Steelers' Harrison became star the hard way
January 16, 2009
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Kurt Warner probably is the most famous example of a player coming from out of nowhere and making it big in the NFL. But James Harrison's story might be even more remarkable.
We all remember Warner, a former Arena League player, stocking grocery shelves at the local Hy-Vee in Iowa while dreaming of an NFL career. He stunned the football world by leading the Rams to the Super Bowl championship in his first year as a starter.
But Harrison's rise to stardom has been equally stunning, albeit a few more years in the making. The Steelers' 30-year-old linebacker took years to establish himself but is at the top of his game after plenty of frustration along the way.
Both players are still standing in the playoffs. Warner's Cardinals host the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game and Harrison's Steelers host the Ravens - who released him - in the AFC Championship Game.
Like Warner, Harrison was undrafted when he came out of Kent State in 2002. And like the quarterback, Harrison played in the minor leagues before becoming a star in the NFL. For Warner, it was the Arena League and the World League of American Football; for Harrison, it was the World League, an experience he uses to this day to stay motivated.
Harrison used to carry his Rhein Fire equipment bag to Steelers games until the thing fell apart. It was a constant reminder of what he never wanted to experience again.
The bag is gone, but motivation is not. Harrison, coming off a season in which he had a career-high 16 sacks and forced an NFL-best seven fumbles, was named The Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year, joining Steelers luminaries Joe Greene, Mel Blount, Jack Lambert and Rod Woodson. They're all in the Hall of Fame or headed there.
Harrison is the first undrafted free agent ever to win the honor. Typically, he deferred credit to his teammates.
"The defense is built to play with 11 guys, and if all 11 guys are on the same page, playing the same defense on the same play, there's nothing that can go wrong," Harrison said, "and that's just how we feel about it."
No need for humility here. Harrison earned the award with some of the most brilliant individual playmaking you will ever see from a linebacker. Whether rushing the passer, playing the run with his punishing tackles or dropping into coverage, Harrison is as complete a linebacker as you could ever want.
It therefore is astonishing to know that Harrison endured such difficult times earlier in his career. Consider:
He was released three times in 13 months by the Steelers before finally sticking in 2004.
In early 2004, he was assigned by the Ravens to the World League, and they barely used him in a spring minicamp before releasing him.
Once considered too small to be an effective linebacker, the 6-foot, 255-pound Harrison had to overcome doubts among the NFL's personnel community, which likes its linebackers at least 2 inches taller.
But once he filled in for Joey Porter on Nov. 14, 2004, when Porter was ejected for a pregame fight, Harrison's star began to rise. In that game against the Browns, he had six tackles, a sack, a quarterback hurry and a batted pass. All this against the team he rooted for while growing up in Akron, Ohio.
And now it is on to the Ravens, the team that gave up on him nearly five years ago.
"I was mad that they made me play in Europe and then had the audacity to tell me not to practice the first week [back]," Harrison said in December 2004 before facing the Ravens. "And then they had me learn only one defense the next week. I knew what was going on."
The bitterness has subsided, and Harrison insists there are no personal grudges. At least that's what he's saying publicly. But you know linebackers. They thrive on aggression, and you can rest assured that Harrison will take one look at the other sideline and flash back to his release.
In other words, you do not want to be in quarterback Joe Flacco's shoes for this one. At least not when Harrison is chasing him out of the pocket. Chances are the linebacker will be in Flacco's face at some point Sunday. Keep your head up, rookie.
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