NFL 2011: Misunderstood by many, Harrison is lauded by his teammates
Posted: Thursday, September 8, 2011 8:30 am | Updated: 9:39 am, Thu Sep 8, 2011.
By Mike Bires
PITTSBURGH — James Harrison knows there are people who don’t understand him. He knows there are people who don’t like him. He knows there are people who think he’s a dirty player. He knows there are people who don’t care if he’s fined $1 million this season.
But he also knows that none of those people can be found inside the Steelers’ locker room.
When he’s with teammates and coaches, Harrison is at peace with himself. Football is his safe haven.
He’s a menacing warrior on the field, especially on gameday when he plays outside linebacker with a tenacity matched by few in the NFL. But that’s all part of the makeup of one of the most astounding characters in Steelers’ history.
“James is just a big kid,” tackle Willie Colon said. “He’s sometimes misunderstood because he does speak his mind. He does say what he wants to say whether it’s politically correct or not. But he’s a great guy. I mess with him. I joke with him all the time.
“He’s brash, but at the same time, he always plays his tale off. He plays injured. He puts up big numbers. He’s a leader for that defense. Every time we need a big play, he comes up with one. People just have to give the man his just due. He’s come from the bottom and worked his way to the top, and now he’s succeeding.”
Harrison is an amazing success story. He’s a native of Akron, Ohio, and the youngest of 14 children in his family. The story goes that he ended up at Kent State rather than at a more prestigious college football factory because he was often in trouble in high school.
Undrafted out of college, he was cut so many times by the Steelers (and once by Baltimore) that it’s hard keeping track of how many times he actually was told to move on.
But Harrison never stopped dreaming of playing in the NFL, and his that came true in 2004 after Steelers linebacker Clark Haggans broke his hand while lifting weights just before training camp.
Realizing that the Steelers needed a linebacker in a hurry, Harrison’s agent Bill Parise quickly called to offer his client’s services. Harrison was signed and made the team. Then after three seasons as a backup and special teams whiz, Harrison got his big chance when Joey Porter wasn’t re-signed.
Since then, Harrison has played as well as than any linebacker in Steelers history over a four-year period, and that includes Hall of Famers Jack Lambert and Jack Ham.
He’s been to four straight Pro Bowls. He was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 when he set a Steelers’ single-season record with 16 sacks.
“The James Harrison story is a neat story ... it’s an American story,” linebackers coach Keith Butler said. “This is what this country is all about. You can start at any level of society and raise yourself up. That’s what James Harrison did. He did it through hard work. He did it by persevering every time he may have failed.”
It hasn’t always been a smooth ride.
There was his arrest in 2008 for hitting his girlfriend during a domestic quarrel. There were the four fines levied upon him last year, totaling $100,000, for hits on opposing players that the league office deemed excessively flagrant. And when just before training camp this summer, there were controversial comments made by Harrison in Men’s Journal magazine story titled “James Harrison: Confessions of an NFL Hitman.” In that story, Harrison took shots in several directions, aiming at NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews, NFL Network commentators Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison and even teammates Ben Roethlisberger and Rashard Mendenhall for their turnovers in the Super Bowl XLV loss to the Packers.
“My rep is James Harrison, mean son of a bitch who loves hitting the hell out of people,” Harrison said in Men’s Journal. “But up until last year, there was no word of me being dirty — till Roger Goodell, who’s a crook and a puppet, said I was the dirtiest player in the league. If that man was on fire and I had to piss to put him out, I wouldn’t do it. I hate him and will never respect him.”
At the start of training camp, Harrison immediately apologized to Goodell, who in turn didn’t punish Harrison for his remarks. Roethlisberger and Mendenhall said they didn’t need an apology.
“You know, James is off the wall sometimes,” wide receiver Hines Ward said. “But that’s just James being James. For everything he’s gone through in his life over the years, it’s hard to explain what he’s feeling. I don’t know what it’s like to travel the path he’s traveled to get to where he’s at today.
“I’m just happy and honored to be one of his teammates. He’s a great teammate.”
Butler and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau agree. They see his work ethic on the practice field and in the weight room. They appreciate his attention to detail in the meeting room where they say Harrison is a real student of the game.
And, of course, they enjoy watching him play on gameday.
“He’s crazy. He’s out of his mind. He needs therapy. He better check into a psych ward real fast,” second-year linebacker Stevenson Sylvester said, tongue-in-cheek, when asked about Harrison.
“Really, James Harrison is real cool. Seriously, he’s a great guy to look up to, especially for a young guy like me, especially when you want to check out how you need to be working and carry yourself as a professional. He’s one of the guys you need to look.”
Even a fifth-year pro like Colon looks up to Harrison.
“He’s one of those guys you always look at to see what he’s doing so you can up your game,” Colon said. “So I love the guy. I think he’s awesome.”
When asked about everything he’s accomplished so far, Harrison chose not to reflect.
“I’m not done yet,” he said. “Maybe I’ll look back at things once I’m done playing. But I’m not there yet. All I’m focusing on is this season, starting with Baltimore.”
As far as how he’ll approach this season in light of the fines he incurred last year, Harrison said he won’t change the way he plays.
“As far as I’m concerned, I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “I’m going to play the game the way I’ve always played.
“People want to look at four or five plays from the 100 or so tackles I made and say I’m a dirty player. I understand that there has to be rules. But I’m not a dirty player. So I’ll going to keep playing the way I’ve always played.”