A Death Watch
By Jim Wexell
Posted Mar 8, 2013
From the notebook of a sportswriter who’s sitting at his computer awaiting the death of a linebacker:
* Of course that’s overwrought. But when you’re waiting for news from the team you cover about the imminent release of the most interesting, menacing, brutal, and brutally honest football player you’ve ever covered, it’s a death watch.
* Ray Davies once sang, “Celluloid Heroes never feel any pain. Celluloid Heroes never really die.” So in that regard, yes, James Harrison will live, and thrive, on tape forever.
* I interviewed him the first day he reported for spring practice. He had been the subject of a brief at the bottom of a notebook in the previous day’s metro newspaper. One of the Steelers’ scouts, Phil Kreidler, told the reporter that this undrafted rookie out of Kent State was “mean.”
* I assumed this to be typical scout talk about a young linebacker, but I also wanted to ask Harrison if he felt any sort of kindred spirit with another former Steelers linebacker from Kent State.
* But Harrison proceeded to rip Jack Lambert – on the first day of spring camp as an undrafted rookie in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ locker room.
* Harrison, he didn’t much care about Lambert because Lambert never came back to Kent or did anything to help him. Harrison then said he didn’t much care if I liked what he was saying or not. And then he walked away.
* That’s when I started listening more closely to what Phil Kreidler had to say.
* A few years later I asked Harrison if he ever heard from Lambert. Harrison proudly said that he had, that Lambert – an old-school man of letters – had written Harrison to tell him how proud he was, as a fellow alum, of his accomplishments and the way he played the game. James said he cherished the letter.
* Well, he didn’t actually use the word “cherish.” He would’ve had to kill me.
* I watched Harrison closely his first training camp and his strength was undeniable. The only other rookie I remember standing out so vividly was Willie Parker.
* While Harrison’s brute strength was fun to watch, his idiosyncrasies were just plain funny. He’d knock over a guy during special-teams practice and then stand over him and glare down in personal victory – oblivious to the return man running past him.
* My friend and colleague Dale Lolley called him “Shaft. John Shaft.” But the nickname never stuck. “Silverback” was the choice for a while. And then “Deebo.” Then he just became James, which is saying something for such a common name.
* “I can’t wait till we cut that *&!@%*#,” said Mike Archer.
* Harrison’s first linebackers coach with the Steelers later came around to James’s, um, frustration in dealing with being coached and corrected, and Archer laughed about the comment some years later. But he told me that he heard James still dislikes him.
* Archer told me that Joey Porter and Jason Gildon should be credited for Harrison’s development. I relayed that quote to Harrison and he shrugged it off and said it didn’t mean much. “As far as Archer goes, that’s another story in itself,” Harrison said. But, I told James, Archer had wished him well.
“It’s great that he wishes me well,” Harrison said. “But like I said, that’s just something else altogether.”
* In spite of their difficulties, Harrison turned out rather well. Thank God for demanding coaches.
* “I think the funniest thing James ever said,” recalled Chris Hoke, “was when Coach Cowher was here. He had a block in the back, Silverback did, and Coach Cowher came up to him and started yelling at him, and Silverback said to him, ‘(Expletive) happens.’ Cowher was like, ‘I respect that.’”
* Scott Brown, a reporter for the Trib, was just doing his job one day when Harrison began ripping into an official after a game. Harrison implied that the official was cheating, throwing the game, and after Brown published the quote Harrison was fined $15,000 by the league. The next day Harrison walked into the packed locker room during media time and yelled, “Which one of you (expletive deleteds) is Scott Brown!?!” The room became hushed. No one answered. After a pause Harrison yelled, “You owe me $15,000!”
* In 2006 Sports Illustrated put Joey Porter on its cover with the title “NFL’s Meanest Man,” which became something a joke in the Steelers’ locker room because Porter wasn’t even the meanest man at his position on his team.
* One day I learned that one of Harrison’s college teammates, Roy Attieh, had died in a car accident a few days earlier. I asked Harrison about him, and he began to cry. Another reporter and I walked away. That reporter said, “You realize he’s going to have to kill you now.”
* I thought our bond might actually have become a bit tighter after that, but I never really assumed it, or tried to use it. I did ask him for his mom’s phone number. I wanted to start my tour for my book Steeler Nation in Akron with the Hall of Fame Game at the start of the 2007 season. I was as nervous as a freshman asking a girl out for a date, but Harrison said, “Yeah, no problem. What’s your name again?” I don’t think he ever remembered it. So much for our “bond.”
* The $15,000 fine for calling an official a cheater was a pittance compared to the heavy stuff that began to roll up later in Harrison’s career. In 2010 he accumulated $125,000 in fines, and of course became the centerpiece of just about every story on the new NFL, the safety issues, concussions. It was all anyone seemed to want to discuss with Harrison at that year’s Super Bowl. I was standing next to him when a reporter asked him about concussions, and Harrison said, “Concussions are part of the risk I take with my job, and I love my job. Don’t you love your job?”
“Yeah,” said the reporter, “But concussions aren’t a part of my job.”
“They will be if you ask another question like that,” Harrison said.
* Oh, my, the 100-yard interception return before halftime of Super Bowl 43; the slamming of the drunken Browns fan who wandered onto the field; getting his big break because “Peezy” got into a fight right before game time and Alonzo Jackson couldn’t play special teams and was inactive; the Monday Night demolition of the Ravens in 2007 with 10 tackles, 6 QB hits, 3½ sacks, 3 forced fumbles and an interception.
* The strength, the bend, the burst, the violence upon impact.
* A few years after Harrison had developed into a star, I asked a scout if character issues were the reason the Steelers didn’t draft Harrison after he had led the MAC with 15 sacks. “No way,” said the scout. “If he came out today we’d have the same problem with his size and speed.”
* That’s why these guys are so hard to find. Just because the Steelers got lucky three times in a row – Greg Lloyd, Porter and Harrison – doesn’t mean Jason Worilds is a failure for not being a freak.
* And here I am, toggling back and forth between my Word document and the Internet for the bad news, because bad news is normally announced on Fridays.
* But as my deadline approaches, I’m arguing with someone on Twitter over who’s a better 3-4 OLB draft prospect: Damontre Moore or Corey Lemonier.
* As if it matters. As if the Steelers will just find the next James Harrison on purpose, or because they’re that much smarter than everyone else.
* Let’s just hope by the start of the NFL’s fiscal New Year on Tuesday that we can have a good laugh at the prematurity of this column, that James had stood strong and called the Steelers’ bluff, and that the Steelers had found a way to keep him.