This isn’t like the loss of Ward, Farrior, Hoke or Smith; their bodies succumbed to the rigors of the game, even though their minds and spirit may have denied the fact. Unlike those heroes though, Harrison’s game was rising to its regular level of dominance as last season ended.
But Harrison's age and the value the team itself placed on him when it signed him to his current contract in 2009, no longer meet the conditions under which the Steelers find themselves operating. Some of those conditions the Steelers have no control over; the salary cap, relatively flat the past two years, just won't allow the Steelers to keep so many high priced contracts.
Other conditions though, the Steelers imposed on themselves. They gave their core players high priced contracts to keep them on the team; when the cap failed to rise sufficiently, the Steelers were forced to restructure many of those contracts to get under the cap. The very nature of the restructures pushed the cost of some players out of the year it was done, but into the years where other players were scheduled to make their large sums of money.
James Harrison and the Steelers were the victims of such a confluence of factors.
The real victims of this however, are the fans. Denied a "farewell tour" season for heroes Ward, Farrior and Smith, now we are denied a chance to say goodbye to the man who embodied the very nature of what we believe makes up the Pittsburgh Steelers.
James Harrison was the heart and soul of the Steeler defense. From humble roots at Kent State, to being a journeyman UDFA bouncing from Europe to the Baltimore Ravens and Steelers, culminating in the moment he made his apocalyptic entrance into the national NFL consciousness in the Monday Night game against the Ravens in 2007, there was truly only one name that raised the ire of opposing fans, as well as their fear for their own quarterback and their team's chances for success; there came to be only one uniform number to be most commonly associated with the Steelers' defensive persona; James Harrison, No. 92.
Fans and opposing teams marveled at what Troy Polamalu was able to accomplish on the field, for he is a joy to watch.
But Steeler football is about vanquishment, intimidation, demoralizing the opponent and imposing the team's will upon them. It was not a defense of scheme, brawn or execution, it was a defense of fear. For all that teams did to plan around Polamalu, they knew if he was near, to account for him; if he played back, just don't go near him.
But with James Harrison, there was no avoiding him. Six and a half feet tall left tackles felt him coming in their dreams. They knew that even laying their giant hands on him was not enough, no more so than if they tried to use their hands to stop a tidal wave. Harrison was a force of nature. He summoned from the dark depths within him the elemental powers of tornados, the inexorable movement of glaciers. They saw thunderheads in his eyes before the snap, were blown back by the force of his turbulent rush, and watched as his inevitable presence entered their backfield.
James Harrison is a Steeler no longer. I mourn the absence of a man who brooked no foolishness, who spoke his mind and damned the consequences.
And I fear I mourn also the passing of an era of Steeler football. Another man may reach the quarterback, stuff the runner, or drop back and intercept a pass, but it may be a generation or more before one man again so embodies who and what the Pittsburgh Steelers defense stands for.
I close with my tribute to James Harrison, for the passing of such a man from the Steelers field of battle must not just be noted, and put aside. No, an acknowledgement must be made of the loss of identity Steeler Nation has suffered; a tribute to the man, for what he meant to all who waive the Terrible Towel, must be made.
I've modeled it on (and borrowed from) John Lawson Stoddard's poem "The Farewell Of The Old Guard At Fontainebleau, 1814" in which a soon-to-be exiled Napoleon bids farewell to his troops.
Stately court of Heinz’ green tableau,
Nine score and two days from now
On thy spacious esplanade,
Midst the home team's promenade,
Will stand tall Harrison's peers
Watched by fans; eyes wet with tears,
Wishing for a chance to show
Love for him at Heniz' green tableau.
Renegade plays o'er their head,
His visage, foes came to dread
Portent of loss, bloody fray
Worn on many a hard-fought day,
By the man adorned in black
Known by friend as Silverback
Forced by fate the man let go
Far from loyal Heinz’ green tableau.
In the stands the crowds first'd stun
Swells to shouts of "Harrison";
Then silence reigns, everywhere
In the restless autumn air
Choking sobs, but half suppressed,
Came from many a faithful breast
At the overwhelming blow
Dealt them here at Heinz’ green tableau.
How could this be, is it true
No chance we, to bid adieu?
Would our idol and team pride;
He whom we had deified,
Leave his fellow linebackers,
And loyal fans these half score years?
Bereft are we, spirits low
From the hole in Heinz’ green tableau.
"Comrade, brother, must we part?";
(How his power thrilled each heart!)
"It were wrong for you and team,
To let money come between;
Or so the team did quite state
Thus you chose to abdicate,
Without you no more may know
Fierce-som days at Heinz’ green tableau.
"Valiant totem of our team,
Thus to part is quite obscene;
Did you silence Ravens' dreams,
Opposing fans' hopeful screams,
Knock senseless Cleveland players,
Deny Warner's fervent prayers,
And survive injuries' blow--
Just to yield at Heinz’ green tableau?
"Hero of great games, farewell!
Remorse we must learn to quell,
No hostile words we decree
Will estrange our hearts from thee;
Free Agent you are, exiled
Through our tears you well may smile
At the realm our team bestow,--
Never more on Heinz’ green tableau!
"Now of all who once were true
We could count alone on you;
Would that one might take the place
Of the Backer we embrace!
Let the tears which on him fall
Move the souls of one and all!
Never Steeler Nation so
loved one at Heinz’ green tableau."
Extinguished his flame; no more,
Nor his fury, vengeful glore
Fill with fear, Steelers' foes eyes--
Smouldering flames of sacrifice;
As his emotionless face
Vanishes ghostlike into space,
And a dreary sense of woe
Settles over Heinz’ green tableau.
Gone is now the Renegade;
Free'd Goodell is of his Shade;
By the Styx the Legend sleeps;
Steeler Nation with him keeps;
But the river entrance pier
Still preserves its sombre air,
For the Harrison we know
Walks no more on Heinz’ green tableau.