More than any other team in NFL history, the Pittsburgh Steelers have cornered the market on great homegrown linebackers during the Super Bowl era. From 1970 to the present, the Steelers have had at least one dominant linebacker each decade, that gave offensive coordinators and quarterbacks nightmares. In the 70’s, it was Andy Russell, Jack Ham, and Jack Lambert. The 80’s offered Mike Merriweather and Robin Cole, while the 90’s provided the Steelers with Greg Lloyd, Chad Brown, Levon Kirkland, and Jason Gilson. From 2000- present, the Steelers have deployed Joey Porter, Kendrell Bell, Larry Foote, Lamar Woodley, and a beast who is still wreaking havoc, James Harrison. While Harrison may not provide the chatter of others on this list, he has quite possibly inflicted the most damage of them all. On Novemer 20, 2016, James Harrison took down Cody Kessler of the Cleveland Browns, surpassing Jason Gildon as the Steelers all-time sack leader, which is amazing considering how shaky of a start his got off to.
The early years
James Harrison went undrafted in the 2002 NFL Draft for basically two reason, teams feared he was too small to play linebacker in the NFL, and too light to line up as a defensive end, but both Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher saw something in the linebacker out of Kent State, and signed him as an undrafted free agent. Why not, the Steelers had success with another intense athlete from Kent State, Jack Lambert. Shortly after he arrived at camp, Harrison’s frustration with picking up Dick LeBeau’s difficult defensive scheme became very clear, as he would just throw his hands up and quit in the middle of a play.
James Farrior was around to witness Harrison’s frustration. Farrior told NFL Network that Harrison was so green early on in his career that he would simply “give up” on plays on which he was struggling and even would ask the coaches not to play him. Farrior said, “He was a knucklehead that didn’t know the plays. We’d be in practice outing training camp, and he might not know what he was doing, so he’d just stop and throw his hands up and tell coaches to get him out of there”. Farrior went on to say, “We thought the guy was crazy.”
With the exception of being briefly activated towards the end of the 2002 season, James Harrison spent the better part of two seasons bouncing on and off the Steelers practice squad. In 2003, he was signed to the Baltimore Ravens practice squad and assigned to play with the Rhein Fire in NFL Europe. Shortly after that however, the Ravens released Harrison, who began to consider that it may be time to move on towards his life’s work. During training camp in 2004, Clark Haggans injured himself in the weight room, so the Steelers re-signed Harrison, who spent most of the season on special teams. It wasn’t until Joey Porter got himself suspended during a pregame fight with William Green, in Cleveland, that Harrison got his first career start, a game in which Harrison recorded his first NFL sack.
From 2004 through 2006, James Harrison started in only 8 of his first 43 games, collecting just 4 sacks, but that time wasn’t wasted. During those three seasons, Harrison was biding his time doing the dirty work of a special teams demon and giving a preview of what he could bring to the defense as a starter. In 2007 the James Harrison era officially began for the Steelers defense, and at 29 years old, “Deebo” began making up for lost time in a hurry. In his first year as a starter in 2007, Harrison racked up a career high 76 tackles, 8.5 sacks, and 1 interception. He followed that up, in 2008, with an NFL Defensive Player of The Year award at age 30, after a 67 tackle, 16 sack, and 1 interception season.
In Super Bowl XLIII, Harrison showed why he was the best defensive player in the NFL, returning an interception 100 yards for a touchdown, a Super Bowl record, giving the Steelers the momentum, and a 17-7 halftime lead. From 2007 to 2012 Harrison dropped opposing quarterbacks a total of 60 times, and was a ferocious hitter of running backs and wide receivers. In 2010, his vicious but legal hit on Cleveland Browns receiver Mohamed Massoquoi led to a knee-jerk reaction by Roger Goodell that spawned a $75,000 fine for Harrison, and a midweek rules change that made tackling in a safe fashion a much harder proposition for defensive players. An outspoken Harrison was left to ask how he was supposed to change his target area in mid-tackle when a running back or receiver suddenly changed his pad level.
2013: From the Bengals to retirement
Following the 2012 season, James Harrison was asked to take a pay cut in order to remain with the Steelers, which he promptly refused, and ended up signing for less money with the Cincinnati Bengals. Miscast in a 4-3 defense, Harrison had one of his worst seasons, getting in on only 16 tackles and 2 sacks in 10 starts. On August 30, 2014, James Harrison announced his retirement, saying the urge to squeeze in one more season no longer competes with the need to stay at home. On September 5, 2014, Harrison signed a one day contract so that he could officially retire a Pittsburgh Steeler.
“My love for the game isn’t strong enough to make up for missing one more birthday or first day of school,” Harrison posted on his Facebook page. “I am retiring as a man who is truly grateful for all of his blessings.”
Harrison called the decision “a difficult one” but insisted he has no regrets.
“My love for my family and the need to be there for them outweighs my desire to play the game,” he wrote.
In true Deebo fashion, Harrison made it a point to take one final shot at Roger Goodell on his way out the door, while thanking the Pittsburgh Steelers organization, and the fans, for all they gave him.
The Return of James Harrison
On September 23, 2014, it was officially announced that James Harrison was returning to the Pittsburgh Steelers following an injury to linebacker Jarvis Jones, who suffered a dislocated wrist while sacking Carolina Panthers quarterback, Cam Newton. Ending one of the shortest retirements in NFL history, James Harrison’s return coincided with the Steelers return to the postseason. Since his return, Harrison has helped lead the Steelers to the playoffs in all three seasons, and has become the Steelers all-time leader with 79.5 sacks. Harrison also led the league in “random”drug tests in 2016, being selected for one in three consecutive weeks at one point, despite never have failing one over his entire career. James Harrison owes his longevity to his legendary workouts, rather than the PED’s that Roger Goodell and the league dream of busting him over, so forget about it boys, this is how he gets it done, with a unique set of strength training exercises.
With 15 sacks, and more playing time than expected since his return, James Harrison is looking to play another two years with the hope of winning one more Super Bowl. He obviously believes that his current teammates are capable of making that happen, and he wants to make sure he is there to help lead them. At 39 years old, Harrison puts more work into his game than a majority of the 22 year old rookies looking to break into the league, a fact which has not been lost on the Steelers young linebackers like Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree. While he is still capable of doing most of the things he did on the field 10 years ago, it is his leadership that keeps the Steelers wanting this legend to come back for more.