad told me when I started playing football in pee-wees, he came to practice and the coaches told him: ‘James don’t practice hard. He don’t play real hard.’ My dad told me from that day on, if you’re not going to go out there 100 miles per hour, then I’ll pull you off the team. Ever since then, I’ve been playing like this.”

That was just the first of the many perceived slights that fuel Harrison. He still talks of the multiple chances first- and second-round draft picks get, opportunities that he did not receive partly because of his height and his college credentials. That is a valuable voice to have in the locker room, the former Ravens coach Brian Billick said. But when the Ravens briefly had Harrison, he had no understanding of the defense.

“He was a wild buck trying to make the team,” Billick said. “He was more about the physical than the mental.”

The Ravens sent Harrison to N.F.L. Europe in 2003. He disliked being so far from home for the first time. Harrison decided that if he ever had another chance in the N.F.L., he would do everything he could to make it, and if he failed, he would get a job.

When Harrison returned the next year, the Steelers signed him again. The wristbands helped him to finally grasp the defense, and his height turned out to be his greatest edge.

The lowest man wins is a football truism, and Harrison can get lower than many opponents, so he is difficult to block. He is powerful (listed at 242 pounds) and fast (he ran the 100 meters in high school) with rare athletic skills. (He hurdled a Miami Dolphins player last week and can walk on his hands.)

Harrison is remarkably tough, Pees said, with no fear for his body and a willingness to play hurt, a necessity in the N.F.L. Harrison remains convinced that some opponents see a little guy across the line of scrimmage and imagine they will have an easy day. That, too, feeds his aggression.

“He’s got the heart of a lion,” said Keith Butler, the Steelers’ linebackers coach. “He’s Mike Tyson in pads. Without all the other Mike Tyson stuff.”

People infer the other Mike Tyson stuff from Harrison’s seemingly permanent scowl. But he has always been reserved like his father, a truck driver, his high school coaches said. Harrison answers texts with one word, yeah or no, or even one letter, k. In the cocoon of the locker room, he laughs with teammates, and when he is around his two children, he is playful and doting. In a quiet conversation, he is thoughtful and concise and polite.

But when cameras approach, Harrison’s smile disappears, his words are clipped and he becomes the agitated defender, sending the same intimidating message that his hits do.

Gary Hutt, an assistant at Coventry High School when he played there, said Harrison could count his friends on 10 fingers. He never wants to talk about or watch football, preferring to watch cartoons so he can escape the intensity of the game. Hutt has spent hours at Harrison’s house, sometimes with Harrison and his mother. But if Hutt arrives with anyone else, Harrison is so private that he will not let them in.

“It’s 100 percent put on,” Hutt said of Harrison’s persona. “It’s his defense mechanism. He doesn’t want a bunch of friends, he doesn’t want a bunch of people around. He’ll do anything for kids. But he doesn’t care so much for adults.”

That would seem like the ideal personality for football. Harrison is appealing his fine with the full support of the Steelers, and those who know him say he is troubled that he might gain a reputation as a dirty player because his hard hits are being dissected.

A few moments before he squares his shoulders, narrows his eyes and slips into his public persona, he smiles briefly. When he tried to explain himself two weeks ago, it made things worse. But Harrison is used to rebounding from setbacks, so he is trying again.

“I have a naturally mean look,” Harrison said. “That is what makes people think I’m a mean guy. If you ask anybody that really knows me, I’m not a crazy, wild guy who is running around tearing off people’s heads.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: October 30, 2010

An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of Dean Pees.