James Harrison: Man, Myth, Legend

James Harrison (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

TAMPA – All types of reporters have descended upon the Super Bowl, and one of the politicos asked James Harrison what he might say to the President if he got to the White House. "I'm not going to the White House," snapped Harrison. "All right?"

And so ended another media session for Harrison, who looked more tired than he does at the end of one of his legendary workouts. It was the second Steelers press conference of the week, and reporters sensed that the "Silverback" was done and they left him alone. But there was one reporter who wouldn't leave -- a lone, familiar, sympathetic reporter.

Q: How are you digging all this media attention?

JH: It's all right. What time do I get outta here?

Q: Have you made a conscious effort to be nice?

JH: I'm trying. I'm trying my best. But it's kind of difficult when you don't like cameras in your face. The thing that gets me is when they ask a question, and then two minutes later somebody else comes and asks the same question, and then two minutes later – that's when it starts to get on your nerves a little bit.

Q: That's when you need to show you have patience.

JH: Right.

Q: How much patience you got?

JH: I've got enough to make it through this week. I stocked up on it before I left Pittsburgh.

Q: (Pointing to trophy on stand) You know, if you'd stop winning these things, people would leave you alone.

JH: Yeah, but I'll take this one home and let my boy play with it. He'll like it.

And then the Silverback smiled. Thinking about his baby boy does that.

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James Harrison was the 14th of 14 children in the merged marriage of James and Mildred Harrison of Akron, Ohio. James Jr. looks like his dad, but acts like his mom.

"He's like me," Mildred said. "You be nice to people, they take kindness as a weakness. They truly do."

And so the chip on James Jr.'s shoulder was planted. But …

"He wasn't a hard-headed child," his mom said. "I'd tell him something and he knew that's what I meant. I didn't have to worry about him."

Mildred could recall two "whuppings" James Jr. received: once by his dad for playing with the guns in the attic, and a second for being out after the street lights came on.

Neither parent realized their son's brute strength until he picked his 250-pound grandmother out of the bathtub, into which she'd fallen, and carried her to her bed.

"We weren't home at the time," Mildred said. "But he said, ‘I picked her up like a baby and carried her and put her in the bed.' He was 15 or 16 years old. He's always been very strong."

And that strength served him well on the football field. He transferred from Hovan Catholic after his freshman year to a school with a long tradition of losing.

"He went to Coventry, the first suburb outside of Akron," said Zac Jackson, who works for Cleveland Browns.com. "I went to Manchester, the next one down. We were the small-school football powerhouse. Coventry was always the big rival. They always stunk, but it was always going to be a one-touchdown game, even though the talent was four touchdowns. It was that type of rivalry. But when James came that all changed. They had like 91 athletes on that team and James was the scariest of them out there. He was known in communities for miles around as somebody you didn't mess with – on the field or off."

Harrison was the team's star running back and linebacker, and the Akron Beacon-Journal did a large feature on him.

"He said this is the year we're coming through Manchester," Jackson said. "Everything you don't say, he would say."

But the week before the game, with Coventry sporting an unlikely 8-0 record, Harrison was suspended for responding to racial taunts with obscene gestures. He was ejected and had to miss the next week's game against Manchester, and Manchester won the game.

"It was one of the biggest gifts Manchester football ever got," Jackson said. "That's a legendary game."

Three months later, the parents of a boy who'd been shot in the rear end with a BB gun pointed the finger at Harrison, and a legal fight was underway. Harrison was exonerated when an assistant coach finally took responsibility, but the damage had been done. Harrison's many scholarship offers from the best big schools in the nation had dried up. He was left with Kent State.

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Q: You were holding out for one of your coaches?

JH: Yeah. My linebacker coach.

Q: What happened?

JH: It was like maybe four or five of us. We were just shooting the BB gun around the locker room. I got shot. Other guys got shot. It really wasn't a big deal. But to tell you the truth, this is what it came down to: I went to a school that was all white. It had about seven, eight black people in it. The dude didn't like the fact that I started over his son. He felt his son should've started over me. He left the school in the middle of the year and decided that this was a big story and he went and snitched and told everything and it came out like I was this cat who was out there trying to hurt somebody. So after all that was said and done, they wanted to press charges, felony assault and all that stuff. The coach shot the guy whose mom was pressing charges. He had shot the boy in his butt. It wasn't a big deal, but the coach ended up losing his job and ended up settling out on some lesser charge.

Q: How wild was your high school locker room?

JH: You know how guys throw balls around in here? Hit each other? That's what it was, but with a BB gun.

Q: And this affected your scholarship offers?

JH: I got suspended my first two games and my last game, and then this, and after all that there wasn't anybody left but Kent. I could've went anywhere.

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At Kent, Harrison became All-MAC First Team outside linebacker his senior season and finished third in the league's Defensive Player of the Year voting. He led the MAC with 15 sacks, and his victims included Byron Leftwich, Drew Brees and one Ben Roethlisberger. Yet, Harrison wasn't drafted in 2002. Did it have to do with character issues?

"No way," said a scout with the Steelers. "If he came out today, we'd have the same problem with his size and speed."

So Harrison had two choices: sign with the Steelers or the Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers, in fact, only offered him a free agent contract because his agent asked that Harrison be included as a throw-in along with a cornerback they were trying to sign out of Miami, Fla.

"I don't think we even signed the cornerback, to be honest with you, but we got James, and he was late for his first minicamp," said Mike Archer, then the linebackers coach with the Steelers under Bill Cowher.

"He was late for the rookie camp," Archer said. "Bill got all over me about that. I remember calling him in Akron, wanting to know where he was, but he, you know, he was surly at times. And that's an understatement."

Harrison reported to the Steelers, but glared holes through coaches who tried to correct his mistakes.

"He was a different cat," Archer said. "He was a surly street kid. He reminded me of Greg Lloyd a little bit. He didn't trust anybody. He eventually developed his trust in some of those guys. The guys who did a good job with him that year were Joey (Porter) and Jason (Gildon) and Clark (Haggans). Those guys kind of took him under their wing and said, ‘Hey, you can play in this league. You've got the strength, but you've got to learn and they're trying to help you learn.' And then once he accepted that, then he really began to make progress where I could tell he cared about football, because he would ask questions."

Harrison's first taste of pro ball came in the preseason game that opened Detroit's Ford Field. He was scheduled to play the second half because of an injury to Gildon, but Gildon's replacement, Haggans, got hurt on the opening kickoff and Harrison had to play the entire game.

"He played in our Okie (base) and he had to play in our dime, and he played very well that day," Archer said. "I remember Bill saying after the game, ‘This guy's got a chance.' And he asked me, ‘If we cut him, do you think anybody will pick him up?' And I said, ‘Coach, I don't know.' Thank goodness nobody did and we signed him back. And he played that day with a broken thumb. Nobody knows that, because when practice started the next week for the regular season, after he cleared waivers, he was on the practice squad."

Harrison was activated near the end of the season, but was cut again in the 2003 camp. He was again signed to the practice squad, and then released in October. He was picked up by the Ravens at the end of the season, sent to NFL Europe, and was cut by the Ravens. The Steelers called him a week before the 2004 training camp after Haggans broke his hand lifting weights. That's when the legend of James Harrison began to unfold.

Harrison replaced an ejected Porter right before the Cleveland game that year and played well. The next year in Cleveland he slammed a fan who had run out onto the field. He was a special-teams star, but Harrison didn't become a full-time starter until Mike Tomlin came along in 2007. Harrison was the team's MVP that season, and the league's Defensive MVP the next. Now he's on the verge of starting his first Super Bowl.

"He had a chip on his shoulder because everyone told him he was too short, he was too slow, he was too this, he was too that," Archer said. "And he got cut and people said he can't play. Well, that drove him. That motivated him even more to do it. I had some discussions with him a couple times because of some incidents. I'd say, ‘If you don't want to play, then go on and move on and we'll bring somebody else in here.' And I could see his eyes. You know, his eyes pierce right through you like, ‘Don't you tell me I can't play. I'm going to prove you wrong.' Maybe that's why.

"I don't know if he's mad at me, but people tell me he is, and I don't really care. We brought the kid in, he's been a great story, and I'm just happy for the kid. I could care less what he thinks about me."

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Q: Has winning Defensive Player of the Year sunk in yet?

JH: No I haven't had time to sit back and look at it and say, ‘Oh, I'm the Defensive Player of the Year.' Maybe after the season's over with, if we finish business here, it'll be great, but without the win here all of that just slips into the background and I won't reflect on it at all.

Q: Archer told me Joey and Jason took you under their wing. Is that true? If so, how did it unfold?

JH: Joey and Jason really treated everybody the same. It wasn't so much that they took me under their wing; they just let me feel like I belonged there. They didn't let me feel like I was one of the outside guys coming in. As far as Archer goes, that's another story in itself.

Q: He wished you well.

JH: It's great that he wishes me well, but like I said, that's just something else altogether.

Q: What was the turning point for you?

JH: Maturing. Handling situations different. And then getting the opportunity to play. Once I got the opportunity to play, I was able to refine what it is that I do.

(Jim Wexell's new book, "Steeler Nation," is available at Pittsburgh bookstores and online at PittsburghSportsPublishing.com.)

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