In professional football, the distinction between a “cheap shot” and a great hit resides on the slipperiest of ledges, with many lenses of perception examining it.
The most important lens could be considered color—jersey color that is. If the hit is on someone on a team you hate by a player on your team, then it’s just a case of that player “making a hard-nosed play” or “putting his body on the line.”
However, if the roles are reversed, and it’s someone on your team getting hit, then there really aren’t enough bad things that can happen to that expletive piece of expletive, expletive. Fans can be very poetic.
Rodney Harrison was one of the cornerstones of the New England Patriots’ decade of success, though he is retired today. It was a retirement that many could see coming, but that did not make it any less difficult.
Harrison served to keep receivers and quarterbacks alike honest, making sure neither got too comfortable during a game. If someone dared to come over the middle, Rodney made sure they would think twice before doing it again.
While he was an extremely hard hitter, he also had excellent hands, both of which made him the first, and currently, only, player in NFL history with both 30 career sacks and 30 career interceptions.
In his years with the Patriots, he was truly a disruptive force in the defensive backfield. While injuries hampered much of his ability in later years, his presence on the field was something opposing teams always had to account for.
Harrison operated throughout his career in the area where hard hitting ends, and playing dirty begins. Depending on what laundry he wore, he was either a punishing safety or a dirty cheat.
This wasn’t just an opinion among fans either, as the NFL players voted him the dirtiest player in the league not once, but twice. He even got under the skin of many a coach, such as Brian Billick.
From a Patriots perspective, a play that sticks out would be his brutal hit on Josh McCown early on in the 2004 season, a late hit by anyone with a basic understanding of football. The whistle blew, McCown jogged to a halt near the sideline, and Harrison proceeded to spear him mercilessly. Harrison was known for plays like this throughout his career, eliciting cheers from Pats fans and the ire of others.
Harrison is likely the ultimate example of a player you love if he’s on your team, but despise if he’s not. Some of his actions on the field aside, players like this are what make sports great.
Every team needs someone for opposing fans to loathe with every fiber of their being—for example, the Dustin Pedroias, Paul O’Neills, and Sasha Vujacics of the world. Without players like Harrison, fans would never have someone to rally around, knowing their fanbase is likely the only one that feels that way.
Even better, when that player embarrasses the opposition it makes it twice as sweet knowing that it bothers the other side that much more that he got the better of them.
Following his announcement today, that role is now vacant for the New England Patriots.