It’s been a while since I’ve had a sports fix of any kind. When you’ve been in a country where team sports have been totally shut down for going on two months, well, that makes it quite difficult.
But I did just listen to the recent Going Deep podcast on Barstool, where the hosts, Steven Cheah and former Steelers offensive lineman Willie Colon (BTW, Willie is damn good as a podcast/radio-type person) interviewed former Steelers outside linebacker, James Harrison.
In terms of pandemic sports fixes, it was my The Last Dance (I don’t get ESPN).
Full disclosure: I just listened to it before sitting down and writing this. So I’d like to share my impressions as best I can without direct quotes (although, they’re quite easy to find on the Internet machine).
Below are my thoughts:
- Harrison is clearly the Jack Lambert of the modern era. He’s going to tell you what he thinks and how he feels about each and every subject. Only difference, Harrison is obviously more willing to share his thoughts about his playing career, whereas it’s hard to say where Lambert even is these days.
- The love Harrison had (and still has) for legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was quite apparent throughout this interview. In fact, the love the entire defense—the Steelers team, as a whole, really—had/has for LeBeau was/is remarkable.
- As Harrison put it, there was never an issue with LeBeau’s famed 3-4 zone-blitz defense—if the defense got beat, it was on the players, not the scheme.
- Harrison, an undrafted free agent in 2002, talked about the huge chip he developed in 2007. This was due to the new head coach, Mike Tomlin, releasing Joey Porter, which led to Harrison believing he would immediately step in and be the starter at right outside linebacker. Only problem, Tomlin’s first two draft picks were Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley. Harrison had to battle with Timmons throughout the early days of training camp. Timmons suffered an injury during camp, missed several weeks and was moved to the inside after Harrison spent those weeks being the James Harrison we would soon come to know and love. In my opinion, it was perceived slights like this—much like with Hines Ward, who often talked about how hurt he was when the Steelers used first-round picks on receivers early in his career—that drove Harrison to get the most out of his abilities and perhaps become the stubborn and rebellious figure he was throughout his NFL career.
- Deebo being Deebo, he wasn’t shy when sharing stories about the hard-partying the players did during his early years with the team—he repeatedly cited 2002-2006. He talked about how the players would go out just about every night and drink until practically the next morning. However, the commitment to team was still so strong among the players involved that showing up on time for weight training, meetings and practices was never an issue. What really popped for me was that these were Bill Cowher’s teams (in case you don’t know, Cowher is the guy in the meme saying he’s going to come back and straighten things out). Does this mean Cowher didn’t have control over his players? Not really. After all, they appeared in two AFC title games and won a Super Bowl during this time. What this tells me is professionals really can separate work and play.
- However, Harrison talked about ultimately wising up and taking care of himself a little better. Perhaps, not coincidentally, this occurred right around the same time he elevated his play to the point of being voted Defensive Player of the Year in 2008—score one for the “Football 24/7” crowd.
- I think my favorite part of the interview was Harrison’s recounting of his 100-yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII. As most fans know, Harrison was supposed to blitz on the play. However, he realized at the last second that he would never get to Kurt Warner in time to even disrupt his throw. Therefore, he faked a blitz, which helped free up Woodley, who was rushing from his inside (the replay shows it was actually Timmons). As Harrison told it, as soon as he intercepted the pass, he thought it would be clear sailing to the end zone. Obviously, that was rather ambitious for a big, burly outside linebacker. Maybe Deshea Townsend thought so, too, which may have been why he was practically trying to rip the ball out of Harrison’s grasp. The funniest part was Harrison saying, “Get away from me and go block somebody!” I don’t know if Harrison actually said this during the run-back, but it would have been perfectly reasonable for a defensive back to ask for the ball in that situation (those guys are the lightest and fastest players on the defense); for him to refuse to do it and yet still manage to take it the distance, well, it doesn’t get any more James Harrison than that.
- Harrison talked about how he became the poster child for the league’s war on head shots—a battle the NFL took up with great enthusiasm starting in 2010. The way Harrison put it, he didn’t have any intentions of cleaning up his act—even if he did get fined $225,000 that season. The most interesting aspect of that part of the interview was Harrison’s admission that opposing players would come to him and offer to pay his fines for helmet hits. In other words, they were more willing to endure a concussion than a knee injury, because they felt like that was a bigger threat to a long career. I’m not sure if that sentiment is still a popular one among today’s players, but let’s just say I wouldn’t be surprised.
- Harrison talked about going to meet with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to contest his fines with general manager Kevin Colbert by his side. According to Harrison, Colbert was just as rebellious and contentious during this meeting as Harrison was. Harrison said he didn’t win this appeal, but that Tomlin handed him an envelope soon after—the implication being that this fine was covered by the coach or team. I thought that was an interesting revelation by Harrison, especially when you consider the lukewarm nature of his relationship with Tomlin.
- But maybe the relationship between coach and player was much hotter when the player was one of the coach’s top stars. Years later, when Harrison was repeatedly brought back after briefly retiring, may have been when things truly started to cool between he and Tomlin. Harrison signed a one-year deal to play for the Steelers in 2017. But much like a decade earlier, Pittsburgh went outside linebacker in Round 1 and selected T.J. Watt with the 30th pick. As Harrison put it, he was promised a certain number of snaps that season—40-60 percent—but barely registered any thanks to the team going younger at his position. Watt and Bud Dupree were the starters and remained the starters the entire year. As is well known, Harrison did whatever he could to get cut in 2017—sleeping in meetings, faking injuries and going home if he didn’t dress for games—accusations he fully admitted to during the interview. When it comes to this part of Harrison’s career, I’ll never agree that he did the right thing by basically forcing his way off the team. Harrison was offered a contract to be a Steeler in 2017. And unless the amount of snaps he would get were written into the deal (newsflash: Nobody does that), he wasn’t justified in acting the way he did. Older players get pushed out by rookies all the time—promises or no promises. It’s the circle of life in the NFL. Harrison wouldn’t be the first veteran to think he had more left to give in the twilight of his career.
- Harrison touched on the close nature of the Steelers locker room early in his career, and how that seemed to change in 2011 or 2012. Of course, that may have just been a generational perception of someone who was approaching his late-30s and trying to bond with 22-year olds. Harrison also mentioned how the guys would go out and party 25-30 at a time during his early days, and how that dwindled down to two or three by the end. Was that a sign of a lack of team closeness, or just life for a professional athlete in the social media age? After all, a player can’t even pretend to drink a shot on Twitter without people going nuts—imagine if half the Steelers football team was spotted at a club in 2020.
Finally, if you haven’t taken the time, give the interview a listen. It’s linked in the second paragraph. Say what you want about James Harrison, but the man is always entertaining and insightful.