Before we dive too deep into the draft season, I wanted to circle back a bit and talk about—well, the oldest player on the roster, outside linebacker James Harrison. His head coach recently talked about the man who is still playing a demanding position at a high level as he approaches the age of 40.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have quite simply depended upon his services in the past couple of years since he—well, retired. And he is already projected to continue the 2017 season the way he left off in 2016, having regained a starting position that he was already deserving of before he actually got it.
Mike Tomlin talked about what he has meant to the team, and also about the reality that, though he is playing at a high level, it’s not clear how much longer that will continue, and that it may depend upon careful moderation of his play and practice time, no matter how exquisitely he takes care of his conditioning.
“We all have to acknowledge that James has already conquered the odds”, Tomlin told reporters during the owners’ meetings, picked up by the Trib’s Joe Rutter. “He doesn’t fall into convention. His existence doesn’t fall into convention”. That is an interesting way to phrase it, but an accurate one. Nothing about his career has been conventional.
Harrison entered the league as a hot-headed undrafted free agent out of Kent State all the way back in 2002. He was viewed as a tweener who wasn’t tall enough to play the position, but he had a tenacity to his business that had the Steelers bringing him back in the spring every year even though it took him a couple of years to actually make the roster.
Harrison was in the Raven’s organization in 2003, who shipped him off to Germany to play in the now-defunct NFL Europe. How many players currently active can say that they played in NFL Europe? How many alumni of that league went on to find the sort of success that Harrison had later on in his career?
After his flirtation with the Ravens and in Europe, he circled back to the Steelers, however, finally making the roster in 2004 and becoming a special teams standout. He would serve as a backup for the next few years, with a couple of highly significant cameos in the starting lineup, before inheriting Joey Porter’s coveted spot—Porter, who is barely a year older than him and who is now his position coach. Because of course he took his position coach’s job in his convention-defying career.
In his second season as a full-time starter in 2008, Harrison cemented himself as the best defender in football, with the trophy to prove it, and set the Steelers’ single-season sack record. Between then and now, he has played for yet another division rival, retired, and then come back to set the team’s career sack record. And then he decided to come back for more.
Yeah, I think Tomlin was right. James Harrison’s existence is in constant retreat from the conventional.