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steeld95
01-27-2009, 11:26 AM
http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/story/11304149


He was Pittsburgh's MVP. He led the league in forced fumbles and set a single-season team record for sacks. He was named first-team All-Pro and chosen the league's Defensive Player of the Year.

So how it is that linebacker James Harrison slipped through the cracks?


Former Kent State walk-on James Harrison set off red flags for scouts. (US Presswire)
You know what I mean. The guy was cut four times, three times by Pittsburgh, before stepping into a starting lineup -- and then it was only after an injury to Clark Haggans forced the Steelers to sign him and a pregame ejection to Joey Porter compelled them to start him.

So he played, and he played well. Now he's acknowledged as the top defensive player in the business, nearly five years after he was farmed out to NFL Europe by Baltimore -- a club that later followed the Steelers and cut him.

How does that happen?

"It's one of those things where there's no explanation, really," said former Dallas vice president of player personnel Gil Brandt, now an analyst for NFL.com. "Thirty-one teams had a chance to claim the guy. And not once, but four times."

Harrison's story is as unique as it is compelling. A non-scholarship walk-on at Kent State University, he didn't become a full-time starter until his junior season. By his senior year he led the Mid-American Conference in sacks, was an all-league choice at outside linebacker and finished third in the MAC's defensive player of the year voting.

Then ... nothing. He wasn't invited to the NFL scouting combine. He wasn't drafted. And he didn't stick with anyone.

"Nobody believed I can play," said Harrison.

The Steelers cut him in 2002, then re-signed him to the practice squad. They cut him again the following season, then re-signed him to the practice squad ... where he stayed three weeks before he was released a third time.

Then Baltimore signed him, sent him to Germany with the NFL Europe's Rhein Fire and cut him in June when it signed tight end Daniel Wilcox, one of Harrison's teammates in Europe.

"It was last hired, first fired," said Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome. "We needed a tight end."

So Harrison was re-signed by Pittsburgh, but only after Haggans broke fingers on his right hand lifting weights in late July. This time, Harrison learned four linebacker positions, and this time he got his chance when Porter was thumbed before a November 2004 game with Cleveland.

The rest you know, except for one thing: Why did it take him ... or the NFL ... so long to wake up?

"Number one," said Newsome, one of the league's shrewdest judges of talent, "he came out of Kent State. Number two, the measurables were lacking. When you come from a small school, what can attract you to someone is good measurables. But some measurables were missing."

Brandt seconded that motion. Harrison was undersized. He was 5-feet-11. He wasn't fast, either. His 40-yard dash time was 4.85. Plus, he was a 24-year-old rookie.

"He's a natural leverage player and strong at the point of attack," said Brandt, running down a scouting report on Harrison. "He's an explosive tackler who will take on the lead blocker, but he can get engulfed by tackles. He was much more effective as a pass rusher when he wasn't engaged. There wasn't a lot of wiggle there. He was more of a straight-line guy. But one thing about him: The guy was competitive."

So Harrison got buried, much as quarterback Kurt Warner got buried before hitting it big with the Rams. Warner's story is more extraordinary than Harrison's, with Warner touring the Arena League and NFL Europe before hooking on with the Rams. Then he became the league MVP, the Super Bowl MVP and an inspiration for people like James Harrison.

"You can look at this guy and then that guy and see there's room for error," said Brandt, "but teams know what they're doing. He was a walk-on at Kent State, so that was a flag. Then he was redshirted. When that happens at a small school that's a red flag, too.

"He just wasn't ready to play. Hey, people had a chance to see him play in preseason, and more than one preseason, and nobody wanted anything to do with him.

"You can go through 100 guys like James Harrison and maybe one or two make it. He wasn't exceptionally fast. He wasn't exceptionally talented. He wasn't exceptionally quick. But give the Steelers credit: They obviously saw something in the guy to keep bringing him back."

So what does that say about the system?

"Nothing," said an AFC general manager. "It doesn't say anything about it. What it says is that the Steelers saw enough in him that they kept trying to develop him. It happens all the time.

"Look at Kurt Warner. You asked the same questions 10 years ago. Heck, he wasn't even the MVP of NFL Europe. To me, this says more about the patience of the Pittsburgh Steelers and that they were willing to develop him."