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Steelers linebacker Harrison still going strong at 37

| Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016, 5:57 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker James Harrison plays against the Browns on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016, in Cleveland.

If you think James Harrison is tough, with 10 12 sacks the past two seasons and 37-year-old rock-like abs that a 21-year-old might envy, you should meet James Harrison Sr., the Steelers linebacker's father.

“He's had about three or four cancers. Oh, yeah, he's a survivor,” the younger Harrison said.

The youngest in a family of 14 siblings, Harrison learned a work ethic from his father that has served him well through 13 NFL seasons, a span more than one-third his age.

Harrison Sr., now 76 and in good physical condition, put his youngest son to work at age 12, scrubbing floors at a janitorial and chemical supply company in Akron, Ohio, where the elder Harrison worked.

“I would leave junior high and go straight there and clean offices. I actually got paid for that,” the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year said proudly.

Harrison learned the value of hard work as a child, which helped him persevere in the NFL. He was undrafted from Kent State in 2002 and was cut three times by the Steelers before becoming a regular starter in 2007. Now, with 74 12 career sacks, he is second all-time among Steelers to Jason Gildon's 77.

“Nothing was given to me, even as a child,” said Harrison, who went to Kent State as a walk-on. “We didn't get a lot of things that we wanted, but we didn't go without anything we needed as far as food and shelter. All the extras were just that. We didn't have any. Anything I got I had to get on my own, especially if it was something I really wanted and didn't need.”

Harrison, who turns 38 in May, resurrected his career shortly after announcing plans to retire before the start of the 2014 season. When it became apparent 18 days later that the Steelers needed him, he changed his mind and played in 11 games, recording 5 12 sacks. A year later, as he prepares for Saturday's AFC wild-card game against the Cincinnati Bengals, he leads all Steelers outside linebackers, including first-round draft choices Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree, with five sacks and 611 snaps.

With a year left on his contract, Harrison will become the oldest defensive player in the NFL if he decides to return in 2016.

“I don't know,” said Harrison, when asked whether he plans to play next season. “I'm thinking about what we got to do this week. I'll worry about next season once this season is over.”

Then, pleased with himself and in a good mood a few days before kickoff, he started singing:

“One day at a time, sweet Jesus, because tomorrow may never be mine.”

The only tomorrow that is on Harrison's mind is Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium.

Harrison may hold a key to the game if he can disrupt Bengals quarterbacks into making poor throws or accepting sacks. He isn't the consistent pass rusher he was in 2008, when he had 16 sacks and seven forced fumbles while winning the Defensive Player of the Year honor and leading the Steelers to their sixth Super Bowl victory. But he still can use his 6-foot, 242-pound frame to win leverage battles with offensive linemen. He had three sacks for a loss of 21 yards a month ago against the Indianapolis Colts.

Asked to explain his NFL longevity, he mentioned a litany of reasons: “Blessings of God, taking care of my body, workouts, maintenance, massage, acupuncture, going to bed early, getting enough rest, letting my body recover, just everything. Diet is the first thing. You can't out-train a bad diet.”

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler said he is impressed with how Harrison prepares.

“He's got it a down to a science in terms of working out to prepare his body to go through the brutality of playing in the National Football League,” he said. “He works at it. This doesn't come easy.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can reached at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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