James Harrison, Hero or Thug?
Yes, I know. The title is jarring. But the fact is, while most Steelers fans admire and respect him, outside Steeler Nation, he’s an outlaw — a dirty player.
The fact that I chose to include Deebo in “The Steeler Way” series tips my hand as to where I come down. Yet, I will tell you, as I researched, doing my Going Deep due diligence, I became conflicted. The more I read, the more I reflected.
Steeler fans, I think, feel a real connection to our players. The connection is far from illusory — so many of our players have acknowledged the passionate support. Yet as fans, our connection is superficial. I will never really know James Harrison, but I am compelled to try to understand one of the greatest and most controversial Steelers of all time.
James Harrison is not your typical good guy. I’ve written ten or so pieces in this series about the Steeler Way and the good guys who have either forged it or carried it forward. Some within Steeler Nation and many outside it believe the Steeler way is an illusion, a legend not based in reality. I do believe there is a Steeler Way and, while not perfect, the organization values character in its coaches and its players.
While I am loathe to write about James Harrison’s private life and the negative perceptions of him, it is impossible to write about his tumultuous career without confronting the controversial aspects of the man.
I don’t pretend to be dispassionate about James. Neither his accomplishments nor his mistakes and flaws engender ambivalence.
Jimmy, as he is known within the Steelers organization, was the youngest of fourteen children. His mother, Mildred was a stern disciplinarian, and a firm believer and practitioner of corporal punishment. According to an article in Men’s Journal, linked here, Mildred used a belt she called “Black Beauty” to keep her fourteen children in line. As James recalls, “My mom would come to school and whip us in class.”
James had a nasty temper which caused him a multitude of problems in high school. He was suspended twice and arrested once. High profile universities such as Ohio State lost interest in recruiting him due to his discipline problems. He wound up going to Kent State without a scholarship because he did poorly on the ACT test.
Harrison made the Kent State team as a walk-on. James finally started to grow up under the stern, watchful eye of Mildred. After blowing off nearly a year of school, he hit the books, making the dean’s list and becoming an All-Conference linebacker.
Keep on keeping on.
Despite his accomplishments and perseverance in college James was not invited to the NFL combine. Harrison managed to get an invite to the Steelers training camp in 2002. He got cut. He was signed to the practice squad and was cut twice more in 2002 and 2003. The Ravens signed him sent him to the Rhein Fire in the European League and he was cut again in late 2003.
Harrison considered quitting, but was invited by the Steelers to come to camp in 2004 when Clark Haagans was injured.
During this period, James Farrior remarked
He was a knucklehead that didn’t know the plays. We’d be in practice, in training camp, and he might not know what he was doing so he’d just stop and throw his hands up and tell (the coaches) to get him out of there. We thought the guy was crazy.
Harrison the Starter.
It was three years before Harrison cracked the starting lineup. Despite drafting Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley in the first two rounds of the 2007 draft, Deebo replaced Joey Porter as starting ROLB. It wasn’t long before Harrison eased any qualms about the decision to let Joey become a free agent.
On November 5, he played a game which is as etched in Steeler lore as any. Against the hated Ravens, James had three and a half sacks, forced three fumbles, recovered a fumble, made nine tackles and an interception. Especially memorably was the crushing tackle of Ed Reed on a punt return, forcing a fumble. That game established Deebo as the Steelers’ yard boss.
James’ greatest play ever may just be the greatest play in Super Bowl history. With time running down in the first half, the Steelers lead 10-7 with Arizona driving down to the one yard line. With 18 seconds to go, the Cardinals appeared ready to tie the game or take the lead. Kurt Warner dropped back to pass. Harrison was supposed to rush the QB, but read the play and dropped in pass coverage. 92 jumped Anquan Boldin’s route, snagging the pass at the goal line.
Harrison darted through traffic, picking up blockers, managing to evade them all, including a desperation tackle attempt by Larry Fitzgerald. Harrison’s record setting interception return put the Steelers ahead 17-7 at the half instead of being tied or behind. Harrison lay in the end zone, totally gassed. The play was indescribably delicious.
The Super Bowl win capped off a season in which Harrison was named Defensive Player of the Year. James was the first undrafted player ever to win the award.
It appeared Deebo’s Steeler career ended in 2013. The Steelers wanted him to take a pay cut for 2013. The 35 year old linebacker refused, and tested the open market. He eventually signed with the Bengals for less than the Steelers had offered.
Harrison announced his retirement in 2014, not wanting to spend another year away from his sons, who still lived in Pittsburgh. When first round draft pick Ryan Shazier was injured, the Steelers came calling. James was still reluctant to return. After overtures by long time teammates, Bret Keisel, Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu, he agreed to return for 2014.
While Harrison helped stabilize an aging defense with a lot of young linebackers, his skills had degraded some in 2014 as he worked his way back into shape. He played well enough last year for the Steelers to re-sign him to a two year contract before this season.
DC Keith Butler thought James would get about 15-25 snaps per game this year. Harrison surprised everyone but himself by playing his best ball since 2012 and has played 1/2 to 3/4 of the snaps in nearly every game.
Those who frequent this site know Deebo’s time in Pittsburgh has not been free from controversy. Harrison was arrested for domestic assault of his partner, Beth Tibbit, in 2008. The couple was arguing over whether their son would be baptized. James broke down a door and slapped Ms. Tibbitt. The charges were dropped after Harrison got counseling, but many claimed a double standard as Cedrick Wilson was cut after a domestic abuse incident.
We are all more than aware of the criticism of Harrison for his signature big hits. In 2010, he was fined a total of $120,000 by the league for various “illegal” hits. The general opinion outside Steeler Nation was and probably still is that Harrison is a headhunter and a dirty player.
After the 2010 season, Harrison was interviewed for an in-depth interview in Mens’ Journal, linked above. James, never one to soften his opinions (or language) ranted about a number of subjects, most especially, Roger Goodell. While his disdain for the Commissioner received plenty of publicity in the aftermath of the fines, Harrison’s punctuated his grievances with profane invective.
“My rep is James Harrison, mean son of a bitch who loves hitting the hell out of people,” he says. “But up until last year, there was no word of me being dirty – till Roger Goodell, who’s a crook and a puppet, said I was the dirtiest player in the league. If that man was on fire and I had to piss to put him out, I wouldn’t do it. I hate him and will never respect him.”
He went on to call Goodell a “punk” and a “dictator,” as well as a pejorative for a gay man. He also had less than glowing words for other NFL officials, the Patriots, Rodney Harrison, Teddy Bruschi, Clay Matthews, Big Ben and Rashard Mendenhall, and others. James apologized for his remarks the day after the article appeared.
Hero or Thug?
Certainly, there are things James Harrison has said and done that I do not agree with. Clearly, his domestic abuse incident is a big one. The Rooneys obviously had faith enough in Harrison’s character to give him a another chance. I believe the Rooney family has displayed enough character through the years for me to trust in the sincerity that their decision was based on their belief in James as a man. Whether Harrison’s value as a player impacted any part of the decision is impossible for me to know, but on questions of doing the right thing, I’m quite comfortable trusting the Rooney family. They’ve earned it.
It’s important that James called the team immediately. He accepted responsibility, apologized and attended anger management courses. There has been no recurrence of domestic violence involving James that we know of. James and Beth Tibbit are still together raising their sons. The trust the Steelers organization placed in James on this issue appears to have been well placed.
Harrison’s high profile run-ins with the league office and the “illegal” hits which caused them caused me some conflict as well. I started to look these 2010 events through 2015 eyes. Clearly, that’s as wrong as Harrison’s difficulty in accepting the NFL’s new rules on illegal hits. The increase in knowledge regarding the dangers of concussions and CTE is only now becoming widely known. Whether you like it or not, the rules of football have changed and we have become accustomed to holding players responsible for avoiding head shots on defenseless players.
That said, I started to think about what it was like for James Harrison in 2010. For its entire history football reveled in the big hit. When James was coming up, linebackers were celebrated for terrorizing the opposition with bone jarring blows. Butkus, Nitschke, Lambert, LT, Hendricks. That was how the game was played.
Understand how hard Deebo, the workout warrior, worked to become perhaps the strongest, fittest, most feared linebacker in the game. James had no college scholarship, no invitation to the combine. He wasn’t selected in the NFL draft. He was cut four times from the Steelers and Ravens. He was 29 years old before he became a full time starter in 2007. Imagine all the times he wondered if he would fail. I truly wonder what kind of mental strength kept him going through all the rejection.
Yet 2008, he was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He was a hero in the Super Bowl. Even now at age 37 he plays at a high level, getting a sack against the Bengals in the playoffs.
Imagine working your whole life to achieve your dream, to become the best you can be, only to have the rules changed. Changed to something you don’t even recognize as football. To have tackles which were celebrated as great plays be called dirty hits. His anger at the Commissioner, if not justified, is certainly understandable—Harrison has dedicated his life to becoming an All Pro linebacker.
Misguided or not, he still believes the game should be played with the big hits. The best evidence of that was his stated belief that Burfict’s hit on AB should not be illegal. That’s old school. Nevertheless, James has played within the rules without major incidents since the 2010 season.
I admire James Harrison. I respect what he’s accomplished, his dedication his game and to the team I love. His willingness to stand up to Goodell was brave, considering the scrutiny he was under. James’ words were harsh, undoubtedly, but he spoke from the heart. Whether or not you endorse his manner of expression, I don’t think there is any BS in him. He knows what he believes and is unapologetic in expressing it.
I don’t know whether those outside Steeler Nation see Harrison the way Steeler fans view Vontaze Burfict. I hope not, but it’s not something I really worry about. I suspect Deebo doesn’t lose any sleep over it either.
He’s overcome the doubters at every point on his journey. He may truly be one of the last of the old school big hit linebackers. Football has to change if it is to survive, and while I see the need to protect our players, part of me will always be nostalgic for the days when James Harrison anchored the defense by striking fear into the hearts of ball carriers and quarterbacks.