James Harrison Retires as One of Steelers' Great Underdog Success Stories

Andrea Hangst@FBALL_AndreaFeatured Columnist IVSeptember 1, 2014

Former Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals linebacker James Harrison announced his retirement on Saturday. He released a statement on his Facebook page explaining his decision:

I have made the difficult decision to retire as of today. My love for my family and the need to be there for them outweighs my desire to play the game. I have missed too many experiences with them because I devoted SO much time to my career. My love for the game isn't strong enough to make up for missing one more birthday or first day of school. I am retiring as a man who is truly grateful for all of his blessings. I am sincerely thankful to the people who have supported me over the years, first and foremost my family, the Rooney family and my Steeler family, also Mr. Brown, the Bengals organization and fans, and last but FAR from least, Steeler Nation. Thank you.

The announcement concludes a 10-year playing career, nine years of which he spent with the Steelers organization. The longevity of his career, however, is something that no one saw coming, not even Harrison himself.

Harrison was a two-year starter at linebacker for Kent State prior to entering the NFL. In his final two season, he had 204 combined tackles, with 15 sacks in his senior season. Still, his draft stock was considerably low—Harrison was considered too small to play outside linebacker at the NFL level.

He went undrafted in 2002 and was picked up by the Steelers as a rookie free agent. The Steelers released him in September of his rookie year, but brought him back at the end of the season, working solely on special teams.

James Harrison Regular Season Career Stats
via ESPN

Harrison did not pick up Dick LeBeau's defense quickly. As his former teammate, linebacker James Farrior, recalled to ESPN's Elizabeth Merrill in 2009: "He was just like any other rookie. He didn't really know the D. We'd be in practice, in training camp, and he might not know what he was doing so he'd just stop and throw his hands up and tell them to get him out of there. We thought the guy was crazy."

The Steelers cut Harrison two more times and, in 2004, he was signed by the rival Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens promptly shipped him off to the Rhein Fire of NFL Europe before he was again released. It was then that Harrison began questioning whether his dream of playing professional football was worth it—the idea of becoming a veterinarian or even a truck driver crossed his mind.

But then, in 2004, the Steelers gave him one more chance, owing to an offseason weightlifting injury suffered by another linebacker, Clark Haggans. According to Merrill, Harrison started taking his job more seriously: "He went to camp armed with 1,000 flash cards, and laid on a mattress on the floor at night with his playbook and handwritten notes. Harrison refused to have a TV in his room for the entire camp."

As a result, according to Harrison, "It started making sense." Still, it would be some time before Harrison would become a dominant force in the Steelers' front seven.

Harrison was primarily a part of the Steelers' special-teams unit in 2004, with occasional reps at both linebacker and defensive end. He had one start, in place of linebacker Joey Porter, who had been ejected prior to the team's November contest against the Cleveland Browns due to fighting.

He had three starts in 2005, with his most notable moment being him body-slamming a drunk Browns fan who ran onto the field during the teams' Christmas Eve contest. It wouldn't be the last time Harrison would slam someone to the turf—just the only time it would be a civilian.

Harrison was again relegated to special teams for both the Steelers' first Ben Roethlisberger-era Super Bowl victory as well as the 2006 season. In 2007, however, Pittsburgh's head coach Bill Cowher resigned and Mike Tomlin took over.

One of Tomlin's first actions as a head coach was to release Porter, citing salary-cap concerns. He also used his first draft to take two more linebackers, LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons. Harrison's experience—and now, comfortability—in LeBeau's defense thrust him into the starting lineup in place of Porter while the rookies began their grueling quest to master the complex system.

To say Harrison shined in his first, real chance at being a starting Steelers linebacker would be an understatement. No longer was Harrison an overwhelmed rookie in danger of being cut, re-signed and cut again. He was a force.

In 2007, Harrison had a combined 98 tackles, 8.5 sacks, seven forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception. His season peaked on November 5, on Monday Night Football. He had nine tackles, 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception—and a body slam on Ravens safety Ed Reed.

"Mr. Monday Night" had arrived. He was named to the Pro Bowl for his 2007 performance, as well as Second-Team All-Pro.

Harrison's 2008 was even better than 2007. He had 101 combined tackles, 16 sacks, seven forced fumbles and an interception. He reprised his Monday Night Football performance from the year previous—again against the Ravens—with 10 tackles, 2.5 sacks, two tackles for a loss and a forced fumble in the Week 4 contest.

The Steelers ended the 2008 regular season with a 12-4 record, with Harrison and the rest of the Steelers defense a big reason why. They reached the Super Bowl, taking on the Arizona Cardinals, and this time Harrison had a prominent role in the Steelers winning another championship.

James Harrison Postseason Career Stats
via ESPN

Harrison intercepted a goal-line pass from Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner and returned it the full 100 yards for a touchdown—then the longest play in Super Bowl history. The Steelers defeated the Cardinals, 27-23. Without Harrison's play, the Steelers may not have won.

That stellar 2008 season won Harrison the Associated Press and GMC Sierra Defensive Player of the Year honors. He was again voted to the Pro Bowl and was a First-Team All-Pro. He was also voted the Steelers' Most Valuable Player for both the 2007 and 2008 seasons.

It also prompted the Steelers to compensate Harrison handsomely for his efforts. In April of 2009, Harrison signed a six-year, $51.75 million contract extension with Pittsburgh. The Steelers had taken notice of his talents, and now the eyes of the nation's NFL fans were as well.

Harrison had a strong 2009, with 79 combined tackles, 10 sacks, six forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and two interceptions. He was again named a Pro Bowl starter and eventually totaled five trips to the game.

In 2010, the league—and commissioner Roger Goodell—started taking extra notice of Harrison, and not in a good way. Suddenly, the penalties and fines began adding up. He flipped then-Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young. That was a fine. He slammed Oakland Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell. That was a fine.

He hit New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees late from behind. He delivered knockout hits to two Browns receivers. He speared Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. He was fined for all of them, ultimately paying over $120,000 in 2010. He also was suspended one game in 2011.

Suddenly the undrafted product out of Kent State was a target of the NFL's ire—and Harrison shot that ire right back. 

Players named Harrison the league's meanest player in 2011 and its most "violent, dangerous" player in 2012. Harrison responded in a 2011 interview with Men's Health magazine, specifically calling out Goodell:

My rep is James Harrison, mean son of a b---h who loves hitting the hell out of people. But up until last year, there was no word of me being dirty—till Roger Goodell, who's a crook and a puppet, said I was the dirtiest player in the league. If that man was on fire and I had to piss to put him out, I wouldn't do it. I hate him and will never respect him.

Harrison later apologized, but the reputation preceded the man. Harrison was a target. And he still had simmering bad feelings for Goodell.

In 2011, Harrison missed five games. In 2012, Harrison missed the first three games of the season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. His production dipped—he had 70 combined tackles, six sacks and two forced fumbles that year. With that dip in production and health also came a high price tag.

Harrison had a $13.035 million cap charge for the 2013 season, which included a base salary of $6.570 million. He was also 34 years old and the Steelers needed both to clear cash and get younger on the defensive side of the ball. Harrison could either take a pay cut, or be cut.

He rejected the offer of a reduced salary to remain with the Steelers, and Harrison was released by the Steelers for the last time in March 2013. His NFL career, however, wasn't over yet.

In April, AFC North division-mates, the Cincinnati Bengals, decided to take a chance on the veteran. Harrison would be an outside linebacker in the team's 4-3 base defense—a significant change from the 3-4 outside linebacker spot he occupied in Pittsburgh. Instead of constantly rushing the passer, he'd also be containing the edge, focusing more on running backs than just the men throwing the football.

Harrison was a bit player in Cincinnati. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Harrison played 409 snaps, or 37.2 percent of the Bengals' total snaps on the year. He had just 30 combined tackles, two sacks, a fumble recovery and an interception in what would become his only season with the Bengals. The team released him in March of this year.

Harrison took a visit to the Arizona Cardinals last week but left without signing a deal and then chose instead to announce his retirement from football. He ends his 10-year career having beaten all the odds.

NFL players don't have many years in the league on average, and certainly not undrafted players like Harrison. Even Harrison himself thought he'd be done with football before he'd ever gotten a single start.

Now, in retirement, Harrison proves he's the most successful Steelers underdog to ever put on the uniform. He leaves the game with 647 combined tackles, 66 sacks, 29 forced fumbles, eight fumble recoveries and six interceptions in the regular season, as well as two Super Bowl rings and three Super Bowl appearances.

He's been loved, he's been feared, he's be reviled. He's been fined more money than most people will ever make in a single year. He's been cut and re-signed more times than he has fingers on his right hand. But most importantly, Harrison's NFL career has been a success, the likes of which no one saw coming.

Now, Harrison can retire with the sense that he truly accomplished something very few can, instead of anonymously walking off a practice field and into the cab of a commercial truck. 


All information via Wikipedia unless otherwise cited.


    Foster Has Weed Case Dismissed

    NFL logo

    Foster Has Weed Case Dismissed

    Adam Wells
    via Bleacher Report

    Burns Thinks New Anthem Policy Bullies Those Who Protest

    Pittsburgh Steelers logo
    Pittsburgh Steelers

    Burns Thinks New Anthem Policy Bullies Those Who Protest

    Mike Florio
    via ProFootballTalk

    TE McDonald Primed for a Breakout Season?

    Pittsburgh Steelers logo
    Pittsburgh Steelers

    TE McDonald Primed for a Breakout Season?

    Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
    via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

    With New Policy, NFL Still Doesn’t Get It

    Pittsburgh Steelers logo
    Pittsburgh Steelers

    With New Policy, NFL Still Doesn’t Get It

    Master Tesfatsion
    via Bleacher Report