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Harrison absorbs, delivers hits to reclaim physical nature

DALLAS -- He jokes about it now, still wearing that serious-as-a-heart-attack expression that causes you to listen carefully just to make sure that he really is joking.

And based on James Harrison's interaction with reporters this week, it seems fairly safe to say that he's in a good place when it comes to his style of play and its imperfect fit within the NFL landscape of heightened sensitivity about violent collisions.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' outside linebacker knows this much about the league's crackdown on him and other players whose contact drew fines during the season: It didn't keep him or his team from reaching the Super Bowl.

But just as a means of helping to prevent any more of the wrong kind of attention coming his way from the NFL -- and especially from the officials working Sunday's game -- Harrison used Tuesday's Media Day stage to deliver the following tongue-in-cheek message: "I don't want to hurt nobody. I don't want to step on nobody's foot or hurt their toe. I don't want to have no dirt or none of this rubber on this field (in Cowboys Stadium) to fly into their eye and make their eye hurt. I just want to tackle them softly on the ground, and if you all can, we'll lay a pillow down where I'm going to tackle them, so they don't hit the ground too hard, Mr. Goodell."

The playful jab, of course, was aimed at NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who, along with his administrators, fined Harrison four times in the 2010 campaign for an original total of $125,000 for what were deemed as dangerous and outlawed hits to the head.

As far as Harrison is concerned, he didn't deserve any of the fines, especially the biggest of them all -- $50,000 (reduced from $75,000 to bring his grand total to $100,000) for a blow that knocked Cleveland Brown receiver Mohamed Massaquoi from a game in October. He dismissed the punishment as the NFL needing "somebody to make a poster guy for their rule," and that his was "the most recognizable face" to fit the bill.

That stern, mean-looking face with those cold, shark-like eyes. That face that rarely changes, even when Harrison says something that makes the people around him laugh.

"It's getting to a point to where I think they're just going to have to go and put flags on us to at least protect the quarterbacks, because that's what it really comes down to," Harrison said. "Most of these rules are implemented to protect the quarterbacks. Tell me how many people would watch the games if you went and put flags on everybody. See how popular the game is then."

Should we still be laughing?

Harrison clearly wasn't during the regular season, when he suddenly found himself being labeled as a dirty player, something he had never been previously. It was quite a change in stature for one of the biggest stars of Super Bowl XLIII after his incredible 100-yard interception return for a touchdown helped the Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals.

Instead of reliving one of the greatest moments in Super Bowl history while preparing for the chance to possibly deliver another, Harrison finds himself talking much more about his trials and tribulations of the past season, such as when he temporarily altered his style of play in an effort to avoid further punishment. When it began taking away from his effectiveness as one of the best pass rushers and most aggressive defenders in the game, he reverted to his normal mode.

"I changed for maybe a game or two," he said. "There were some instances where I would have normally put my face in the fan, so to speak, but I backed out of there. But after sitting back, looking at it, it wasn't really conducive to me helping my team out. ... I'm (back to) playing the way that I've normally played for the last six, seven years.

"You're looking at maybe five or six plays in the course of 900, 1,000 plays a year or 7,000 or 8,000 plays over the course of my career, and they're trying to pick out five or six plays from this previous year that were questionable to them. If you go through the course, week-in and week-out, that guys play in, I believe, if you look at the film, you'll see guys that hit quarterbacks the same way that I do, if not worse, and they aren't flagged and they aren't fined, either.

"Like I said, they needed somebody to implement their rule and they decided to come make it me."

Veteran Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior saw Harrison's transformation from a player who didn't hesitate to hit anything that moved to someone who became tentative. Farrior and other Steelers knew that the change wasn't good for their teammate or for one of the top defenses in the league.

"We definitely didn't want that," Farrior said. "I think he's kind of gotten back to his old way of thinking and he's the same guy that we (need him) to be out there, wreaking havoc on Sunday. I think everybody's really put it behind us. I think the fines have slowed down a little bit so guys aren't worried about it now."

Not now.

Harrison even allows himself to see the bright side of all of the fines he received, such as the launch of the James Harrison Family Foundation to help disabled children and their families. He thought it would be the best way to utilize contributions fans were making to pay his fines. Harrison would match all of the funds the NFL would receive on his behalf. He said about $2,700 ended up going to the Beaver County (Pa.) YMCA for James Harrison's Sacks for Kids, from which holiday gifts were purchased for underprivileged families.

Another bright side, according to fellow Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, is that Harrison's reputation in particular and the hard-hitting nature of the Steelers' defense in general "sends a message across the league for other guys who are on the opposite team playing against us. They're worried that James Harrison maybe knocking them out when they come across the middle. Now they're thinking twice, so it kind of works in our favor as well."

Things were far different during the season. Convinced there was no way of coping with the NFL's enforcement, Harrison said he seriously contemplated an immediate retirement at one point before changing his mind.

"At the time, it was something that was really serious for me," he said. "Stepping back and having time to look at it and evaluate the whole situation, it was a heat-of-the-moment decision, not well thought out, not planned out. After having time to sit back and look at it and think about the whole situation, it was just not the thing to do."

Someone asked if he's still having fun playing football.

"Yeah, definitely," Harrison said. "If I wasn't having fun, I don't think I could play the game the way that I do. This is not a job that you come to like, 'Oh, God, I've got to go to work... I've got to do this, I've got to do that.' (If you do) you won't be able to function and play at the level that you need to."

He no longer frets over trying to contour his game around rules designed to do everything possible to minimize, if not eliminate, helmet-to-helmet contact. Harrison said it is impossible to have a one-size-fits-all approach because each situation is different.

As an example, he describes his hit on Massaquoi as a case of an offensive player ducking to protect himself, and thus Harrison "lowered my target area and we ended up hitting (in the) shoulder to helmet area and he sustained a concussion. (The league is) saying that that's my responsibility to readjust to an adjustment that he has made at the last second. You just can't do it."

Added Harrison, "What it comes down to, it's about placement of your head when you hit somebody, sometimes you can place your head to where it's out of the way and sometimes you can't. You take the risk of if you move your head one way or the other, if they move, then you'll miss the tackle. The big thing is you need to get your head in front and across from somebody that you can ensure a tackle and they don't run through you. Sometimes you can get that done, sometimes you can't. It's a fast game."

Fortunately for the Steelers, it looks as if Harrison is still keeping pace with it the way he always has ... while also having a little bit of fun along the way.

At least, we think he's having fun.

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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