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Harris: Weakened Harrison still better than most

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Eighty percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing.

Or, in the case of Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison, it's better for the Steelers to have Harrison at less than full strength than to not have him at all after two off-season back surgeries.

"He's probably 80-85 percent right now,'' agent Bill Parise said Monday. "As far as his health goes, he's pain-free. There's no reason why he couldn't do everything from Day One. He's 20 percent better than anybody in the NFL, so he's fine.

"I expect that you are seeing one of the best linebackers to play the game and I think the first day he steps on the field he will be that same linebacker. There's no reason to believe he will not be that good and probably better than last year.''

So, which is it?

Is Harrison, at 80 or 85 percent, looking good physically when the Steelers finally report to St. Vincent College for training camp sometime in the near future?

Or, should we be concerned with the 15-20 percent that Harrison is missing physically, according to Parise, who has become Harrison's official spokesperson after last week's inflammatory interview in the magazine "Men's Journal,'' where he ripped into everyone from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to commissioner Roger Goodell. Harrison declined interview requests directed towards his health.

I fall somewhere in the middle.

Everything considered, Harrison, 33, is ahead of where you'd expect someone who had two back surgeries would be.

"He had no options. The only thing he could do was have it fixed,'' said Parise, who added that Harrison would be "sitting in a chair'' and "absolutely not working out'' if he had bypassed back surgery.

On the other hand, we don't know how Harrison's back will respond once the hitting starts, or if it's strong enough to absorb the pounding.

To be sure, Harrison has made a miraculous recovery since undergoing separate back surgeries, or discetomies, on Feb. 21 and March 2. Harrison underwent two delicate medical procedures within a span of 10 days and -- with help from noted Arizona-based trainer Ian Danney -- has recovered to the point that he should be able to participate in training camp.

"He certainly is a lot better than he was last year,'' Parise said. "The only soreness he has is muscular soreness from working out. His legs are no longer numb.''

That means Harrison played at less than 80 percent in Super Bowl XLV against the Packers. He recorded just one tackle in the game.

However, everyone assumed Harrison was having shoulder, not back, surgery. Should we also assume that his shoulder is fine following two back surgeries• Or was his shoulder merely the lesser of two evils?

Harrison missed part of training camp last summer because of shoulder discomfort. Parise said Harrison's back troubled him throughout the season.

"It's a wear and tear injury. He's got a lot of miles,'' Malachy McHugh, director of research for the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said regarding Harrison's multiple back surgeries.

McHugh specializes in treating athletes with injuries similar to Harrison's. He compared Harrison's back surgery with repairing a car.

"You can't change the shock absorbers on a human like you can on your car,'' McHugh said. "You manage the symptoms during the season and deal with it in the offseason. He's not going to be optimal. But there's no 33-year-old linebacker that's optimal, anyway.''

Parise believes the uncertainty of the lockout will convince the Steelers to go easier on players like Harrison.

"I think you're going to see changes in training camps this year,'' Parise said. "I think you'll see a lot of veterans doing less than you have in the past. The coaching staff and training people will do what they think is best.''

By all accounts, Harrison should be ready for training camp. Even if he's only 80-85 percent, the Steelers will be glad to have him.

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