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Trying to navigate through the complicated legacy of James Harrison

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An illustrious, potentially Hall of Fame career was one full of highs and lows.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

On November 7, 2007, the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the living daylights out of the Baltimore Ravens on national television. Festooned in their glorious throwback uniforms—white pants, mustard helmets, and black-but-I-can-be-talked-into-thinking-they’re-actually-brown jerseys—and playing in front of the prestigious honorees from the franchise’s 75th anniversary all-time team (one can assume that, in light of recent developments—e.g. the ascension of Antonio Brown to demigod status—this contingent is subject to change, but that’s neither here nor there), the Steelers led 35-7 at halftime and ultimately won 38-7, the second-most lopsided margin of victory in the Steelers-Ravens series since the semi-annual affair first kicked off in 1996.

That night, in plain view of some of the most monolithic figures in league history, James Harrison played the best game he’s ever played. Peruse this box score at your leisure, but please understand that these figures do little to fully encapsulate the magnitude of Harrison’s performance: 10 total tackles, 3.5 sacks (which cost Baltimore more than 25 yards of field position), one interception (which he returned for 20 yards), and two forced fumbles. (For context, I was, like, 15 or 16 when this game happened, and I still remember its nuances vividly.) If you’re a visual learner, clear five minutes from your schedule and check out this utterly ludicrous compilation of Harrison’s best plays from that game:

If your current situation isn’t conducive to video-watchin’, permit me to break down my two favorite moments from that clip.

The first occurs 25 seconds into the above video; or five minutes and 57 seconds into the game, if that’s how you prefer to go about it. Almost instantly, it becomes evident that the late Steve McNair is in a world of trouble—from the snap, Harrison fired off the line like a dragster and is very much involved in McNair’s life before McNair even had the opportunity to complete his drop-back. Baltimore’s tight end, whose number I can’t see and whose name, given the result of the play, is probably not worth remembering (perhaps it was Todd Heap, but I feel like Todd Heap was way better than to miss a gimme chip block), did nothing to abate Harrison’s path to McNair, while left tackle Jonathan Ogden, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, had no cognizance of the chaos unfolding behind his left shoulder. Harrison, who was now in hot pursuit of McNair after initially impeding the Pro Bowl quarterback’s throwing motion on the initial rush, dived toward McNair, dragging him to the turf while simultaneously knocking the ball loose. Apparently unsatisfied by this in-game feat of Herculean tenacity, Harrison jumped in the ensuing scrum and, somewhat miraculously, emerged with the ball in hand. A few plays later, Ben Roethlisberger tossed his first of five touchdowns, and Pittsburgh never looked back.

My second favorite play occurs one minute and four seconds into the above-mentioned video, nine minutes and 14 seconds into the game. The Steelers, still in possession of the seven-point lead that resulted from Harrison’s first sack, punted the ball back to the Ravens. Ed Reed, a Hall of Fame defensive back AND world-class punt returner, scooped the ball up near his own 30-yard line and headed upfield. After evading what seemed like 17 different members of Pittsburgh’s special teams unit, Reed needed probably a single block to find the crease that would’ve allowed him to score a game-tying touchdown. Uninterested in that particular outcome, Harrison—then pulling double-duty on the punt team—raced toward Baltimore’s sideline, where Reed was picking up steam. Have you ever heard about the irresistible force paradox, in which the meeting between an unstoppable force and an immovable object is described? This was not that. Harrison met Reed head on, pivoting the all-world safety parallel to the ground before suplexing him like a ragdoll. Not surprisingly (and understandably), Reed fumbled the ball, which was ultimately recovered by the Steelers’ punt team.

Maybe the Monday night lights sparked something in Harrison, or maybe he was enacting revenge against the same team that released him shortly after shipping him off for a brief stint in NFL Europe. Whatever it was that did it, something caused this man to play out of his mind that night against Baltimore, and things were never, ever the same again. It’s always fun when you can look at this kind of game in retrospect and subsequently pinpoint it as the starting point in X player’s rise to prominence. Harrison entered the 2007 season as a 29-year-old career special teamer, an undrafted former running back who assumed a starting role almost by default after the Steelers cut franchise great Joey Porter—this is to say, his meteoric ascension from borderline NFL washout to Defensive Player of the Year candidate at an age in which many position players see their physical prowess and, by extension, their on-field production decline significantly did not seem to be a predetermined outcome.

But Harrison, as he had done frequently to that point, shifted the paradigm. The lumbering, five-time Pro Bowler, who retired from the NFL last week, amassed 80 of his franchise-leading 85 sacks after his 28th birthday. In 2008, at age 30, Harrison collected a franchise-record 16 sacks, earned his first first-team All-Pro nod, and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. That same year, he also won his second Super Bowl ring—his first as a regular contributor—and delivered maybe the most monumental play in Super Bowl history:

This play had everything. Watch Harrison expertly disguise his coverage assignment and jump the route. See him carom off several Cardinals defenders like a bulky, reckless pinball before tip-toeing Arizona’s sideline with the delicacy and grace of a Tchaikovsky score. Observe him use Pitt legend Larry Fitzgerald as a literal springboard to thrust himself into the end-zone. Notice Harrison’s soul visibly exit his body to wonder aimlessly for all eternity in an unknown ethereal plane. I’d never seen someone so desperate for oxygen. The Santonio Holmes catch won the game, but this is my generation’s Immaculate Reception.

But when I think back to that play—or to Harrison’s 2007 performance against Baltimore; or a 36-year-old Harrison posting 5.5 sacks in 2014 despite deciding, almost on a whim, to un-retire several weeks into the regular season; or that time he tackled some rowdy Browns fan—I’m reminded that Harrison is a singular, awe-inspiring, and. . . divisive figure in Pittsburgh’s mythos.

We’ll start with his 2017 departure from the Steelers, which was ostensibly the result of Mike Tomlin et al. depriving Harrison of the promissory defensive snaps alluded to the previous offseason. That (presumed) animosity eventually led to Harrison’s divorce from Pittsburgh. This bad blood, coupled with Harrison signing with New England—debatably the Steelers’ most hated rival and closest proxy in a top-heavy AFC—led teammates and fans to call Harrison’s legacy into question, with longtime teammate Maurkice Pouncey going as far as saying that it had been “erased.” To suggest that leaving a team that wasn’t utilizing his talents in favor of a Super Bowl frontrunner that pledged to carve out a more pronounced role would somehow “erase” more than a dozen successful years—not to mention a pair of Super Bowls and the conferral of the highest honor afforded to defensive players—is obviously ridiculous, but Pouncey’s sentiment is one to which I’m sure a sizable pocket of the fanbase (and, frankly, the locker room) currently adheres.

Another contributing factor is Harrison’s public persona, which, so far as I can tell, was deliberately and unapologetically brash. In an interview with Men’s Journalan interview that remains one of the most insane things I’ve ever read—Harrison lobbed thermonuclear verbal bombs at several of his contemporaries, calling Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews “all hype” and indicating that then Houston Texans linebacker Brian Cushing is “juiced out of his mind” (in fairness to Harrison, the Cushing thing is pretty spot-on). Harrison also aspersed his own teammates, including Rashard Mendenhall (who he called a “fumble machine”) and Ben Roethlisberger (who he blamed for throwing two critical interceptions against the Packers in Super Bowl 45). Most troublingly, though, is that Harrison, instead of calling NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a crook, a corrupt wrongdoer, a brazen clod, or one of many apt qualifiers, settled on a horribly offensive and derogatory term used by scumbags to describe homosexuals.

Going a bit further back in time, following Pittsburgh’s 27-23 victory against Arizona in Super Bowl 43, Harrison opted to skip the requisite White House visit. While Harrison is obviously not the first (and definitely will not be the last) professional athlete to decline this honor, he just might be responsible for providing the single most certifiably looney explanation as to why: “If you want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers, invite us when we don’t win the Super Bowl. So as far as I’m concerned he would have invited Arizona if they had won.” Uhh........yeah, James. Standard operating procedure, my guy. Could you even imagine the logistics (and cost!) of organizing a random face-to-face meeting between a professional sports organization and the President of the United States?

And if we’re discussing Harrison’s various off-field “transgressions,” it would be unfair to exclude an incident that occurred between Harrison and Beth Tibbott in 2008. Following an altercation at their home—one that led to Harrison breaking down a locked door and snapping Tibbott’s cell phone in half—Harrison slapped Tibbott across the face, an incident he later corroborated to the police. Though Harrison was released from custody and the simple assault charge levied against him was eventually dropped, he is, by definition, a former contributor to the NFL’s league-wide domestic violence issue.

Forgive me for the inflammatory remarks. My intention is not to indicate that, because James Harrison made some poor decisions 10 years ago, he is now an unwelcome entity in Pittsburgh’s history books, but rather to highlight some of the highs and lows of one of this city’s most colossal public figures. Harrison, despite five Pro Bowls, two first-team All-Pro nods, two Super Bowl rings (four appearances overall), and a handful of franchise records, is considered a fringe Hall of Famer, at best. Indeed, I suspect Harrison’s Hall of Fame candidacy will be the subject of heated debate in the years ahead and, honestly, I don’t think he’s gonna make it. It took Terrell Owens three tries to earn his jacket, for goodness sakes.

Regardless of where James Harrison ends up, I’ll always remember him as an imposing, but complicated personage who provided me with the most exhilarating sports moment of my lifetime. How will you remember James Harrison?