James Harrison will be forever remembered for his tackle on that Browns fan before the Steelers 2005 Christmas Eve game in Cleveland, but for over a decade Harrison also brought a high standard of professionalism to the Steelers defense.
Harrison is 38 in May and will be considering whether to return for the final year of his contract with the Steelers. It’s easy for me to say that he probably doesn’t need the money, but a million plus dollars is not to be ignored. At his age he has to decide whether he wants to go through more pain and extra sessions in the weight room.
James Harrison wasn’t drafted by the Steelers. He was one of the many free agents that each year have to hope their skills have been noticed sufficiently for a team to give them a chance to prove they are up to a job in the top professional league.
A surprising number of players in the NFL are not drafted. In the 2014 season, there were 400 and that year the Browns had 22 undrafted players. The Steelers have also seen their fair share over the years and currently include Ramon Foster and Doug Legursky.
Harrison was signed by the Steelers in 2002 as a free agent and initially listed wearing the #42 shirt. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette highlighted the rookie for his play during an exhibition game against the Lions reporting, “When James Harrison rushed from the outside and forced quarterback Mike McMahon to rush his throw, which was intercepted by Larry Foote.” The Steelers cut Harrison in early September before signing him to their practice squad a few days later.
He was activated to the roster December 17 when running back Verron Haynes was placed on the Reserve/Injured list. He dressed for the final regular season game and played on special teams against Baltimore, but was inactive for both postseason games.
The following year he was again re-signed to the practice squad, but was let go October 7 to make way for Russell Stuvaints, a defensive back that stayed three years with the Steelers, but never started for the team. At the time, Harrison was wearing #93 as the 92 shirt was worn by Jason Gildon.
Harrison signed with the Ravens late 2003, but was released before camp so took a diversion to NFL Europe where he is listed on the Rhein Fire roster as #53.
HARRISON’S CAREER TAKES OFF
In 2004, Harrison was again re-signed by the Steelers and started four games for the team. The following year, he started three and also went to Super Bowl XL.
In 2007, the Steelers cut Joey Porter, who went to Miami, and Harrison took over the role to good effect sufficient to make his first appearance in the Pro Bowl. Harrison was named the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year for the 2008 season becoming the first undrafted player to win the award.
Harrison was the heart and soul of an aggressive Steelers defense that was consistently ranked in the NFL top five. LaMarr Woodley and Harrison were the disruptive pair of outside linebackers who combined for a combined 89.5 sacks from 2008-11.
At a crucial point during Super Bowl XLIII, Harrison turned the game on its head. With eighteen seconds left in the half and the Cardinals on the Steelers one and ready to score, Harrison intercepted Kurt Warner’s pass and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown that gave the Steelers a cushion in their 17-7 lead.
Pittsburgh went on to defeat Arizona 27-23 as a result of Ben’s outstanding pass to Santonio Holmes at the game’s end, but no one will forget Harrison collapsing in the end zone after that interception return that broke the 99-yard longest play in a Super Bowl record. Jacoby Jones later broke the record in 2013 with a 108-yard kickoff return.
Harrison regularly put in solid performances for the Steelers until 2013 although the NFL didn’t always appreciate his total commitment. Harrison was fined six times and the $75,000 punishment for his hit on Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi in 2010 made him contemplate leaving the game.
“I’m going to sit down and have a serious conversation with my coach tomorrow and see if I can actually play by NFL rules and still be effective,” Harrison said on national television. “If not, I may have to give up.”
Fortunately for the Steelers, Harrison chose to continue to play football, but in 2013 the Steelers forced him into a career change. He was scheduled to make $6.57 million that year, but was cut in March after the team failed to come to an agreement with the player over restructuring his salary. The Steelers were trying to juggle their salary cap challenges, but couldn’t reach an arrangement with Harrison so he entered free agency.
On his departure, Harrison commented, “It’s been a great run, but all good things must come to an end. Thank you Steelers Nation, I will miss you.”
In the media, he was described as one of the most intimidating players for a decade. “Big hit – some legal, some not so much – turned the outspoken five-time Pro Bowler into the focal point for a league wide crackdown on helmet-to-helmet contact. Harrison’s outlaw image made him beloved in Pittsburgh, but reviled elsewhere.”
HARRISON LEAVES HOME
Harrison’s agent Bill Parise attempted to get his star a deal with the Ravens, but in April it was with the Bengals that he finally signed a two-year contract. Despite moving from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 alignment, Cincinnati’s Coach Marvin Lewis thought Harrison was an easy fit because of the Pittsburgh roots in the Bengals system. “Many of the philosophies are exactly the same,” Lewis observed.
That 2013 season with the Bengals saw Harrison’s statistics decline. Starting only 10 games as he adjusted to his new team’s playbook, his contribution slumped. After helping the Bengals make the playoffs, he was once again looking for a new team although praise for his influence was evident.
Coach Lewis commented, “It was great for our coaches, players and fans to have James on our team last year. He’s a player everyone looks up to because of his ability, his accomplishments and his drive to be the best.” Vontaze Burfict also credited Harrison in helping him to develop into a Pro Bowler with the Cincinnati defense that was ranked third in the NFL.
With the 2014 preseason approaching, Harrison visited the Cardinals, but decided it was too far away from his family and at the end of August posted on Facebook his departure from football. “I have made the difficult decision to retire. My love for my family and the need to be there for them outweighs my desire to play the game,” he explained.
Harrison announced he was putting football behind him on August 30, 2014 and signed with the Steelers for one day so that he could officially retire as a member of the Steelers on September 5, 2014.
When the Steelers lost three of their defensive starters two weeks later with injuries in their defeat in Baltimore, the Steelers asked him to return. Having made the momentous decision to retire, Harrison spoke to several former teammates before agreeing to sign a contract. “If it weren’t for Keisel, Ike and Troy, I would not have signed back,” Harrison told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“I had to talk to my kids whether they wanted me back or not and talked to my parents,” he added. “The big thing is the guys. I talked to Keisel until 4 or 5 in the morning. It’s good to be back.”
He made his 2014 debut against Tampa and dressed for eight games before suffering a knee injury that kept him out for two games. He returned for the win over the Chiefs when his 7 tackles and 1.5 sacks prompted him to tell reporters that he felt he was playing better than he had the rest of the year.
After the completion of the season he again entered free agency. Harrison has always been a great user of social media and updated the world with his career dilemma in March 2015 on Instagram. He posted a video of his two young sons. One suggesting he should chose the Titans and the other one saying he should resign with the Steelers.
Harrison also paid tribute to his former coach Dick LeBeau who was now with the Titans after the Steelers did not renew his contract. “There are no words that I can find that would do justice for everything Dick LeBeau has done for me and my career.”
Harrison also acknowledged his love for Steelers Nation and the Steelers organisation and stated he would let God guide him in the right direction for his decision. A day later he signed for another two years with the Steelers.
The 2015 season saw Harrison dress for fifteen regular season games and the two playoff games. Although he didn’t play every snap, his participation showed the same commitment that he has always given the team.
HARRISON STILL TO DECIDE ON HIS 2016 PATH
Weighing up whether he will take up the second year of his contract with the Steelers, Harrison was realistic. “I am getting older. That is an understatement,” he said. “It’s a lot harder on my body to recover and repair. The hardest thing for me is the offseason, the workouts, getting ready to prepare for the season. Once I get into season that is the easy part.” Harrison didn’t give a timetable on when he will make a decision.
“If I knew that I wouldn’t be sitting here trying to figure out what I am going to do,” said Harrison. “I’m not ready to make a decision. When that time comes, you guys will hear about it I guess.”
Harrison is a player who leads by example and puts an unbelievable effort into his training for a player who will be 38 in May. I can confirm his commitment as when I attended the Steelers practice last year, it was in the high seventies and he was wearing a sweat suit.
He was leaning towards coming back to play this season, but doesn’t like the Steelers schedule that has the team playing Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year.
His recent nickname, Deebo, comes from a nasty, belligerent from the movie “Friday.” the neighbourhood bully.
Harrison has a commercial driver’s licence so if need be, he could follow in his father’s footsteps and drive a truck. After his great NFL career with two Super Bowl rings, I just can’t see it somehow so good luck James whatever you decide.
Photos courtesy of SportsRoadhouse.