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Reception questions linger as Harrison homecoming nears

Wednesday night in Boston, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers made his first return to the city where he coached for 10 seasons and helped the Celtics win an NBA championship.

Sunday night in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati Bengals linebacker James Harrison will make his first return to the city where he played for 10 seasons and helped the Steelers win two Super Bowls.

Rivers walked onto the court to loud applause from an appreciative crowd and admitted to being overwhelmed and even shedding a few tears.

How Pittsburgh fans will greet Harrison is anybody’s guess. They could shower him with the same kind of love Rivers received in Boston, or they could go full throat with the boos as they did last week when former wide receiver Mike Wallace came to town as a member of the Miami Dolphins.

Steelers safety Ryan Clark, who played alongside Harrison for all 10 of his seasons in Pittsburgh, said he knows what his former teammate deserves.

“James did a lot of great things here. A lot of those No. 1 defenses were in large part to the efforts of James Harrison,” Clark said. “Hopefully they cheer him. Mike Wallace got booed last week, but his situation was a lot different than James’ situation. So hopefully they give him the reception he deserves.”

Harrrison’s current teammate and fellow linebacker Vontaze Burfict said he’s wondering what the reaction will be as well.

“I am kind of excited to see if there is going to be more cheers or boos,” Burfict said. “I am pretty sure there will be some boos and probably cheering going on. That’s the game. That’s the NFL. I’m going to be walking out with him, so I can absorb that. It’s going to be great for him to go back there and be able to play against his crowd.”

Harrison tried to downplay the significance of playing against the Steelers earlier this season when they came to Paul Brown Stadium for a Monday night game in Week 2. And he likely would have done the same while discussing his return Thursday, but he never got a chance. Harrison didn’t meet with reporters or practice with the team due to illness.

In that first game against Pittsburgh, Harrison played 14 snaps. In fact, he played 14 or fewer snaps in five of the first seven games of the season.

But his role, along with his influence on the rest of the team, has continued to increase since then. Harrison played a season-high 55 defensive snaps three weeks ago against Cleveland, and he was on the field for 52 plays Sunday agianst the Colts.

“I sat here I don’t know how many weeks ago, when there were weeks that James wasn’t getting as many snaps, and said that every snap he got he was making an impact in the football game,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. “That continues to be true. Obviously, he’s played more and more now. With the loss of (defensive tackle) Geno (Atkins), we’ve kind of reconstructed and reconstituted some things we were doing. When the weather changes too, teams change a little offensively, and we see more of the personnels that put James on the field, some of our other defenses a little more.”

Harrison may be only 12th on the team with 36 tackles, but he still has the same knack for making big plays. He is one of two Bengals players with a fumble recovery, interception and multiple sacks. Vinny Rey is other.

And has always been the case, his value extends well beyond the stat sheet.

“For me as a coach, he’s a good guy to have who really has helped the young group of linebackers continue to prepare and push forward like a pro, and not allow them to have the ups and downs that seem to creep in when you have young players too much,” Lewis said. “His eyes are on the target, and that’s a good thing.”

Sunday night at Heinz Field, all eyes will be on Harrison.

“I don’t see how it can’t be emotional for him after playing there for so many years,” Rey said. “I know it means something to him. He’s a guy who’s usually in game mode, but at the same time, with the plays he’s made there and the memories he’s made there and what he’s done for that city, it’s going to be important to him.”

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