I bet against James Harrison. I lost that bet, and for that, I apologize.
When I think of James Harrison, I feel as if I know him personally. Watching him at his absolute best, in 2008, I couldn't help but feel "I knew him when he was nothing."
So in retrospect, I can't help but ask myself why Harrison shouldn't have been the determinant factor in my decision to ask my girlfriend to marry me.
I wrote these words for Steelers Fever in 2004, as part of a running diary bit I was hooked on in those days.
Let's make some kind of award in the NFL. Let's give it to a player who performs the best when brought in as a replacement for injury, suspension, trials, etc. Honor the player who can come in, play above his ability and even exceed the guy he is replacing.
Ladies and gentlemen, the recipient of the 2004 Neal Coolong Award for the NFL's most outstanding Step-Up player goes to...Steelers linebacker James Harrison!
Is there anyone who has out-performed him play-for-play this season? This guy's a freak! I mean, you describe Harrison's play, and you suddenly turn into Kyle Reese from Terminator. "He ABSOLUTELY WILL NOT STOP!" I like Clark Haggans and all, but he hasn't played like Harrison did in the first quarter all season. Then again, I don't even think Porter has. Just spectacular!
It was based around Harrison's performance against Baltimore in Week 16 of that year, a six tackle effort in one of his four starts that season. He replaced Clark Haggans three times, and Joey Porter once, after Porter was ejected for a pre-game brawl with Browns RB William Green.
Harrison notched his first career sack in that game, another six tackle effort.
A year before Harrison became well-known for his throttling of a Browns fan who made the mistake of getting close to him, I saw him as a future dominating defensive player. He was shorter than everyone else, but I still stick with the Terminator reference, he absolutely does not stop. A high motor guy, he was relentless in his pursuit of the ball carrier. He was more productive per play than Porter, the vocal piece and emotional leader of the Steelers defense that year.
Harrison was always "my guy." I'd always point out to everyone when he was on the field. "Watch, he's gonna do something." Fortunately, Steelers GM Kevin Colbert saw it too, and in what could be called the smartest decision of his excellent career, he signed Harrison to a four-year, $5.5 million contract in 2006, one year before he knew Porter would be released.
He would eventually be named the league's first Defensive Player of the Year who wasn't drafted. How many Defensive Player of the Year selections were paid in the bottom third of salaries for his position?
Very few in league history outperformed his contract the way Harrison did. He just went out and dominated. Which is why I was so stupid to bet against him.
In February of 2007, I was offered a job within my Minnesota-based company to work at our client's facility in Fort Washington, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. I had been dating a girl for about seven months, and it looked to be moving down Serious Avenue. The job would have paid me nearly twice as much as I was making, but it would require me to move 1,200 miles to an area in which I knew no one and to perform a job I was vastly underqualified to do.
Naturally, I accepted it as soon as they gave me the offer letter.
After some discussion with the girlfriend, we decided we were going to take this to the next level, and she would move out there with me. Oddly enough, the company she worked for based its corporate office in Horsham, Pa., which was very close to Fort Washington. There was a corporate position open, and she was told they'd love her to fill it.
I moved there in March of 2007, and my girlfriend would move out there in the summer.
I had been writing off and on for Steelers Fever since that 2004 season, but the site was always more of a message board than a publication. I was about two years removed from a career in journalism, and hadn't ever really written about the Steelers in high volume (i.e. at least a post a day). While in Fort Washington (Ambler, actually), I had very little to do, and somehow, had come across a solicitation for a baseball writer to blog about the Phillies.
I responded to the ad, mentioning my experience and situation. The site's editor contacted me, asking for some kind of creative sample. What I ended up with was an inning-by-inning evaluation of the two starting pitchers, or a really bad way to spin off the rising Sabermetrics craze by changing the formula of the win stat for pitchers.
It actually didn't turn out too badly, and it worked in blogging format. A quick post at the end of each half inning, pitch count, best pitch, worst pitch, a grade for location and at the end of each full inning, a point given to one starter vs. the other.
In other words, it was a continuation of baseball fans' desire to make the game as much fun to follow as doing your taxes. That's a trend that continues to this day.
The editor seemed less interested in my new pitching evaluation anyway, and asked me if I was interested in writing about the Steelers. The network was just starting up, and their Steelers blog, Die Hard Steel, was one of the more popular ones they had. The editor told me they were about to get rid of their Steelers guy, and wanted to know if I'd take it over. I agreed, and began writing non-stop for Die Hard Steel in 2007.
Despite a strong following, the site was taken down for unexplained reasons after the 2007 season. I still haven't heard from the editor, but if you happen to talk to him, please remind him he still owes me $300.
He was a Ravens fan, too. Go figure.
The job was hectic, and it was rare if I was there less than 50 hours a week. But I really enjoyed writing in my off-hours and was making good strides in the job.
I had been there for about three months when my boss called me early one morning, telling me things had changed within our client's structure, and they were shutting down that office within the next year. She asked me if I wanted to stay there or to move back for a job back in Minnesota. Without hesitation, I was moving back.
I immediately called my girlfriend, telling her I would be moving back to Minnesota by the end of the year, and she should cancel plans to move.
Fast-forward to November, 2007.
No one else knew about the decision to close the office, and they were being told as a group on Friday, Nov. 2. When the head of the office called everyone into a conference room, I quickly packed up my desk and left. I drove from Philadelphia to Fort Wayne, Ind., on Nov. 3, and Fort Wayne to St. Paul on Nov. 4. The Steelers were hosting Baltimore on Monday, Nov. 5.
The job wasn't on my mind as much as the engagement ring I bought with my relocation bonus check. It seemed the logical next step, and I was excited.
I wanted to propose in a special way. Not the clicheed, sappy walk in the forest, or ring at the bottom of a glass of champagne. I honestly wanted to do it before a Steelers game.
Wisely, many people talked me out of that idea, and what I had decided on was something she would enjoy and appreciate before the game, and then, a staged proposal we would pass off as a real one before a Steelers game.
Kind of a best-of-both-worlds thing.
I had it all planned out, I wanted to propose to her at the restaurant we went to on our first date. After that, we wouldn't tell our families, but since my dad and brother were going to meet us at the bar we watched Steelers games, I would set up something right before kickoff, in front of everyone.
Not bad, eh?
I thought about this pretty much the entire 20 hour drive, and had a great plan going. I had mentioned it to the heads of the Steeler Fans of Minnesota fan club, who hosted the game viewings at the bar. Perfect scenario, I had already proposed, so I couldn't be ripped for putting such a dramatic moment side-by-side with the Steelers, but I could still have a fun story to tell. At the least, it'd be memorable, right? I'm back home, I'm now living with my fiance, and I got to share what many would think was the actual proposal right before a Steelers game against the Ravens.
I remember that thought slamming into my head as I drove west through Wisconsin. I felt confident in the Steelers' chances of winning, but what if the unthinkable happened? What if they lost to Baltimore at home on Monday night right after I proposed?
What if my marriage would ultimately be linked to a Steelers loss to their arch rivals?
I nearly drove off the road a few times.
The magnitude of what I was about to do came crashing home. Nevermind the fact just 24 hours earlier, I was perfectly fine with asking this woman to marry me. Thinking about gambling that moment on a Steelers win was far more terrifying than a lifetime commitment.
I quickly rushed over my new-found fear with a few friends, most of whom just blew me off as a moron for thinking about linking it to a Steelers game in the first place. They asked me why I wouldn't just separate the two events.
I didn't have an answer.
In the end, I decided against the proposal. I determined a Steelers loss to the Ravens would detract from what should be a perfect moment in my life. The risk was too great.
We went out for dinner before the game, no proposal. We headed to the bar for the game, not engaged.
I'm convinced God's decision to taunt me for lacking the faith in my (His?) team is the reason Harrison exploded on the national scene that night.
On 3rd-and-13 from Baltimore's 28 yard line, at the 9:30 mark of the first quarter, the punishment began, both for me and for the Ravens. Harrison broke throughand leveled Ravens QB Steve McNair, forcing a fumble and recovering that fumble at Baltimore's 20-yard line.
Roethlisberger to Heath, two plays later, 7-0 Steelers.
Baltimore doesn't moves the ball much on their next possession, and is forced to punt. Pittsburgh goes three and out, and punts. Offsetting penalties forces a re-kick.
Roethlisberger to Holmes, four plays later, 14-0 Steelers.
Teams trade three-and-outs, Harrison sacks McNair again, forces his third fumble of the half, this one recovered by RB Willis McGahee. Ravens punt.
Roethlisberger to Holmes, five plays later, 28-0 Steelers.
Harrison picked McNair off on the next series. It led to Roethlisberger's franchise-record fifth touchdown pass of the half. No defensive player or quarterback had games like Harrison or Roethlisberger did in the history of this rivalry, and it happened in the same game. The same half, even.
It was clear to me at this point the stage couldn't possibly have been set any better. Not only could I have linked my engagement to a Steelers win, but to perhaps the most one-sided win over Baltimore ever, and the best individual performance from "my guy" in his career.
All I could do is smile and think of how I will never forget the fact I passed on proposing because I thought there was a chance Pittsburgh could lose.
By the time the massacre ended, Harrison had one of the best individual defensive games in NFL history. He racked up 10 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and an interception. He anchored a defense that held Baltimore to a laughable 104 total yards.
In comparison, Pittsburgh had 312 yards in Baltimore's 35-7 win over Pittsburgh in Week 1 of 2011.
I eventually did propose, no attachment to any Steelers game (it was a few days before that insane 3-0 win over Miami when the field was sinking). We've been married for almost three years, witnessing a joyous Super Bowl win and a heart-breaking Super Bowl loss.
She became a fan of the Steelers through our relationship, and, like me, saw James Harrison's rise to greatness from where he started. She has never seen as dominating a defensive performance as Harrison had that night. Perhaps, she'll never see one like it again.
Maybe she doesn't care about me not proposing that night (when eventually told of my plot, her response was "why didn't you think Pittsburgh would win?" This will haunt me forever). But I do. It may not matter in the grand scheme of things, but to me, Nov. 5, 2007, will serve as two things;
One, one of the greatest performances by one of my favorite players in sports history.
Two, I had the chance to link one of the greatest moments of my life to it, and I passed. I suppose I'll have to settle for two AFC Championships together and a lifetime of happiness.