clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Steelers OLB James Harrison is this era's Jack Lambert

New, comments

July 8 marks Jack Lambert's birthday. Maybe it's fitting that the date also coincides with the founding of the Steelers franchise, because no player personified the attitude of Pittsburghers and Western Pennsylvanians better than No.58 during his career. Maybe that's why he's so popular with fans, still to this day. And maybe that's why a modern linebacker with menace and attitude--James Harrison--is so popular and adored by Steelers fans.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

James Harrison was seen cutting grass at the Steelers' practice facility on Monday.

What was he doing there, anyway? Aren't the players supposed to be taking it easy in the little down time they have in the spring and summer before training camp officially kicks off on July 25 at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa.? Do you  think Harrison just grabbed the keys to the mower from the maintenance guy? Do you think the maintenance guy objected? Not if he was smart, he didn't.

From a public relations standpoint, what a great visual it was to see a player like Harrison, someone willing to do anything to be the best and stay at the top against all odds, getting down and dirty and doing a blue collar job. Was it just a stunt to liven up a hot, humid Pittsburgh summer afternoon? Of course. But what hard-working Western Pennsylvanian wouldn't appreciate that kind of thing? The only thing better would be if, well, Harrison had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and a can of beer sitting beside him on the mower, open and half gone.

Speaking of which, in-addition to being the day the Steelers were founded in 1933, July 8 just so happens to be Jack Lambert's birthday (he turned 63 years young on Wednesday). I've said it before and I'll say it again: James Harrison is to this generation of Steelers fans what Jack Lambert was to the generation of fans who witnessed him lead a menacing defense that helped win those four Super Bowls in the 70's.

Like Harrison, Lambert asked no quarters and gave no quarters. He was ornery, feisty, and to quote the late Dwight White, No. 58 was, "Difficult. Period. With everybody."

Like Harrison, Lambert often lived on the fringes of fair-play, and, his famous toothless grin made every tackle look even more menacing. People often talk about Lambert's famous slamming of Cowboys safety Cliff Harris down to the turf of Miami's Orange Bowl during an emotionally pivotal moment in Super Bowl X. But what about the little knee shot he gave to Preston Pearson after one play in that same game or how he used the veteran running back to help himself up after leveling him on a rushing play? My favorite Lambert image was of him, again, stopping a running back in his tracks--this time a Cleveland Browns running back--and slapping him in the helmet and then shaking his finger in his face, as if  to say, "Don't bring that $&##& @#%^ here again!"

Yes, Lambert was a little dirty, but you know what they say about opposing players who we'd love if they were on our team. Lambert was on our team, and that's why so many fans reveled in how he went about his business. Same holds true for how fans rallied around Harrison five seasons ago, when he became the poster boy for commissioner Roger Goodell's stance on safety and head shots. Throughout that season, Harrison was penalized countless times for late hits and head hunting--some penalties were warranted and some weren't--and fined a total of $100,000. Fans were so outraged, some even mentioned starting a campaign to donate money to make up for the dent in Harrison's salary.

During Lambert's first training camp, a time when rookies are supposed to sing their alma mater's fight-song as part of an initiation, he reportedly said, "Kiss my ass. I'm not singing sh**!"

According to Lynn Swann, Pittsburgh's first round pick in 1974, Lambert, who was picked in the second round that year, walked up to the rookie receiver one day in the locker room and said, "I should have been first, and you should have been second." And then he just walked away without saying another word.

Harrison was fairly defiant towards Goodell in the aftermath of his heavily-fined season of 2010, and went so far as to call him a "crook" and "devil" (among other less than savory things) in a Men's Journal magazine interview prior to the 2011 season. Harrison also criticized both Ben Roethlisberger and Rashard Mendenhall for their performances in the Super Bowl XLV loss to the Packers that year.

Lambert perhaps should have been a first round pick in'74. But, for one thing, he played at Kent State. And, for another thing, he weighed just over 200 pounds coming out of college. Even in the mid-70's, that was pretty small for a middle linebacker. However, Lambert made up for his short-comings, thanks to his focus, hard work, determination and, oh yes, his great athleticism. You don't make nine Pro Bowls and get named a seven-time first team All-Pro on just guts and determination; you don't get voted the 1976 NFL Defensive Player of the Year on human will, alone.

It has been said that the depth and coverage Lambert would get while playing the zone on passing plays (he recorded 28 career interceptions) was revolutionary for his day. Maybe that's why Rams quarterback Vince Ferragamo thought he could throw that football down the middle of the field late in Super Bowl XIV with his team closing in on a go-ahead touchdown; he didn't figure Lambert would be there. He was there at the 15-yard line and snuffed out the last hope for Los Angeles. And he helped put a cap on the greatest dynasty the NFL has ever seen, as the Steelers put the game out of reach to secure their record fourth Super Bowl of the 1970's.

Speaking of clutch Super Bowl interceptions by Steelers linebackers, Harrison made an even more famous one, when the outside linebacker picked off the Cardinals Kurt Warner late in the first half of Super Bowl XLIII and zigged and zagged his way for 100-yards and a touchdown. People often joke that Harrison just willed his way to that score. However, will wasn't the only thing that got Harrison to pay-dirt that day. It is true that Harrison was an undrafted free agent out of Kent State in 2002 (some more Lambert synergy). And it is also true that he was cut by both the Steelers and Ravens before finally finding a home in Pittsburgh in 2004. It's also correct to say that Harrison didn't become a bona fide star until the age of 30. Harrison turned 30 in 2008, which was the same year he recorded 16 quarterback sacks and seven forced fumbles. It was also the same season he was voted the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Yes, Harrison beat the odds to get to where he is today. However, you don't record 71.5 career sacks and 29 forced fumbles just on guile and lifting heavy weights.

Much like with Lambert, you get the feeling Harrison puts being a Steeler above all else. Maybe that's why he exposed his sensitive side during an interview in 2013 and became emotional while discussing his, then, former defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau. Harrison was a member of the Bengals that season after refusing to take a pay-cut in Pittsburgh, but the black and gold was clearly still in his heart and soul. Maybe that's why he decided to come back to the team so quickly last season after briefly retiring.

I mentioned the snide remark Lambert made to Swann in 1974, but if you watch the very end of this clip of the famous Bradshaw to Swann 64-yard touchdown pass in the waning moments of Super Bowl X, you'll see that the menacing No. 58 was the first person to run out and embrace old Swanny.

With regards to the playing careers of both Lambert and Harrison, there was/is a bit of Peter Gibbons in Office Space evident, in that they buck the system and do their own thing. But, at the same time, who's going to tell either one how to behave?

Last summer, Terry Bradshaw rankled feathers by not attending the viewing or funeral of Chuck Noll. Meanwhile, like Bradshaw, Lambert didn't pay his respects in the traditional sense. Instead, he arranged for a brief meeting with Noll's widow, Marianne, and drove away without engaging with anyone else involved with the Steelers. As unconventional and a bit surreal as this meeting must have been, it suited Lambert's personality perfectly. Nobody was going to tell him how to pay his respects to his former coach--but he did pay them in his own, small way.

Both legendary linebackers also possess an understated sense of humor. With Harrison, you can see it in his involvement with social media, as well as instances such as this little nugget from 2013, when the Bengals were on HBO's Hard Knocks, and he had some fun with the producers and cameramen. With Lambert, he let his hair down in this 1982 Kennywood commercial, where he was "defeated" by the park's menacing roller coasters. And what about this one he did in 1985 with Myron Cope?

I don't know if Harrison drinks beer or smokes cigarettes, but both were certainly fixtures in Lambert's life when he played for the Steelers back in the 70's and 80's. And that's why it's easy to picture him on a mower, while puffing and drinking away. Only, in Lambert's case, he may have been determined to finish the whole practice field, before breaking out the hose and watering it. (And, knowing Lambert, he may have expected a pay check.)

Of all the replica Steelers jerseys you see at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoons in the fall, Lambert's No. 58 is probably the most popular. Years from now, after he's finally retired and involved in whatever an older James Harrison would be involved in, there is no doubt his No. 92 replica will be the most popular of fans who fondly remember the second Super Bowl era of the 2000's.

And, on May 4--Harrison's birthday--someone, somewhere will probably take the time to write an article about him.

Jack Lambert and James Harrison. Unique, popular, and one of a kind linebackers for the Pittsburgh Steelers.