Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison is the oldest non-kicker, non-quarterback in the NFL. But let's be real. He's not booting it, like Adam Vinatieri, or flinging it, like Tom Brady. Harrison -- a two-time Super Bowl champion, a five-time Pro Bowler, the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year (the only undrafted free agent ever awarded that accolade) is playing, arguably, the game's toughest, most brutal and unforgiving position at age 38.
For more than half the season, Harrison's snaps were limited. His only start came in a Week 5 win against the Jets. But following the Dallas debacle at home in Week 10, in which the Steelers lost in the final seconds on an Ezekiel Elliott touchdown run, Harrison was inserted into the starting lineup. The Steelers haven't lost since, and their 25 sacks over that span are the most in the NFL. Coincidence?
Harrison won't take credit for the defensive turnaround but even one of the Dolphins' offensive coaches told me Harrison is playing his best, most energetic football by far, and that makes those around him better. While the emphasis heading into Sunday's wild-card matchup against Miami has been on the Steelers' offensive triplets -- the offensive Killer B's of Ben, Bell and Brown -- finally the other side of the ball is harkening back to the great Steelers defenses of yore. And the catalyst is the old man of steel, James Harrison, in his 14th season.
Speaking of 14, Harrison is the youngest of 14 children; he has six brothers and seven sisters. Yet his parents, James and Mildred, gave Harrison the moniker of Junior, saving the father's name for their last child. The importance of that name is never lost on Harrison, who actually wanted to name both of his sons James (one is named Henry, Harrison's middle name). He thinks of the significance of the name every time he pulls on his No. 92 jersey.
"It's my daddy's name, you know. It represents everything he was and everything I am."
That is the reason, Harrison said, the December 2015 documentary by Al Jazeera America alleging performance-enhancing drug use by a number of professional athletes, including Harrison, Clay Matthews and Peyton Manning, stung so strongly.
"Big part of that was the fact that [I was being called] a cheater," Harrison told me in an interview that aired Sunday on NFL GameDay Morning. "Saying that it was a possibility I was on performance-enhancement drugs, which is totally incorrect. But also you're spitting on my daddy's name. The name he gave me, the name I'm representing, and that's what really pissed me off."
Harrison and others were cleared by the league before the start of the season after the NFL said it found "no credible evidence" that the players used or were provided with prohibited substances. But Harrison lamented that those allegations will always be associated with him and his name.
"You can always pull it up on the internet," Harrison said. "There's always going to be something there. Someone can always say, 'Oh well maybe they just couldn't find nothing.' I mean it was something I should have never had to go through."
Make no mistake, it still stings Harrison. He rarely talks about it, but once he broaches the subject, the man who is typically of few words, has much to say.
"They accused me of cheating. Everything I have done, I've done on my own," Harrison said. "It's been all my own hard work, blood, sweat and tears. I have not been aided by anything other than what you're allowed to use. I haven't used any type of steroids, performance-enhancing drugs, anything like that. I've been here, 14, 15 years and I've never, not once, failed a drug test."
Harrison said it all speaks to his integrity, and that is most meaningful to him as the father of James and Henry and the son of James Sr. Because no matter what he accomplishes on the field, in the weight room or in his business endeavors, he is his father's son.
James Henry Harrison Sr. passed away from lung cancer on May 7, 2016, four days after his son's birthday, at the age of 76. He was his namesake's favorite fishing buddy. The two were extremely close and Harrison said his dad, a chemical truck driver, instilled in him his insatiable work ethic as well as his salty attitude.
"He actually told me, 'When you go to practice, you ain't got no friends. You can be friends with them after the practice is over with, but while you're out there I want you to treat them like they're your worst enemy,'" Harrison said. "So that's kind of how I practiced from the time I was in pee-wee all the way up to now. That's really how I approached the game I guess."
Harrison said his father was a man not inclined to dole out praise.
"I think my dad told me three times I did a good job. One, I was in high school and I think I ran for 310 yards and had about 12 to 15 tackles. He went, ehhh you did a good job. That was big because he never said anything. Second time was when Joey Porter] got kicked out [of the game] in Cleveland, I got the start then. And the third time was the [Super Bowl, where I ran it back 100 yards."
Harrison's 100-yard interception return of Kurt Warner's pass in Super Bowl XLIII is the longest touchdown in Super Bowl history, and the signature play of Harrison's career. Yet, Harrison made it into the Steelers' history books when he became the franchise's all-time sack leader (79.5) on Nov. 20 in a win at Cleveland, in the shadow of nearby Akron, where Harrison grew up. The magnitude of the accomplishment led to a rare outpouring of emotion after the game. Harrison reflected on what brought him to tears that day.
"It was not being able to call [my father] and talk to him about it," Harrison said. "You know, hear his voice and him just congratulating me. It would have been nice."
The impact that James Sr. had on his son, and continues to have, is profound.
"I want to be just like him," Harrison said. "I want to raise my boys the same way he raised me. To be a man. To be held accountable. To be looked at as a role model, a leader."