James Harrison — the guy Men’s Journal once described as the “scourge of the NFL” — can be as tough off the field as he is on it.
Just ask Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback whom Harrison and his Cincinnati Bengals teammates play tonight at Paul Brown Stadium.
The last time the two men faced each other on the field was 2001. Ben was the Miami RedHawks redshirt freshman quarterback and Harrison was the Kent State senior linebacker who sacked him five times, three of them solo upendings.
With Miami on the KSU 33-yard line, Harrison sacked Roethlisberger on the final two plays of the game to preserve the Golden Flashes’ 24-20 upset. His final stats included 12 tackles and a forced fumble.
“He jokes that he’s the reason I’m in the league,” Harrison said of Roethlisberger.
Compared to what NFL game officials said he’s done to other guys — Tennessee quarterback Vince Young (pile drive), Cleveland receiver Mohamed Massaquoi (KO), New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees (late hit), Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (spear) — you could say Roethlisberger got off easy.
Harrison has been in the league 10 years, the past nine with Pittsburgh. But just because he and Ben were teammates doesn’t mean he took it easy on the big quarterback.
That previously mentioned Men’s Journal article was headlined “Confessions of an NFL Hitman” and pictured him bare-chested with his arms crossed in a front of him and a pistol in each hand.
Although that 2011 story is best remembered for Harrison’s verbal sack of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell — he called him “a crook and a puppet” — he also took unflinching aim at a few other folks including Roethlisberger, whom he chastised for his late interceptions in the Steelers’ loss to Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV: “Stop trying to act like Peyton Manning. You ain’t that and you know it, man; you just get paid like he does.”
Harrison is as cuddly as a porcupine, as approachable as a junkyard dog.
This past week, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin provided some laughs with Cincinnati reporters when he described Harrison as NOT the most social of guys: “If you do know James, you appreciate that about him. It’s less what he says and more about what he does.”
And that’s why — regardless of what he said for print this week about “moving on” — Tomlin wishes he still had Harrison both anchoring his defense and setting an example in the dressing room.
Although Harrison signed a six-year, $51.75 million contract extension in 2009, his numbers, in part due to injury, slipped some in the past couple of years and the Steelers wanted him to take a pay cut this season.
When the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement, the Steelers cut Harrison loose even though Tomlin and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau argued to keep him.
“I don’t think anybody would have thought that would have happened, but when it did my first thought was ‘Man, what an opportunity to have a guy like that. What a great addition to our team that could be,’ ” said Andrew Whitworth, the Bengals’ Pro Bowl left tackle.
Whitworth knows Harrison both up close and from afar: “Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense is made that way. With him being the outside guy, basically it’s going to be him against the left tackle all day.”
Although he didn’t know Harrison personally before this season, Whitworth did think “people gave him a bad rap… If anybody understands the physics of the game, you understand that a shorter, more powerful guy like him is gonna make more head contact with a taller guy because the force is always going upward.”
Since the 35-year-old Harrison signed with the Bengals in April — a two-year deal for $4.45 million — Whitworth said he has gotten to appreciate him more and more: “The young guys especially look at him in awe a little bit. They grew up watching him play. It’s just like when I walked in the locker room and met Willie Anderson. You see first-hand what made them great.
“With James, his intensity and tenacity for the game are special. When you are the oldest guy in the locker room and you’re here the most just trying to make yourself better, that creates an impression. Young guys who want to know what it takes to be a great football player just need to look at him.”
And yet it’s never come easily for Harrison. Growing up in Akron, he was the youngest of 14 children. Although he was a prep football talent, he had some classic run-ins with an assistant coach, opposing fans and a teammate, which caused some big-time college programs like Ohio State and Michigan State to walk away from him.
Kent State offered a scholarship, then yanked it when he did poorly on his ACT test. That forced Harrison’s parents to take out a loan to send him to school.
When he came out of KSU, the well-muscled, but barely 6-foot Harrison was snubbed by the pros as well. Pittsburgh finally signed him as a free agent and put him on the practice squad. But over the next two years he would be cut four times — three by the Steelers and once by Baltimore.
He ended up playing for the Rhine Fire in Europe and finally latched on in Pittsburgh as a special teams player. He got his chance in 2007 when Joey Porter was cut for salary cap reasons, and he responded with a breakout season. He made the Pro Bowl, won All-Pro honors and was named the team MVP.
The following year, he was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year and capped off the team’s Super Bowl XLIII victory with a record 100-yard interception return of Curt Warner pass for a TD.
After landing the big contract in 2009, he was a Pro Bowl starter. But the following season, he was hit with more than $120,000 in fines for his penalties.
Although his stats were off last year — he missed the first three games following a training-camp knee surgery — he came on strong at the end of the season, a point not lost on Tomlin this week: “James is a special guy who did special things here.”
Still in shape
Harrison once estimated he spends at least $600,000 a year to keep his body in peak football condition.
He owns a hyperbaric chamber and flies a personal masseuse — and other specialists — in on a weekly basis to work on him.
“He’s just fully committed to being a good football player,” said Whitworth, who sits on the opposite end of the dressing room. “Every day I walk in here and he’s either in the weight room training or sitting out here planning his meal or getting his (protein) shakes. That commitment is awesome.”
While other Bengals players may sit together in the dressing room and chitchat during their free periods, Harrison mostly stays in the corner huddled over his phone. He does share some things with teammates, but the press is another story.
“Nothing against you personally,’ he told one sportswriter, “’I just don’t like your profession.”
And so when he was pressed about switching allegiances this year and becoming a Bengal after so many seasons wearing black and gold, he just shook his head that someone thought he might have mixed feelings going into tonight’s game.
“It’s really not that hard,” he said. “It’s about where I’m making my money at and that’s who I am going to be with. You all can’t seem to understand that concept. It’s a job. Yeah, I enjoyed the guys I worked with and I’m thankful for everything the organization and the Rooney family did for me, but right now I’m with the Bengals and going to put everything I have into helping them win.”
And considering the past, that may not bode well for Roethlisberger. Especially when you consider one other jarring entry on Harrison’s resume: In his past seven Monday Night Football appearances, he has 9 ½ sacks.
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