The play Rodney Harrison remembers fondly from his 15-year career as a Pro Bowl safety is his first play ever. But he doesn’t even remember it.
As a fifth-round draft pick out of Western Illinois, Harrison knew special teams was the place to earn a roster spot.
In the Hall of Fame game, the first game of the preseason, on the first play of the season Harrison made quite an impression.
“I’m on the kickoff team,” Harrison told Bleacher Report. “I ran full speed through the wall. I hit an offensive lineman and a tight end. I woke up on the sidelines and guys were telling me, ‘Great play!’”
Harrison played nine seasons with the Chargers and six with the New England Patriots. He was known as a hard hitter and one who intimidated over the middle of the field. He was once voted the league’s dirtiest player in an ESPN poll of NFL coaches.
Harrison doesn’t see his career in the same light.
“I played with passion and with all of my heart. I tried to be intimidating, but I never tried to play dirty or take anyone’s knees out,” he said. “I would pick you up after I hit you.”
The recent focus on concussions and new rules regulating tackling and targeting are geared toward player safety. Most of the rules seem to affect defensive players, especially defensive backs and more specifically, safeties.
Harrison does not think the rules absolutely guarantee player safety, though.
“Week in and week out we are seeing more and more injuries as players have to hit low instead of high,” he said.
A Yahoo! Sports article spells out how correct Harrison is. The article reports that 177 offensive players who are not linemen have missed at least one game due to injuries; that's a 25 percent increase from the 142.1 average number of players who missed a game through the first seven weeks in the NFL from 2000 to 2013.
The average number of players who missed two or more games through the first seven weeks in the previous 12 seasons was 95.4 players. In 2013 the number is up to 122.
Harrison does not know if the rules will help player safety or shorten careers.
“As a player, you have a warrior mentality,” he said. “Players would rather take a shot high [rather than at the knees]. I get hit in the head and I miss a game or two. But if you take out my knees, my career is done.”
The targeting and tackling rules are designed not only to ensure the safety of “defenseless receivers,” but also those delivering the blow.
Harrison is a prime example.
He admitted that he had numerous concussions, somewhere in the number of 20 to 25 during his NFL days. He isn’t sure.
“I am scared,” Harrison said in regards to his future health. “I didn’t have anything outside of myself before. But now I’m married and have young kids. I wonder how it will affect my lifestyle as a father and as a husband.”
Harrison said he talks to other former players, and they experience a lot of the same symptoms of head injuries that he deals with.
“Most players I talk to have memory loss, headaches, migraines, irritability, sensitivity to light. It is a serious thing,” he said. “We undermine it because guys look OK. Guys look perfectly fine, but end up sitting in the basement with the lights off totally depressed.”
Harrison spent 12 of his 15 years in the NFL in the same huddle as Junior Seau.
Seau took his life in 2012. It is widely speculated that he suffered depression linked to head trauma he sustained from concussions in football.
Harrison said what happened to Seau was “an imperfect storm.”
Harrison said Seau looked and acted fine; he showed no symptoms that caused concern from friends and family.
“Junior was a very smart guy, a very spiritual guy,” Harrison said. “I never thought he was suffering.”
Harrison’s admission of fear regarding his health following a long professional football career comes on the heels of Brett Favre’s admission of being scared about memory loss.
Harrison thinks the rule changes in the NFL and college—players can get expelled from games for illegal hits—may go to the extreme in trying to ensure player safety.
“Sometimes in order for things to change, sometimes you have to go to the extremes. I don’t know if it’s helping,” he said. “I think it’s a little frustrating to the fans. They are used to seeing physical football. Now you’re getting defenses flagged for playing football.”
Harrison is teaming up with Tostitos for the Tostitos Tailgate Throwdown, a sweepstakes giving one winner and 10 friends a trip to the BCS National Championship Game at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 6, 2014. For more information, fans can visit Tostitos on Facebook.