Tales Told by an Old Man: Steelers OLB James Harrison

via USAToday

One of the most frequently misquoted and wrongly attributed sayings in the current lexicon is this, by playwright David Mamet: “Old age and treachery will always beat youth and enthusiasm.” It is not something which plays out very often in the NFL, a young man’s league with few exceptions, mostly quarterbacks.

But James Harrison at age 37 seems to be almost immune to the effects of Father Time. His storied career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, thought to be over twice already, is  a story still being written. For ordinary mortals years in the NFL appear to be pretty much equivalent to dog years, and most players in their early 30s are over the hill, or getting there really fast. Harrison continues to amaze.

Part of this may be due to sensible coaching. Harrison was held out of team activities for the first few weeks of camp, much to his disgust. When quizzed about it, Head Coach Mike Tomlin said he was “too old to practice.”

It would be easy to assume that most of what Harrison brings to the Steelers is “veteranosity,” as the Bucs Dugout guys like to say. He shows the young ‘uns how to work out, how to take care of their bodies, and so on. After telling them to get off his lawn, I’m guessing.

But the Steelers wouldn’t make roster space for Harrison if he only brought this. After all, they have a training staff for such things, although it surely means a lot more to hear and see it from a legend.

It’s hard to imagine the Steelers plan to run Harrison out as a full-time starter. They have said as much. His position coach, Joey Porter, the man Harrison replaced in 2007, said Harrison would get maybe 25 snaps per game. One can surmise that Porter enjoyed saying this, knowing how much it would annoy Harrison.

There is another aspect of Harrison’s presence making itself felt at this year’s training camp. As  Jim Wexell reports:

The first practice of the week starred James “Deebo” Harrison, and during the first drill he bull-rushed massive Alejandro Villanueva straight back into Landry Jones’ lap. The drill ended and the players broke off into groups with Harrison following Tomlin after the coach yelled, “Deebo come with me!” They went over to a group running the modern-day Oklahoma drill where Harrison showed all of the OLBs and TEs the meaning of setting the edge.

Deebo was then excused to go to another group of LBs dropping into pass coverage.

This was, admittedly, in a practice against the second team offense. He showed us yesterday he can still get it done in a game. In what was one of only eight snaps he played in the Steelers-Packers game, he sacked Aaron Rodgers in his own end zone for the Steelers’ first score.

It was nice to see some of the young guys being involved in the play. While Harrison appears to have made the actual sack, the first guy there was Sean Spence, who is an amazing story of resilience (on his part) and patience (on the Steelers part.) Many words have been written by a multitude of writers about his courage and persistence, but I think it is easy to overlook the fact the Steelers kept him on the team for two years, even when his current defensive coordinator (then position coach) Keith Butler said it was highly unlikely he would ever play again.

Another of the young guys who was right there was Bud Dupree, the Steelers’ 2015 first round pick. Dupree has attracted a fair number of ridiculous remarks from fans who obviously didn’t read Ivan Cole’s “Training Camp for Fans” series. If you were one of those people, please read this.   Whether or not Dupree manages to make a significant impact this year, he’s clearly on the right path.

And in a lovely case of closing the loop, the other man there was veteran Cameron Heyward. He’s a youngish veteran, but a veteran nonetheless.

So what’s the secret to Harrison’s Fountain of Youth? The simple answer is a combination of money and hard work. Those two things don’t always go together, but in this case I mean the money Harrison spends on taking care of his body.

He famously bought a bariatric chamber several years ago. If you don’t know what that is, you aren’t alone. From the Mayo Clinic website:  

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurized room or tube. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a well-established treatment for decompression sickness, a hazard of scuba diving. Other conditions treated with hyperbaric oxygen therapy include serious infections, bubbles of air in your blood vessels, and wounds that won’t heal as a result of diabetes or radiation injury.

In a hyperbaric oxygen therapy chamber, the air pressure is increased to three times higher than normal air pressure. Under these conditions, your lungs can gather more oxygen than would be possible breathing pure oxygen at normal air pressure.

Your blood carries this oxygen throughout your body. This helps fight bacteria and stimulate the release of substances called growth factors and stem cells, which promote healing.

This sounds like a great idea. The downside is, one of these suckers will set you back between $20,000 and $300,000, although if you’re interested you can pick up a small model on Ebay for several thousand.

But the really expensive part of Harrison’s regimen is bodywork, defined in Dorland’s Medical Dictionary for Health Consumers thusly: “a general term for therapeutic methods that center on the body for the promotion of physical health and emotional and spiritual well-being, including massage, various systems of touch and manipulation, relaxation techniques, and practices designed to affect the body’s energy flow.”

This encompasses a lot of ground. Harrison is a fan of massage, acupunture, and various other therapies which require a six-person live-in staff during the season. As he told Cincinnati sports writer Paul Daugherty in 2013 after signing with the Bengals:  

“I spend between $400,000 and $600,000 on body work, year in and year out.’’

He wasn’t talking about detailing his vehicles. Harrison meant his own body.

“I tried out maybe 150 different massage people. Now I’m down to five. I got six people I regularly see.’’

A chiropractor, he said. An acupuncturist, a homeopathic doctor, a trainer and all those masseuses.

Most people can only bear around 100 acupuncture needles, maximum. I’ve had acupuncture, and 20 needles are a great plenty. Harrison has had up to 300 needles in at once. If you’re strong-minded, click the link to see a photo of him with a lot of needles in place.

So that’s how he takes care of his body. But there is also the workout aspect of it, and Harrison probably spends an equivalent of $400,000 – $600,000 worth of his own sweat in his workout regime. 

The video of him doing push-ups with Antonio Brown on his back was pretty popular, but the one which blew me away was the one of his doing push-ups with Maurkice Pouncey on his back: Warning: the workout music is definitely not G-rated, so if tender ears of any age are around you might want to mute the volume.

Sadly, providing extra weight for Harrison’s push-ups is about all Maurkice Pouncey will be able to contribute for a while. Man is he snake-bitten. He has one fluke accident after another. I’m hoping Harrison will allow him some time in his hyperbaric chamber, and maybe can suggest some bodywork.

However it plays out this season, James Harrison is one incredible story. He swears this is his last year, and I believe him. He wants to spend more time with his boys, and I approve. That time is something you can’t get back, ever.

I’ll be writing more on him later, but for now I will just say how glad I am he is back. I hope he continues to coach and encourage the young guys and teach them a little of the craftiness, or treachery if you will, he has developed over the course of a 14-year career.


  • It’s all about the pass rush this year. Pass rush, like ketchup, can hide a multitude of sins. If the front three can take up the blockers and collapse the pocket, freeing the linebackers to wreak some havoc with the quarterback, the world will be amazed at how much the Steeler secondary has improved. It’s really up to the linebackers.

    If they don’t get the pressure, they’ll look like they did on the Packers’ first drive on Sunday. If they DO get the pressure, they’ll look more like they did the rest of the game.


    • Totally agree, Homer. Everyone has been wringing their hands about the lack of interceptions in the past several years, but a lot of that IMO is due to the lack of pressure up front. We were all annoyed when Warren Sapp call the Steelers old and slow, but he did have a point. Now they’re young and inexperienced, but that means they are on the road to improvement rather than a continual decline.


  • If I could get him to practice yoga with me he could play forever like a 30 year old.


    • I’m sure yoga has a number of benefits, but it’s hard to see how it could help the decline in the speed that you heal as you get older. That’s primarily what Harrison is trying to address with the hyperbaric chamber and so on.


      • Wonder if an improvement in flexibility could make up for some loss in speed. Could he, for example, get lower to avoid a lineman?


        • Interesting point. I’ve often thought that flexibility could benefit some of those guys – they are really strong but a bit stiff. But on the other hand Harrison has been limboing under linemen for years with that little dip move he does, so maybe he’s got that covered…


  • Tomlin and Harrison remind me of the stories of Huang Zhong, an old general. His leige would get him fired up by telling him that an honored general like him should stay back and let the younger men fight. Huang Zhong would break bows in half and then lead his troops to victory.

    Not the Starter, limited snaps, held out of practice to protect him, Tomlin knows how to push James’ buttons.


  • 92 is my favorite Steeler. His work ethic is unequalled. Great that the young LBs see his drive and dedication.


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