Fielding top defenses have long been a staple of the ball club, beginning with the legendary Steel Curtain defenses of the 70s and leading into the last decade. The team has long been synonymous for it’s stellar linebacker play, and they’re often looked at as the heartbeat of the entire defense. With two of the best to ever put on pads, Jack Lambert and Jack Ham, already in Canton, could there be another one headed there?When you’re given the nickname “Silverback” by your teammates and peers, it should be an indication of the type of player you are. An intimidating presence whether playing the run, or coming off the edge, James Harrison strikes fear in the opponents any time he steps foot on the field.
“I believe I’m the toughest guy in the world,”
Harrison said. “It’s just that you’re never going to hear me say that somebody is tougher than me. Because I don’t believe somebody else could be tougher than me.”Known for his trademark bull-rush and brute strength, it was not uncommon to see him fork-lift opposing tackles up off their feet and knock them on their backside on his way to the quarterback.
“He brings a tough persona to our football team,” Butler said. “And he does not shy away from contact.”Going undrafted out of Kent State despite setting the single season sacks record, he went through a merry-go round of roster moves, getting cut four times, three by the Steelers and once by Baltimore, before finally landing back in a black and gold uniform. A relative unknown and training camp body, I still remember to this day, reading the training camp recap in the summer of ’04 or ’05 and reading about the goal line drills, which feature live contact and hellacious hitting. Jerome Bettis, the team’s beloved emotional locker room leader, was a tank when he ran the football, and I remember reading about this James Harrison guy who never backed down from him, and the collisions between the two during the drill sounding like claps of thunder.
“That’s a mean dude,” Bettis said of Harrison. “Just plain mean.”
After biding his time behind the man he replaced, Joey Porter, Harrison introduced his vicious, throwback style of play to the league. In his first year as a full-time starter in 2007, he gained the nickname “Mr. Monday Night” for a performance for the ages against the Ravens. He had 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception.
The following season, he was given the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award. That year, on the league’s nastiest defense, Harrison set the Steelers’ season sack record, posting 16 along with an NFL-leading seven forced fumbles.
His play that year helped catapult the team to Super Bowl XLIII, where he made arguably the greatest play, not only in Super Bowl history, but Steelers history as well. Their opponent, the Arizona Cardinals, looked like they’d be taking a 14-10 lead into halftime. However, Harrison made a breathtaking play, snaring Kurt Warner‘s ill-advised pass and bumbling 100 yards for a momentum-swinging touchdown, the longest in Super Bowl history.
He helped lead the team to another Super Bowl appearance in Super Bowl XLV taking on the Green Bay Packers, where they fell short, losing 31-25. Along the way, that season he racked up in excess of $100,000 in fines for late or unnecessary hits. His barbaric style of play could arguably fit in any era of NFL history.
After being let go by Pittsburgh due to injuries and a youth movement, he was asked to come out of retirement during the 2014 season due to injuries to the team’s linebacking corps, and he performed in a huge way. Despite missing the first several games of the year, and not quite being in “game-shape”, Harrison, now 36, registered 5 and a half sacks down the stretch, and left his fingerprints all over the defense. The addition of Harrison back into the defense was almost like a heart transplant, as he added a physical presence that the rest of the defense fed off of, leading to it’s resurgence down the stretch. His leadership set the tone for the defense, and he added an immediate physical presence that was much-needed.
Harrison is on a short list of defensive players of the year for Pittsburgh. The others are Rod Woodson, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount and Joe Greene. The question now becomes does Harrison have the credentials to make it into Canton? Despite not getting started until later in his career, he was a wrecking ball in the league for over half a decade, and has 2 Super Bowl rings and a DPOY award to back them up. He also has the highlight reel play of a lifetime with his SB pick-six. In 2011, Bleacher Report put his odds at greater than 50 percent, citing the following:
“James Harrison has been somewhat understated during a brilliant NFL career that has featured multiple awards and Super Bowl wins. He may suffer from other talented players of this Steelers team making the Hall (Polamalu, Roethlisberger).”
With his status for 2015 in limbo, he showed in 2014 he has plenty of gas left in the tank. He currently has 71.5 career sacks, more than Greg Lloyd, another Steelers great who’s name is also thrown around as a potential HOF candidate. Whether Harrison returns in Pittsburgh, or follows Dick LeBeau to Tennessee, as some have rumored, that sack total will only climb, perhaps inching Harrison closer to immortality. Ask any Steelers fan though, and they’ll most likely tell you that he already is.
“Superman ain’t got nothing on me,” he said.