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Ron Cook: James Harrison’s Steelers career was simply unforgettable

By Ron Cook Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (MCT) • Updated Sep 3, 2014 at 10:20 PM

James Harrison was fined $50,000 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Cleveland Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi in 2010 and suspended for one game for a brutal hit on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy in 2011. But it was another Cleveland man who took a worse beating from Harrison during Harrison’s days with the Steelers. It happened when the man staggered out of the stands and onto the field at Cleveland Stadium on Christmas Eve 2005. Harrison grabbed him from behind and body-slammed him to the turf. Check it out on YouTube. It’s priceless.

“I told him if something happens from the league, if you get fined, whatever, guys will chip in because that was a laugh I’m going to remember forever,” Steelers linebacker Joey Porter said that day.

Harrison’s career in Pittsburgh was unforgettable. The memories came rushing back Saturday when he announced his retirement on Facebook after 10 NFL seasons, the first nine with the Steelers, the last with the Cincinnati Bengals last season. There was so much good, including an NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 2008, the same season he made the greatest play in Super Bowl history. There also was so much controversy, including the fines, suspension and his battles with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, whom he once called a “crook” and a “devil.”

Bottom line?

“He’s been the most dominant player on the best defense in football,” Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy said of Harrison in 2008.

“He can do it all,” NFL analyst Phil Simms said. “He can beat tackles. He can beat tight ends. He can cover. He’s an unbelievable tackler. He is a special player.”

Who could have guessed Harrison’s career would play out as it did after he was undrafted out of Kent State, played briefly for the Rhein Fire of NFL Europe and was released four times before sticking with the Steelers in 2004?

OK, Harrison’s teammates probably guessed it after seeing him routinely show up first in the morning at team headquarters to get an early start in the weight room.

“The man works his (tail) off every day,” defensive end Brett Keisel said.

Harrison’s time with the Steelers, after five Pro Bowls, two All-Pro selections and that defensive player of the year award, did not end well. The team still wanted him after the 2012 season, but he refused to take a pay cut and was released. After he found little interest as a free agent, he came back to the Steelers with hopes of re-signing, but the team told him it no longer wanted him. Each side allowed personal feelings to get in the way of a good business deal.

The unnecessary split did not change the fact that Harrison was one of the best players in Steelers history.

Harrison’s best game was in 2007 against the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field when he had 3 1/2 sacks, 9 tackles, 3 forced fumbles and an interception. He was so good that night in a 38-7 win that he trumped Ben Roethlisberger’s five touchdown passes in the first half, so good that he received a handwritten congratulatory note from another Steelers linebacker of note, a fellow named Lambert. “It was motivational,” Harrison said.

Harrison’s best season was 2008 when he set the Steelers record with 16 sacks and led the NFL with 7 forced fumbles. He saved his best for last with a play that easily could have made him Super Bowl XLIII MVP in the 27-23 win against the Arizona Cardinals. The Steelers led, 10-7, when the Cardinals had a first-and-goal on the 1 with 18 seconds left in the second quarter. Harrison intercepted a Kurt Warner pass and returned it 100 yards, tumbling into the end zone as time expired in the half to give the Steelers a 17-7 lead. Along the way, he broke or sidestepped six tackles.

“I had to do whatever I could to get to the other end zone and get seven,” Harrison said.

“It swung the momentum big time,” Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby said. “We had them on the ropes. They were about to go down. I thought they were about to fold, but Harrison came out and made a great play.”

Harrison was the center of attention again the next time the Steelers played in a Super Bowl — after the 2010 season — but for a much different reason. He had been fined $100,000 by the NFL that season for illegal hits, including the one on Massaquoi, and clearly didn’t agree with the league trying to make the game safer by eliminating helmet-to-helmet hits. “I’m not worried about that,” Harrison said when asked about the long-term consequences of concussions. “It’s part of the game. We signed up for this. It’s not a touchy, feely game. I’ve said it many times. I’m willing to go through hell so my kids don’t have to.”

Harrison’s bitterness about the fines came gushing out on Media Day before Super Bowl XLV, a game the Steelers lost to the Green Bay Packers, 31-25. His opening statement at his podium said it all.

“I don’t want to hurt nobody, I don’t want to step on nobody’s foot and hurt their toe, I don’t want to have no dirt or none of this rubber on the field fly into their eye and make their eye hurt, I just want to tackle them safely on the ground and, if y’all can, lay a pillow down where I’m going to tackle them so they don’t hit the ground too hard, Mr. Goodell.”

The next spring, in an interview with Men’s Journal, Harrison attacked Goodell more viciously. “If that man was on fire and I had to (urinate) to put him out, I wouldn’t do it. I hate him and will never respect him.”

Harrison apologized for his comments after the article was published.

The guess here is he didn’t mean it.

Harrison didn’t apologize for manhandling the Cleveland fan who came onto the field late in a 41-0 win. “I don’t know if the guy had anything on him or whatever,” he said. “With his back to me, I thought I could take him down safely without risking injury to myself or my teammates and hold him there until the proper authorities came.”

Truly unforgettable.

Just like Harrison’s career.

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