James Harrison: Undrafted To Unstoppable

TJ JenkinsAnalyst INovember 8, 2009

CINCINNATI - SEPTEMBER 27:  Carson Palmer #9 of the Cincinnati Bengals runs with the ball while defended by James Harrison #92 of the Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium on September 27, 2009 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  The Bengals won 23-20.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Every young boy’s dream is to be a professional football player. Every player who’s ever stepped foot onto the green, gleaming grass on a Friday night dreams of making it to the biggest stage of them all. They emulate their favorite football personalities in their backyard.

The cold, hard truth of the matter is that less than 4% ever see that dream come to fruition. Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison is one of those players.

Harrison was born and raised just down the road from myself, so this story is especially interesting in a hometown hero type of way. He attended Coventry High School in Akron, Ohio and was one of the first African Americans to play football for the school.

He saw his college days end as he went unnoticed in the 2002 NFL Draft, but was shortly after signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers, making him the first Kent State alumni to play linebacker for the Steelers since Jack Lambert.

He, like many other un-drafted rookies spent time on and off the practice squad of the team, eventually making the game day roster, where he was strictly a special teams player. Fellow Steelers linebacker James Farrior has said that when Harrison first came to the team he was so inexperienced that he would give up on plays and even go to the length of asking coaches not to play him when he wasn’t on top of his game.

After the 2003 season he was signed by the AFC North rival Baltimore Ravens and they quickly shipped him overseas to play in the NFL Europe league as a member of the Rhein Fire. He was subsequently cut by the Ravens and the Steelers once more signed him to the active roster after linebacker Clark Haggans sustained an injury during training camp in 2004.

Harrison has been quoted as saying that if he had not gotten signed he would have retired from the game of football to pursue his dream of becoming a veterinarian.

On November 14, he started his first career game after Joey Porter was ejected prior to the game for fighting with Cleveland Browns running back William Green. His first career touchdown came in the final week of the season against the Buffalo Bills on a fumble recovery.

Harrison was the talk of the town after intercepting a Drew Brees pass against the San Diego Chargers, and returning it 25 yard return which included an amazing hurdle over future Hall Of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson. He again was in the news when on Christmas Eve against the Cleveland Browns he body slammed an intoxicated fan that charged onto the field.

Harrison also received a Super Bowl ring from Super Bowl XL even though he played special teams during the game.

2007 would be Harrison’s first year as a full time starter, as new head coach, Mike Tomlin cut Pro Bowl linebacker Joey Porter for salary cap reasons. The team started to build for the future by drafting two linebackers in the first two rounds—Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley. This would be Harrison’s first season where he was voted to the Pro Bowl as well.

His best game of the season came on November 5 in a Monday Night Game against the Ravens. He had nine tackles, three and a half sacks, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovered, and one interception in the game.

He was voted the 2007 Team’s Most Valuable Player for his impressive season which included 98 tackles, eight and a half sacks, seven forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries.

In 2008 Harrison was teamed with bookend pass rushed, LaMarr Woodley after the team allowed Clark Haggans to walk during free agency. Once more he absolutely lit the game up against the Ravens, this time finishing the game with 10 tackles, two and a half sacks, two tackles for loss, and a forced fumble.

Teaming together they had a total of 27.5 sacks, a Steelers team record, with Harrison getting 16 of them and a Steelers record previously held by Mike Merriweather.

Harrison swallowed any bit of pride he may have had during 2008 and played special teams, though he arguably cost the team a game after snapping a ball out of the end zone against the New York Giants.

James Harrison was rewarded for his stellar season by being awarded the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award and became the first un-drafted player to win the award.

Even though he had a spectacular season, the most important play came in Super Bowl XLIII against the Arizona Cardinals where he intercepted a Kurt Warner pass on the goal-line and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown as the first half ended. He currently holds the record for the longest play in a Super Bowl, previously held by Desmond Howard.

The Steelers locked Harrison in for the long haul, as he signed a six year, $51.75 contract extension this offseason.

Harrison is now regarded as one of the most dominant defensive forces in the NFL. His name is mentioned with the premier pass rushers in the league such as DeMarcus Ware, Joey Porter, and Osi Umenyiora. The Steelers faithful expect nothing but the best from the player known to many as "Silverback” or “Mr. Monday Night.”


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