James Harrison: The NFL's Real-Life Superhero Defying Father Time

Mike TanierNFL National Lead WriterAugust 22, 2017

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22:  James Harrison #92 of the Pittsburgh Steelers walks off the field after the New England Patriots defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 36-17 to win the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

Do you remember all the hoopla around Tom Brady's 40th birthday in early August? Well, James Harrison doesn't. 

"I didn't know he turned 40," Harrison said, just a week after Brady's birthday was treated like the coronation of a king in some quarters of the sports world. "I thought he was already 40."

How could Harrison miss it? Brady celebrations and retrospectives were all over the internet and on television…

"Especially if it was on TV," he said. "I haven't watched TV in I don't know how long.

"I watch cartoons, that's it," he added. "Cartoon Network."

OK, so the only time Harrison watches television is when he watches cartoons with his kids…

"No. No."

Harrison watches Adult Swim. "You got Family Guy. American Dad. Stuff like that."

Got it. The Brady birthday questions are pertinent, of course, because Harrison turns 40 in March.

"No I don't."

OK…that must be some mind-over-matter, age-is-just-a-number affirmation, right? It couldn't just be some reporter's sloppy error, could it? The kind that makes an awkward interview even more awkward?

"I turn 40 in May," he said with a stony glare.

Oops. Harrison didn't sound thrilled about agreeing to this interview. He definitely doesn't look pleased that the interviewer has his facts mixed up.

            

That Edge About Him

James Harrison is an intimidating figure.

That isn't a unique characteristic among NFL players, especially defenders, particularly veteran defenders who have been to Super Bowls and have been asked countless stupid questions spanning nearly two decades. Most of them cease to be intimidating after you stand in front of them with a recorder, ask a few more stupid questions and live to tell the tale.

James Harrison at the start of camp. Reporter gaggles like these are rare—and brief.
James Harrison at the start of camp. Reporter gaggles like these are rare—and brief.Keith Srakocic/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

But there's something about Harrison's cold stare, his deliberate gait (he walks like a cross between a weary construction worker and a tremor-causing kaiju monster), his whole bearing. Harrison, the tough guy among tough guys, workout warrior among workout warriors and ageless veteran among ageless veterans, takes inapproachability to the next level.

Naturally, that makes him a challenging interview subject.

James, what keeps your competitive fire burning?

"Love of the game."

It's that simple?

Harrison nods.

What element of the game? The hitting? The fans?

"Football itself. It's got nothing to do with the crowds. It's about trying to win the Lombardi."

Do you set individual goals to keep you motivated?

"My goal is to win. Win the Lombardi. That's the only goal I got. That's the ultimate goal. After that, any accolades that come after that, it's cool. But the ultimate goal is to win a championship."

No sack goals?

"No?"

Weightlifting or fitness goals?

Harrison shakes his head.

This is not going well.

"He's an awesome dude," explained linebacker Arthur Moats, Harrison's teammate for three seasons. "But man, he does have that edge about him. When he's here to work, he's here to work. You don't mess with him."

When Moats joined the Steelers in 2014, he was a four-year pro and Harrison had just announced his (brief) retirement. "When I first met him, I wanted to go and say 'What's up? Congratulations!'" Moats said. "Even then, he still had that look like 'you don't just walk up on me.'

"I was going to just keep walking out of that locker room."

As cautious as veterans and grizzled reporters feel they have to be around Harrison, imagine what it's like for rookies.

"My first interaction with him, I was sorta scared s--tless," said second-year linebacker Tyler Matakevich, recalling his introduction to Harrison last year.

"But then, as you get to know him, he's a good dude."

Getting beneath that shell, however, is not easy.

         

Sort of Surreal

At the age of 38, Harrison led the Steelers in sacks last season with five.
At the age of 38, Harrison led the Steelers in sacks last season with five.Frank Victores/Associated Press

To understand what it means to play 15 years in the NFL the way Harrison has, consider that Moats—who turns 30 years old in (triple-checks) March and has played in 113 regular-season and postseason NFL games—entered the league looking up to Harrison. He was already a four-time Pro Bowler, a former Defensive Player of the Year and a hero of Super Bowl XLIII when Moats started his career.

"I was a huge fan of his," Moats said. "My first two or three years in Buffalo, I would watch film on him. I tried to study him, emulate his style."

The Steelers have signed and drafted many young linebackers since Harrison returned from his strange hiatus (one year with the Bengals, a few weeks of retirement) of 2013-14. But all of his would-be successors—from top draft picks like Jarvis Jones (now with the Cardinals), Bud Dupree and current rookie T.J. Watt to role players and lower-round picks like Moats and Matakevich—have failed to achieve the success Harrison had in his heyday.

The Steelers recorded 51 sacks during their 2008 Super Bowl run: 16 by Harrison in a DPOY season, another 20 by fellow linebackers LaMarr Woodley, James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons. The Steelers recorded just 38 sacks last season, and Harrison led the team with five.

The young (and not so young) Steelers linebackers do not feel like they are hurting for mentorship. "When you come in as a guy who already has four years in, you feel like, 'I know myself. I'm good,'" Moats said. "Then you hear things from [Harrison] and realize, 'I can take things so much further.'"

Matakevich adds: "It truly is something special to work with him and just watch how he prepares and goes about his day. That's a perfect role model to see how to go about being a pro."

Harrison said, "I don't judge people when they come in, like, 'do they know more than the guys five years before that?'" But he does lead them, by example if not always by words.

"Guys just need to come in and learn the defense," Harrison said. "After that, you need to learn what you have to do to take care of yourself. What you need to do to stay out there on the field. And that's just taking care of your body, making sure you have the right people around."

         

Know Your Limitations

Hundreds of thousands of fans have watched the videos. You know the ones. The images of Harrison's dragging, lifting or otherwise easily manhandling weights so massive they look like they belong on shipping barges, or of Harrison and select teammates playing volleyball with a medicine ball, and so on.

You also may have heard about the alternative therapies, from acupuncture to tempering (rolling heavy weights across the muscles) to cupping (a suction-based technique which looks like medieval torture).

Indeed, "taking care of your body" means something different for Harrison than it does for most mortals. He spends approximately $300,000 per year on his health regimen and charters a private plane to fly wherever he chooses to go for whatever treatment he feels necessary.

Harrison is as matter-of-fact about his exotic, exhaustive health regimen as he is about everything else. "Everything works in tandem with everything else," Harrison said. "Some things work better this week than other things.

"Sometimes just regular deep-tissue massage works better than cupping. Sometimes cupping works better than tissue massage. Sometimes acupuncture works better than all of them. It's depends on what's going on with your body at the time."

Teammates approach the Harrison workouts the way they initially approach Harrison himself: warily. Safety Mike Mitchell told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler in early August that he has also invests heavily in everything from tempering to acupuncture, but he drew the line after one cupping session. "It made my skin red," he said.

Linebacker Vince Williams, who works out with Harrison in Arizona in the offseason, once matched a Harrison feat by pushing a sled holding over 800 pounds of weights 15 yards. Harrison posted a video of himself moving 1,080 pounds of weights the same distance soon after.

Other teammates don't dare try to compete. "I know my limitations," Matakevich said.

"I always tell myself, 'Whatever he does, try to stay within a certain pound range, like 30 pounds or 50 pounds,'" Moats said. "Because he's going to do something that just makes you say, 'Wow. I'm leaving.'"

"Some of things he does, you just say, 'If he is doing that, I'm just gonna do it with the bar.'"

Some teammates do ask Harrison for advice but limit their requests to his treatment sessions. "I'm not a professional trainer," Harrison said. "I'm a professional athlete. I do what I'm told to do by my trainers."

But Harrison's approach to fitness does rub off on teammates, even if only by osmosis.

"It's changed the way I train, in season and out of season," Moats said.

            

Harrison drives a fire truck. He just does.
Harrison drives a fire truck. He just does.Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

Not an Excited Guy

Beyond the icy stares and jaw-dropping workouts lies a "dry, sarcastic, hilarious sense of humor," according to Matakevich, and it wasn't missing at training camp this year.

When Antonio Brown arrived for training camp in a vintage convertible Rolls-Royce, Harrison found the perfect vehicle to upstage him: a fire truck.

"It's just another way to come in to camp," Harrison said, as if folks roll up for work in fire trucks every day. "A friend of mine gave me the idea, and we were able to hook it up with [training-camp host] Saint Vincent College."

Harrison's father was a truck driver. Harrison likes trucks and holds a CDL license to drive them.

So, Harrison is asked, Have you driven a fire truck before?

"Yeah."

A long pause. Most non-firefighters would elaborate a bit about how they came to have fire-truck driving experience. But most of those people are not Harrison.

Did you drive one as part of the training for a CDL?

"No, I have just driven a fire truck."

Fair enough.

Harrison also delighted fans at an open practice at Heinz Field by taking the field in a Ben Roethlisberger jersey and imitating Big Ben's routine during player introductions.

"I didn't have to study. I've just been watching him for the last 14 years," Harrison told reporters after that practice. "I just put my one finger up."

Harrison as Roethlisberger.
Harrison as Roethlisberger.Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

What prompts Harrison's pranks and gags? Is he rewarding the loyal Steelers fans by displaying a rarely seen other side to his personality? Keeping himself focused and interested during the drudging routine of training camp, which he has known by rote for years?

"It's just something different," he said. "Something fun to do. I've done the same thing, but it's been in private practices. I've done it when there's no one else around but us."

Finally, a glimpse of Harrison the veteran leader and mentor at work, breaking the monotony and tension of camp, keeping the fellas loose, building chemistry and esprit de corps. Right?

"No, it's just whatever it is I feel like doing at the time," he said. "What would be fun to get a laugh from the fellas, or whatever."

Those fun moments this summer have been fleeting. It wasn't until that Heinz Field practice Aug. 4 that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin chose to, as he said, "take the wrapper off old 92" and got him into a full practice.

Harrison spent most training-camp sessions stalking the far practice fields of Saint Vincent College in a hoodie and sweatpants. While his teammates practiced, Harrison either stood beside Tomlin, led the ranks of the injured and suspended through some low-impact stretches or just broodingly roamed in the distance like some great gray yeti.

"It's less about James," Tomlin said. "It's more about providing opportunities to some younger and developing guys.

"James is at the point in his career where he doesn't require a bunch of physical reps in order to be game-ready. So we are utilizing that in terms of his preservation but also for the good of developing young guys like T.J. Watt."

Watt and others (including Matakevich) appear to be benefiting from the extra reps. And surely Harrison must appreciate the reduced wear and tear. Like Tomlin says, he doesn't need much preparation to be ready. Right?

"Well, you need to get in there and get the reps and everything else," Harrison said. "But that's not up to me. That's up to the coach."

But after 13 seasons, Harrison must at least be comfortable with the care the Steelers have shown for keeping him healthy?

"I'm comfortable with whatever they want me to do."

Will you get enough work to be ready by the start of the season?

"I don't know. That's something we'll deal with when the time comes."

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

With Harrison, it's hard to tell if you are touching a nerve or just running straight into a brick wall.

You don't sound excited about being held out of practices like this.

"It doesn't matter," he said. "I'm not an excited guy."

A few days later, Steelers assistant coach (and Harrison's former teammate) Joey Porter referred to Harrison as a "relief pitcher" and "safety net," indicating that Watt and Dupree were the anticipated starters, with Harrison relegated to a specialist role.

"Oh, OK, if that's what they say, all right," Harrison told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "That's fine if that's what they want me to do."

Perhaps it really is fine. There's one opponent that even Harrison knows he can neither intimidate nor defeat.

         

Another Day

Having settled the issue of his actual birthdate, Harrison is genuinely curious about the Brady extravaganza which slipped past him.

"I have no idea what they did," Harrison said. "Did they do something big?"

I caught him up on details of the birthday bash, from live goats in Brady jerseys to avocado ice cream.

"Oh that's cool," Harrison said, sounding like he actually thought it was cool. Harrison, though, neither wants nor expects similar birthday hoopla next May.

"Nothing special," he said, when asked what he has planned for the big four-oh. It's another day."

Only 32 non-kickers or punters have played NFL football at age 40. Tom Brady will be the 33rd on opening day. He will also be the 18th quarterback to play past his 40th birthday, leaving just 15 men who hit or get hit for a living on every play to reach the unofficial start of middle age while still playing professional football.

That list of 15 includes some of the sport's most celebrated and ferocious iron men: Jim Marshall, Bruce Smith, Bruce and Clay Matthews, Jackie Slater, Junior Seau. Harrison will almost certainly join them next year. He doesn't plan on celebrating the accomplishment, perhaps because he isn't thinking too hard about retirement yet.

Though his 40th birthday is next May, Harrison has no plans at this time to stop playing football anytime soon.
Though his 40th birthday is next May, Harrison has no plans at this time to stop playing football anytime soon.Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

"No. I'm playin' ball right now," Harrison said.

Suddenly, the words flow unbidden. "How long will that be? I don't know. That's not really up to me. I can do what I can to make that time longer. But that's just prayer. I've been blessed to be in this game as long as I have been, blessed to be able to come back to it. I've been blessed to not have any serious injuries in however many years.

"So that's something that wouldn't be up to me."

It's Gonna Take a Lot of Work

A few days after Harrison answered my questions with (finite) patience, an internet brushfire erupted when a dubiously sourced quote attributed to Harrison circulated on social media.

The quote, debunked by the Steelers' public relations department and later denounced by Harrison himself on Instagram, condemned national anthem protests, with Harrison supposedly saying, "Anyone on my team sits for the anthem, they better be in a wheelchair."

The hoax snookered some famous athletes and others who were a little too eager to believe fanfic that they agreed with. The remark does superficially sound like something close to what Harrison might say. After all, he once called Roger Goodell "a crook and a puppet." What words Harrison chooses to share are never minced.

But if Harrison doesn't want to voice an opinion, dragging words out of him is like dragging a 1,080-pound sled across a field. It's ridiculous to think that some random radio host could suddenly goad him into leaping into a culture war.

Harrison only watches Cartoon Network, anyway. Who knows what other current events fail to pierce his singularity of focus?

Perhaps the secret to Harrison's longevity is not purely physical.

That impenetrable shell and inapproachable edge insulates Harrison from the nonsense. He meets fame on his own terms. Harrison has been fined for his vicious hits and was named (along with Peyton Manning and others) in the Guyer Institute performance-enhancing drug scandal of 2015-16 (the NFL cleared Harrison following its own probe into the allegations). Yet he hasn't been whittled away by a thousand little controversies, grudges and scandals.

When he really has something to say, we listen. And when he performs superheroic feats of strength, we watch.

Vince Williams joked to reporters in early August about the remarkable predictability of Harrison's fitness routine. "'Deebo' works out every morning at 5 o'clock," Williams said. "Every single morning. I was making a joke the other day. I was, like, 'Man, if I ever wanted to kidnap you it would be so easy because I always know where you are.'"

I recounted Williams' remarks to Harrison and then asked him, If I wanted to 'easily' kidnap you, how many guys should I bring with me?

Harrison laughed. Finally.

"I don't know, man," he said. "It depends. Where do you wanna take me? If we are going to a spa or something, I'll walk out with you. You don't have to bring nobody but one person."

A day at the spa with Harrison? That might involve a bed of nails or something. No, how big an army would it take to kidnap you against your will?

"To be honest with you, you aren't gonna take me. If you're gonna take me, it's gonna take a lot of work that you're gonna need to do."

That sounds like the real Harrison. He will do what he wants to do on his own terms. Getting him to do things on someone else's terms? It's not just scary or hard. It's impossible.