Punishing Steelers LB Harrison has guard up
James Harrison didn't beat his chest or stomp his feet after smothering a running back. There was no dance of self-adulation. While his teammates lathered him with praise, Harrison walked toward the huddle unmoved, as if such violent hits were routine. He dominated every game this way.
He was 9 years old.
"The hitting he's doing now is nothing new to him," James Harrison Sr. said of the Steelers' All-Pro linebacker. "He's been hitting like that since Day 1. ... He wakes up in the morning wanting to hit somebody."
At 33, Harrison hasn't changed much.
His fury still rages, though he gets paid handsomely to unleash it, starting with Sunday's season-opener against the rival Baltimore Ravens. But he also enters this season in a different light than his previous eight.
He became the face last season of the National Football League's crackdown on unnecessary roughness. Began a verbal attack on Commissioner Roger Goodell that lasted through the offseason. Blamed prominent teammates — quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Rashard Mendenhall — for the Steelers' loss in Super Bowl XLV.
And had two offseason back surgeries within a span of 10 days that some wonder might bring about an attitude change. Or harness the aggression that has defined perhaps the most enigmatic, ornery linebacker in the NFL.
Harrison, who gauged his recovery at about 80 percent, said that is not about to happen.
"If I see a chance to stretch somebody out without crippling them, I'm going to do it," he said. "That's what I'm paid to do."
"It's not in his DNA to play any other way," said linebacker James Farrior, in his 15th season. "We expect him to play hard all the time. It's what he expects of himself."
Harrison insists money isn't the catalyst of his aspirations to become one the game's greatest linebackers. Instead, it's the passion sown from the deep-rooted desires of the youngest of 14 children who, at times, struggled to succeed despite rejection, racism and ridicule.
Sweeping away the dirt
If the Steelers are to contend for another title, their oft-maligned Pro Bowler must continue to thrive amid scrutiny that he crosses the line between a bone-rattling blow and an illegal hit.
Harrison acknowledges it will be difficult to curb his enthusiasm, despite incurring a league-high four fines last season totaling $100,000.
"I want to punish the guy that's across from me," he said. "When I step inside those lines, I'm out there to prove something."
Harrison often is labeled a "dirty player" instead of a hard-nosed defender, a calculating cheap-shot artist instead of a ball-hawking linebacker. Others paint the once-vagabond free agent as undisciplined instead of a fearless defender with a perpetually bad attitude that characterized greats such as Lawrence Taylor and Dick Butkus.
"People who don't know me only see me as a real intense, no-nonsense, straight-out mad man," Harrison said. "But the guys in the locker room, my family, my children, they see the real James Harrison."
The real James Harrison, his parents say, is a jokester. He respects the elderly and loves animals, including a pit bull that underwent 18 months of chemotherapy before Harrison consented to euthanize it.
With money that fans donated to help him pay his fines, he created the James Harrison Family Foundation that assists children with disabilities and their families.
Although his almost omnipresent scowl isn't exactly a facade, it hardly reflects a linebacker who used special teams as a springboard in catapulting to stardom.
"I don't need people to talk good about me," Harrison said. "I'm not here to prove anything to anybody."
Perhaps, then, it's no surprise Harrison seems prepared to retire when his five-year, $60 million contract — among the richest in Steelers history for a defensive player — expires after the 2014 season.
"I think he looks forward to retirement," said his mother, Mildred Harrison. "The way the league is changing, I really don't think he'll play beyond his current contract."
The hardest cuts
Harrison's meteoric rise was largely unpredictable. He was cut four times — three times by the Steelers and once by Baltimore. If his father hadn't intervened, the West Akron Griffins would have dropped him from their Pee Wee roster.
"I would miss a few Pee Wee practices, and the coaches would talk about cutting him," Harrison Sr. said. "I would ask, 'What's the hell wrong with you guys?' "
Though his father chastised the coaches, Harrison was prepared to walk away. He had only a lukewarm interest in the game.
"I watched the Cleveland Browns a little bit when I was growing up, but I wasn't much of a football fan," said Harrison, the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "I never saw myself playing in the NFL. I was happy with getting a regular job."
Yet, in a crowded household, Harrison pushed to create a distinguishable identity. His parents enrolled him in a parochial high school across town even though he lived a few blocks from predominantly black Buchtel High School, once a recruiting hotbed for former Pitt coach Walt Harris.
Midway through his freshman year, Harrison transferred to Coventry High School. He was the lone black player in an all-white conference. It was like mixing oil and water.
"James has always had to fight to succeed," said his mother, Mildred Harrison. "If his brothers and sisters weren't fighting with him, they were teasing him about the way he would say mommy and daddy. No one teases him now."
For three years, Harrison dominated on both sides of the ball. But incessant racial slurs from opposing players, coupled with a BB gun incident for which he was charged with disorderly conduct, rendered him distrustful by anyone outside his innner circle or the locker room.
"All the kids were shooting each other with the BB guns," his mother recalled. "James got shot, but (the police) made him the focal point. I didn't go hooting and crying."
Neither did Harrison.
"James took the name-calling better than his mother, but every now and then he would say something," his father said. "Mostly, he took it out on the players. He would hit guys and crumble them."
Still, Harrison's mother flinched when he absorbed a blow. During one game, former Pitt basketball star Jerome Lane, who was dating one of Harrison's sisters, grabbed Mildred Harrison before she rushed onto the field after Harrison was stretched out on the field.
Jumping to her son's defense comes naturally, as does not backing down from perceived wrongs. Mildred Harrison spearheaded neighborhood protests to force the closings of two stores where violence often prevailed, in part, because the stores' Middle Eastern owners continuously sparred with their mostly black patrons.
She denied her husband's claim that their son mirrors her demeanor. But together, she and her husband greatly influenced their son's pugnacious on-field persona.
Harrison was driven by their unyielding demands in the classroom and on the football field. Their tough love and measured discipline helped turn a reluctant Pee Wee star into one of the nation's most sought-after recruits.
Ohio State was one of his many options before a handful of youthful indiscretions, including the BB gun incident, derailed his journey to Columbus, Ohio. Instead of playing for a perennial power, Harrison landed at Kent State, a program awash in mediocrity.
Lessons learned, others forgotten
Harrison declared for the NFL Draft after his junior season at Kent State. If nothing else, high school prepared him for the disappointments that followed.
"James has gone through a metamorphosis," said his agent, Bill Parise. "He has changed from a more aggressive young man to a responsible adult. James doesn't lie, and that not lying got him into a lot of trouble. He takes ownership of his action. He never says it was somebody else's fault."
Harrison, however, hesitantly took the blame for his inflammatory remarks in a Men's Journal article in August. He said criticisms of Goodell, Roethlisberger and Mendenhall were "taken out of context."
Harrison has had difficulty avoiding controversy the past several years.
In March 2008, prosecutors dropped charges against the four-time Pro Bowler after he completed anger management counseling following a domestic dispute with his girlfriend.
A year later, he ruffled feathers by shunning an offer to toast with President Obama after the Steelers' Super Bowl XLIII victory.
"It wasn't a rejection of President Obama," Harrison's mother said. "He didn't go when President Bush was in the White House, but no one said anything about it. But because the president is a black man, here we go with the criticism.
"I love Obama. I voted for him. James voted for him, too. When James gets time off, he spends it with his kids. He's not going to be politically correct, and neither am I."
But Harrison's comments in Men's Journal agitated the slow-healing wounds of a Super Bowl defeat. Roethlisberger and Mendenhall were bombarded with questions as they arrived for training camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe.
Roethlisberger shouldered the blame for the Super Bowl loss. It was a watershed moment for the Steelers, who seemingly moved on without distraction.
"It actually brought us closer together," Roethlisberger said. "There were never any hard feelings on my part. We found ways to put it behind us."
Harrison, too, has distanced himself from the past. Yet, there remains little wiggle room for apologies.
The James Harrison file
College: Kent State
Birth place: Akron, Ohio
2002: Signed with Steelers as rookie free agent and released before being placed on practice squad.
2005: Made three starts while filling in for Clark Haggans.
2007: Team MVP and earned first of four consecutive Pro Bowl selections.
2008: AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year and had team-record 16 sacks ... Scored on a Super Bowl-record 100-yard interception return in helping Steelers win record-sixth Super Bowl.
2009: Signed then-richest contract ever for a Steelers defensive player.
2010: First-team, All-Pro selection ... Had 100 tackles, 10.5 sacks and an NFL-high four fines that totaled $100,000.
What they're saying ...
"James has always had to fight to succeed. If his brothers and sisters weren't fighting with him, they were teasing him about the way he would say mommy and daddy. No one teases him now." Mildred Harrison, Linebacker's mother
"I watched the Cleveland Browns a little bit when I was growing up, but I wasn't much of a football fan. I never saw myself playing in the NFL. I was happy with getting a regular job. " James Harrison, Steelers' All-Pro linebacker was named 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year
"The hitting he's doing now is nothing new to him. He's been hitting like that since Day 1. ... He wakes up in the morning wanting to hit somebody." James Harrison Sr., Linebacker's father