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Old 01-11-2009, 11:18 PM   #1
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Default Steelers' Harrison took circuitous route to stardom

Fire? James Harrison needed no flames on his helmet or uniform shoulders, no team name to validate what fuels him. He had it burning deep inside, long before his unforgettable, regrettable stint with the ill-fated NFL Europe and the Rhein Fire.

He had it in him long before the Baltimore Ravens exiled him to Germany, then exhibited the audacity -- his word -- to hardly use him in mini-camp and dump him to sign a Rhein friend.

He had it in him long before the three times in 13 months that the Steelers cut him.

It was ignited in Akron, Ohio, by being the baby of the 14 children of Mildred and James Harrison, the strict parents who demanded he come home before the streetlights illuminated.

It was kindled through a scholastic career where fans of opponents heaped racial epithets into his ears, one road game resulting in him grabbing his crotch at them and getting ejected. Where incidents such as a BB-gun shooting started by a coach conspired to help run off recruiters and cause this academic non-qualifier to enroll at nearby Kent State with his parents paying his way.

It was inflamed when he rose to earn not only a college scholarship but stardom while decking Drew Brees and burying Ben Roethlisberger.

It was in full rage when NFL types deemed him too short, too slight, too bull-headed, and released him four times before -- on his announced final try, with the linebacker-parched Steelers -- he stuck.

Five seasons later, he needs no more of that tag -- Rhein Fire, No. 53, Harrison -- on the duffel bag he carried to every Steelers game until it deteriorated, though the emotional baggage remains. "Just a reminder," he said. "That was something I did not want to go back to."

That internal inferno is how he made it from all-gone to All-Pro, from possible bus driver to NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

"To make the kind of trip he had to make. ... it's a special story," Mo Tipton, the Archbishop Hoban coach he followed to Coventry High, said over the phone this week.

"He is driven, no question, but by I don't know what type of demons," said Cathy O'Donnell, his former academic counselor at Kent State where she is the executive associate athletic director. "He fed off it and was determined to show that he could do what nobody expected him to do."

"He's really changed his life around," said Dean Pees, his Kent State coach and still a close friend despite being the New England Patriots' defensive coordinator. "To do the things he's done -- getting cut, Europe, all that stuff -- it's a credit to him."

"I try not to look back, though," Mr. Harrison offered before he and the Steelers (12-4) face San Diego (9-8) at 4:45 p.m. today in Heinz Field for an AFC Divisional playoff. "I don't have time to reflect on what I've done. I want to look at all the things I want to try to accomplish. Right now, that's to win this game, and to go on and win the Super Bowl."

Iron will
He was mute-button quiet.

"Didn't smile a lot," said his mother, adding that he learned his trademark glare from her. When it came time to convince Mildred Harrison to allow her sweet baby James to play football, buddy David Walker from across the street did the talking. "I never, ever wanted him to play," Mrs. Harrison said. "I thought it was too physical, and he would get hurt. They wore me down, they did."

The boy sprouted into a sturdy, though wayward football teen. When his academics faltered, she placed him on parental suspension: "I still didn't want him to play football, but I thought it was a good weapon to use against him. I drove up [to practice] and said, 'Get in this van, we're going home.' He said, 'Mom, I'll bring them up.' And he made Dean's List. I thought, 'This football came in pretty handy.' "

Despite building muscles from lifting weights in the third-floor bedroom of the family home, it was his emotional strength that was tested foremost.

"This was not an African-American community here by any means, and people were rough on him," said Coventry offensive coordinator Gary Hutt. "I don't know if I would have taken all the stuff James took."

In one rout on the road, the fullback-linebacker-punter could stand it no longer when people hurled a racial epithet at him. He responded, Mr. Hutt said, by motioning to his crotch for the crowd. Game officials ejected him.

By his own admission, Mr. Harrison "messed up" on occasion in high school. Added Mr. Hutt, "He was ornery as hell, too, so he got in trouble here every once in awhile."

What appeared to undermine his chances of a scholarship to Nebraska or Notre Dame was a BB-gun shooting incident -- in which two teammates were hit with pellets -- that two coaches and one teammate maintained was started by an assistant. Mr. Tipton, the head coach, said parents who had no children involved later brought the incident to light, and Mr. Harrison avoided jail time by paying a fine. His potential major-college career seemed to suffer a stiffer penalty.

The once-coveted recruit went to Kent State on his parents' tab.

"Trusted very few people during his time here," said Ms. O'Donnell of Kent State. "He chose his friends carefully. And they didn't always look and act the way he did."

Mr. Pees, the new head coach then, instituted a mandatory, weeknight study hall for players with substandard grades. Mr. Harrison so despised Coach's Table he produced a 3.0 grade-point average just to escape, "and he wrote it on every coach's board in every office, so everybody knew.

"We went through some times early on in his career where we butted heads a little bit," added Mr. Pees. "Through all that, we just got an appreciation for each other, a respect."

Their close relationship was part of what Mr. Pees called "a great turn-around" in this burgeoning linebacker, who transformed into a standout and, ultimately, a team captain. He crunched the then-Purdue quarterback with "a wicked hit," recalled former Kent State sidekick Shawn Armstead, and Mr. Brees "threw the little whiney face on. He said something like, 'Don't hit me like that, I'm going to the NFL.' James said, 'You ain't there yet, you got to make it out of this game.' "

He became all-Mid-American Conference in 2001 with a league-leading 12 sacks. He secured Kent State's first winning season in 14 years by sacking -- on the game's final two plays, with Miami (Ohio) 33 yards from the end zone -- a quarterback named Ben Roethlisberger.

Fourth time's a charm
At the start, his NFL career went pfffffft.

Sept. 1, 2002, released by the Steelers. Sept. 3, signed to their practice squad. Dec. 17, activated and played special teams, without registering a tackle against hated Baltimore. That was it. One game, nothing.

Sept. 3, 2003, released again by the Steelers. Sept. 17, signed to practice squad. Released three weeks later. "When he got here," inside linebacker James Farrior said, "he was a knucklehead that didn't know the plays. We didn't think he could be coached."

Jan. 23, 2004, signed by Baltimore and sent to Germany; hurt his left knee and went to Alabama for rehab before mini-camp. On June 17, Rhein Fire teammate Daniel Wilcox called.

"Yo, man, I'm about to be up there with you."

"Oh, man, no you ain't. They told me they needed a tight end. They cut me and signed you."

He was back home in Akron for six weeks.
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Old 01-11-2009, 11:18 PM   #2
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Default Re: Steelers' Harrison took circuitous route to stardom

"He was on his way to finding a job," James Harrison Sr. said. "When Baltimore cut him, he got his CDL [commercial driver's license], he was ... going to drive trucks. And Pittsburgh called him at the last minute."

Just before his football fire was extinguished, the phone rang July 26, 2004. Starting outside linebacker Clark Haggans broke fingers on his right hand lifting weights. This time, Mr. Harrison not only learned the Steelers plays, he learned all four linebacker spots. Thanks to Joey Porter getting ejected after a pregame fight, Mr. Harrison made his inaugural NFL start on Nov. 14, 2004, against the Cleveland Browns he grew up watching. He finished with six tackles, a sack, a quarterback hurry, a batted pass and one loud house back in Akron, where his parents were watching.

Back in Cleveland the next season, by now a capable sub and special-teams demon, he famously body-slammed a Browns fan who strayed onto the field.

In 2006, he signed a four-year, $6.5-million-plus contract keeping him with the Steelers through next season. Last season, he became a starter, made the Pro Bowl for the first time and was elected Steelers MVP by his teammates.

This season, the 6-foot, 255-pound Mr. Harrison, 30, bull-rushed past the Steelers' team record with 16 sacks -- in the home of the Steel Curtain and Blitzburgh, remember. He topped the NFL with seven forced fumbles. He was again named team MVP and to the Pro Bowl. He won The Associated Press' Defensive Player of the Year award previously won by such Steelers Hall of Famers as Joe Greene, Jack Lambert and Mel Blount. No other undrafted player has won that award.

"I went to one game, I sat down close and watched him come out of the tunnel," said Mr. Hutt. "Man, I was scared. 'Maybe we should move back a couple of rows.' But he's really a big kitty-cat off the field."

Last March, Mr. Harrison's girlfriend, Beth Tibbott of Ohio Township, pressed charges that he assaulted her at her residence. Charges of simple assault and criminal mischief were dropped a month later, and he underwent anger-management counseling. She is the mother of his son, James Harrison III, and he sees them both every day, he said.

Still, he remains mostly quiet, reserved, cautious. "Outside of his teammates, he has very few friends," said Mr. Armstead. "You know what's so crazy? He has not changed. You'll never find a more level-headed person. He's not an attention-seeker."

He spent almost $8,000 to give 78 pair of Nike Super Speed spikes this past fall to every Coventry football freshman through senior, plus the entire coaching staff.

"We took a picture in the school stands with a big Steelers banner, which you don't often see in Ohio," Mr. Hutt said. "He's learned the hard way how to be a man."

"I think everyone in this locker room has that much more respect for him because of that [path]," Mr. Farrior said.

"From last year to this year, it's a little surprising," Mr. Harrison said of his rise. "But not as much as when you look at coming from NFL Europe to all this."
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Old 01-12-2009, 01:36 AM   #3
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Default Re: Steelers' Harrison took circuitous route to stardom

Very good article. Nice find Keisel
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