'He's mad at the world'

The Baltimore Sun

TAMPA, Fla. - The tag - "Rhein Fire, No. 53, Harrison" - is no longer on his game-day duffel bag because it has deteriorated.

The emotional baggage, well, that remains with Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison.

Cut three times by the Steelers and once by the Ravens - the Ravens did it 10 days after he returned from the NFL Europe's Rhein Fire - Harrison plays with a mean streak, taking out his years of frustration with every hit on the quarterback.

It is this mad-at-the-world attitude that has pushed him from a would-be bus driver to 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year to Super Bowl starter.

"People said I was too short, too slow, couldn't do this or that," Harrison said. "I try not to look back, but I prepare myself every offseason with thoughts of what people said I couldn't do. Nobody believed I could play."

Harrison's rise to prominence is even more surprising because the Ravens rarely let defensive talent slip away. Most of the time, players such as Ed Hartwell, Gary Baxter and Duane Starks leave and fall off the NFL map.

Harrison, though, wasn't really on the Ravens' radar.

After he had been released twice by the Steelers, the Ravens signed him Jan. 23, 2004, and sent him to NFL Europe. He reported to the team June 8 and was cut 10 days later.

How insignificant did it seem? The Ravens released him without any announcement, and no media member noticed.

"No one ever thought he was going to become NFL Defensive Player of the Year when we let him go," a former Ravens official said. "He was a 5-10 undrafted guy out of Kent State who had some issues."

At that time, Harrison was considered bullheaded by players and coaches alike. "He was a knucklehead that didn't know the plays," Steelers linebacker James Farrior told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently.

Harrison has since acknowledged that he didn't take coaching well.

"I hold no grudge or ill will to the Ravens because they cut me," said Harrison, who publicly expressed anger at the Ravens four years ago. "They never really got a chance to see what I could do. I practiced one day."

Harrison said he got only one explanation from the Ravens: They needed a tight end. The Ravens picked up Daniel Wilcox, who has caught 76 passes in five seasons.

"I figured the last time I got cut, that if I didn't get picked up, that it would probably be over for me," Harrison said.

He then went back home to Akron, Ohio, for six weeks and got his commercial driver's license.

He thought about driving a bus before he got a call in late July 2004. The Steelers needed a linebacker because starter Clark Haggans had broken fingers on his right hand lifting weights.

Harrison eventually latched on as a special teams player and stayed in that role for three seasons. He made three tackles on coverage teams in the Super Bowl three years ago.

The return trip to the Super Bowl, however, is more special.

"It means a little bit more to me because I am a starter instead of playing just on special teams," he said. "I have matured. I handle situations a lot differently now than I would back then. I have gotten better since then, too. I have learned the game and taken time to study the game."

Still, there was skepticism as recently as last season.

In November 2007, Harrison crushed the Ravens, recording nine tackles and 3 1/2 sacks and forcing three fumbles.

After the game, Ravens defensive end Trevor Pryce said: "They had that little 5-foot-9 linebacker making plays, and I was like, 'Who is this kid? That will never happen again in his life.' "

This season proved Harrison wasn't a fluke. He set a Steelers record with 16 sacks and led the NFL with seven forced fumbles.

Harrison earned the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award and won over another doubter.

"I am a believer," Pryce said before the AFC championship game. "I am now a believer in James Harrison."

The newfound respect hasn't changed Harrison.

He rarely smiles. He dislikes talking to the media. He doesn't even like to watch his own highlights on SportsCenter (cartoons are more his taste).

While Harrison is an enigma in the locker room, teammates say there is no secret to why he dominates on the field.

"Nobody gave him a shot," Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said. "We cut him three times. That's probably why he's so crazy and hard on people around here. He's mad at the world."


A look at how Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison has improved over the years:

Year Starts Tackles Sacks FF

2004 ....... 4 ........... 25 .......... 1 ......... 0

2005 ....... 3 ........... 30 .......... 3 .......... 0

2006 ......... 1 ............. 8 .......... 0 ......... 0

2007 ....... 16 ........... 80 ...... 8 1/2 ....... 6

2008 ...... 15 ............ 100 ......... 16 ....... 7

STEELERS (14-4) VS. CARDINALS (12-7) Sunday, 6:30 p.m. TV: Chs. 11, 4 Radio: 1090 AM Line: Steelers by 7

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