PITTSBURGH -- They're not prone to shows of emotion, these men.
"I don't know," he says, "if I would've had a career."
Harrison is seven weeks removed from a sweetly-engaging retirement announcement, five weeks removed from a teammate-engineered return to the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's always played angry, at 26 and now at 36, and he's imbuing this Steelers team called soft -- by former coach Bill Cowher and former captain Hines Ward -- with the ferocity this city has always demanded. He's again playing strong, still a game-changing outside linebacker who is deceptively quick off the edge.
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In 2004, Harrison was running from the hubris of his youth. Football had always come easy and through three cuts by the Steelers, a stint in NFL Europe and another cut by the Baltimore Ravens, he just expected he'd pick up what he needed to know. Two years of that and he realized osmosis wasn't going to work.
"That year, I took the time to learn and understand the defense," Harrison says. "I learned every linebacker position, inside and outside, left and right. If I put in the time and effort and gave it what I had and it didn't work out, OK, I'd move on."
In 2004, Dick LeBeau was beginning a second stint as Steelers defensive coordinator. Six years shy of a Hall of Fame induction, he was still feeling the sting of an inglorious head coaching run. He'd finally earned his shot in 2000, with the Cincinnati Bengals. But his teams never won more than six games and he was fired after a 2-14 2002. He spent a year as a defensive assistant on the Buffalo Bills staff before coming back to Pittsburgh and it was then, at training camp, that the definitely short, somewhat squat Harrison caught his eye.
"After about three days of practice, I asked (linebackers) coach Keith Butler, 'Who is this 92?' He said, 'That's James Harrison that I was telling you about it.' I said, 'I haven't seen anybody block him yet,' " LeBeau recalls. Chuckling, he adds almost in an aside, "I still haven't seen very many people block him. And that was 11 years ago."
Harrison's ascension is a story the Steelers' young linebackers know better than their playbooks. He played special teams until a mid-November game in Cleveland, when Joey Porter and Cleveland Browns back William Green got into a fight during pregame warm-ups, both were ejected and Harrison was pressed into starting. LeBeau can still recite Harrison's stat line from that game. (One sack and five tackles from five different areas of the field.)
It would be three more years before Harrison would become a full-time starter -- after Porter was cut, and despite the Steelers drafting two linebackers with their first two picks of the 2007 draft. For the next six years, he was LeBeau's mainstay. He became the first undrafted player to win the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2008 -- a season that ended with Harrison collecting his second Super Bowl ring, thanks in no small part to the linebacker executing what LeBeau called "the best single football play that I've ever seen."
The play was of course the interception of Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner in the end zone, and then a 100-yard return into the Steelers' end zone, where he collapsed, gassed and having totally changed momentum of the game on the last play of the first half. All these years later, LeBeau's pride is no more dimmed, as he says, "It's a testament to his conditioning that he played the whole second half after running 105 yards in 100-degree weather."
He didn't miss a snap?
"Ooooh, he wasn't coming out of that game," LeBeau says.
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After 42 years of coaching in the NFL, LeBeau is 77 and as slim as he was in his 14 years as a Detroit Lions cornerback. He has had an enviable roster of talent. He's had Pro Bowlers and All-Pros who now coach under him (Carnell Lake, Joey Porter), and a list of linebackers who offered him a series of starring moments.
But Harrison knows: This defense, it was made for him. It's designed for linebackers, and its appreciation for linebackers who can think absolutely suits a man who molded himself into one. His strength, his leverage -- packaged into this system, it was a perfect fit. Still, when LeBeau says, "I've always felt a certain fondness for James," the coach explains: It's not because of any of that.
"He's a professional," LeBeau says. "He wants to be good. He wanted to be good then. And even after he became good, he wanted to become better. Those are the kind of guys you like to coach."
LeBeau says the mentoring Harrison is offering his younger teammates right now is "invaluable," that he's teaching them how to be professionals, sitting next to second-year linebacker Jarvis Jones every day, still refusing a veterans' day off of practice.
Harrison says for him, from the start, there was a burning thirst to please his coach. "You want to play for him," he says. "He treats everybody the same, whether you're a rookie or a star. He doesn't down-talk anybody. He doesn't play favorites and he always shoots you straight. In the beginning, I didn't know what the hell I was doing. He still encouraged. He never gave up on me."
And then the emotion thing comes up again. Harrison thinks about a time when he knows LeBeau advocated for him and he quiets. He doesn't want these thoughts probed, he doesn't want to share anymore. And so he only repeats: "You want to show that what he does works. You don't want to let him down."
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Harrison pulled himself out of retirement in September because of his teammates. He'd spent last season as a part-time player with the Bengals, after they offered more guaranteed money than in the pay cut the Steelers were asking him to take. He was at peace with calling it a career and he freely says he didn't miss football this summer, or through the season's first two weeks.
The Steelers went down to Carolina in Week 3, and while they thumped the Panthers, they lost both Ryan Shazier and Jones in that game. The two linebackers, drafted in the last two years' first rounds, were starters and vital pieces. And from the minute the Steelers' charter touched ground in Pittsburgh, defensive end Brett Keisel was texting James Harrison. 4:01 a.m. 4:03 a.m. 4:10 a.m. And on, all morning and day long. Cornerback Ike Taylor, who broke his forearm in that game, and Troy Polamalu also called. And when Harrison complained to Polamalu that the Steelers weren't offering him enough money to climb back into a uniform, the veteran safety said to his friend, "Since when do you need the money?"
Harrison signed. He spent that first week cursing Polamalu, and five weeks later, he grumbles out some more blame. He's played 29 and 31 snaps the last two weeks, he's coming off a two-sack game and he says, "My body hurts."
Because, after a year of underuse at Cincinnati, he's playing hard again?
"No," he snarls. "Because I'm old."
These teammates who summoned him are allegedly old, too, and yet they've found new legs these last few weeks. That was Keisel plucking an interception out of a ball that bounced off Lawrence Timmons' helmet against the Houston Texans. It was Polamalu pouncing on a fumble that same night and the Steelers flying around for five takeaways in the past two weeks. It's a group playing for a defensive coordinator who a few weeks ago, as the Steelers struggled to a 3-3 mark, was allegedly too old, too.
LeBeau, in that sage way he has, says, "I don't read the papers," explaining that he never heard the calls for his retirement. But they were there in this city, his players were asked if it was time for new blood and none showed his ire as much as Harrison.
"Anybody who wants to call for Coach LeBeau's head is an idiot," he said with that trademark unflinching stare after the Steelers' win over Houston. He said yes, of course he takes it personally when people call out his coordinator and yes, of course anyone who calls out his coordinator doesn't know football.
"Coach LeBeau is a great mind. He's a great defensive mind," Harrison says. "Those people saying those things? They're not great minds."
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For all the looks and stares, the manufactured masks of viciousness, that villain-inspired nickname of "Deebo," Harrison really has, LeBeau says, "a tremendous, tremendous heart. It's why all the kids love him."
They do. The Steelers' postgame locker room is always overrun by little ones, Polamalu's and Keisel's and a whole assortment of jersey-wearing munchkins. They inevitably stop at Harrison's stall; Sunday, after the win over the Colts, Keisel's youngest was ferried around in Harrison's arms. Keisel shook his head and said, "My son doesn't come in here looking for me. His favorite is James."
"They call him Uncle Deebo," Jones says. Then he laughs, and corrects himself. "I call him Uncle Deebo. The kids call him Uncle James."
Harrison has two of his own, five-year old Henry and almost-seven James. They're especially well-behaved and well-spoken, polite and yet friendly, never running around without their father's permission. Harrison doesn't let them come to night games, because they have school. And they can't be tired in the classroom. They take karate, they read and Harrison tells them every day about the magic of their minds.
"They can use their minds to make a whole lot more money than their bodies could," he says. "Your body fails you at some point. You break bones, you tear muscles. Your body is not a plan for the future."
Harrison had mapped out how he'd finish his last 30 credit hours at Kent State through online courses this coming year, but then the Steelers' call came. He will finish soon, he says, if only for one reason: "I'm going to make my sons get degrees. So I have to have the paper."
There was a time Harrison thought he'd be a veterinarian. Now he sees a second career in real estate. He has a license and owns nearly 300 rental units, mostly in university towns. He says students will always need housing, and then offers a mini-lecture on the financial returns on investing in property.
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Ryan Clark, now a safety with the Washington Redskins, spent seven years playing alongside Harrison. He knew Harrison had taken his father and LeBeau with him when he was awarded the Defensive Player of the Year trophy. He knew Harrison liked to tease LeBeau and he knew Harrison was one of LeBeau's prize pupils, but he said he didn't realize just how deeply tied to LeBeau that Harrison was until he saw a "Monday Night Football" interview last year, when Jon Gruden asked Harrison about his coaches. He came to LeBeau, Harrison struggled to speak and then, his eyes welling, he said, "I miss him."
Nearly a year later, LeBeau tried to laugh about the moment captured on celluloid, saying, "You don't look to see James Harrison get a tear in his eye. I never saw it before and I won't ever see it again, I'm sure."
But he's pressed and so LeBeau admits, "It was hard for me to watch." Because? "I couldn't keep from crying myself. To have one of your players express that about you, that's what you work for."
LeBeau pauses some more. He watches his embattled corner Cortez Allen practicing alone across the field, his eyes showing the same sort of faith -- and hope -- Harrison talks about LeBeau once showing in him. He's a teacher and a leader and an encourager, and maybe no player has ever rewarded the faith LeBeau showed in him like Harrison has.
"I came along at the right time for him and he sure came along at the right time for me," LeBeau says quietly. "We don't talk about it a lot, but James and I, we'll always have this certain closeness."