James Harrison, Pittsburgh’s (Old) Man of Steel

When Steelers head into their showdown game with the archrival Ravens this Sunday, a 38-year-old linebacker who retired two years ago may be the most important player on the field for the men in Black and Gold
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PITTSBURGH, Pa. — The Steelers had finished their post-practice workouts Friday afternoon when Bud Dupree grabbed his cellphone and trained its camera on James Harrison in the locker room. “Flex Friday on,” Harrison snarled, flexing his arm muscles. Dupree turned and found Ryan Shazier, who flexed for the camera, too. Then Dupree sauntered over to Anthony Chickillo, who smiled and posed and commented on his own physique. Watching from a few feet away, Harrison jokingly retorted, in essence, that Chickillo looked weak.

With that, they decided to have a “flex off.” Chickillo, the 24-year-old linebacker, stood next to Harrison, who is 14 years his senior, and they started flexing in various positions for the camera. “I’m killing this boy!” Harrison shouted. “I’m killing this young boy!”

A few minutes later, after apparently reviewing the tape, Chickillo conceded defeat. “Your sh** did look bigger than mine,” he said.

“My sh** looked way bigger than yours.”

“Not way bigger.”

“Yeah, way bigger,” Harrison shot back. And that was the end of that.

Thus goes a typical interaction in the life of James Harrison, the Steelers’ 38-year-old linebacker. One would think he proved all that he could, going from undrafted out of Kent State to one of the best players in Steelers’ history. Five Pro Bowls. Two Super Bowl rings. One Defensive Player of the Year award. Harrison even retired once, in 2014. Then he unretired less than three weeks later maybe just so he could prove that he could do that, too.

Now Harrison is still going, two years later, the oldest non-kicker in the league not named Tom Brady. And not only is Harrison still going, he’s thriving. He’s still the hard-hitting, mean-looking, trash-talking conscience of the Steelers’ defense. This weekend he’ll start and play a big role as the Steelers play the Ravens, in a game that likely will decide the AFC North.  

First, though, the NFL had a request. After Harrison finished practicing and flexing that Friday afternoon, he found a note taped to the top of his locker, telling him that the league had “randomly selected” him to complete a urine doping test “today.”

Harrison had received a similar note in his locker … four days earlier.   

* * *

Harrison and Joe Flacco in a divisional-round playoff game, January 2011.

Harrison and Joe Flacco in a divisional-round playoff game, January 2011.

Harrison was actually content the first time he retired. After he played one year for the Bengals in 2013, the Cardinals and their coach, Bruce Arians, a former Steelers assistant, showed some interest in signing him. But Harrison says he sabotaged the negotiations and “kept asking for more and more” money, “until [Arizona] said no.” He decided he didn’t want to spend another year away from his family and his two young sons, who had settled down in the Pittsburgh area. And the Steelers weren’t interested in bringing him back.

On Sept. 5, 2014, Harrison put on a suit and held a press conference in Pittsburgh, retiring as a Steeler. “If y’all lookin’ for tears, you ain’t gonna get it,” he said, smiling, as he took the podium. It seemed like a fitting way to go out, in line with his intimidating, unemotional, tough-guy persona.   

But two weeks later, Jarvis Jones, the linebacker the Steelers took in the first round the year they let Harrison leave, dislocated his wrist in a Sunday Night Football game in Carolina. That same night, after the team landed back in Pittsburgh, defensive end Brett Keisel called Harrison around 4:30 a.m. and began recruiting. “Hey, you ready to come back?” Keisel asked.

Harrison was reluctant at first. He had spent that time away hanging with his sons. He had attended his mother’s birthday party in his hometown, Akron, Ohio, for the first time in maybe 12 years, first time since he entered the league, because her birthday is in August.

Then Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor, two more of Harrison’s longtime defensive teammates, called, too. They stressed how much they needed him, how much it’d mean to the team. “I didn’t want to feel like I was letting them down,” Harrison says, “so I came back.”

That year he discovered that he could still play at a high level, when he finished third on the team with 5.5 sacks. After the season, while Keisel, Polamalu and Taylor—the friends he said he didn’t want to let down—all retired, Harrison was signing a new two-year deal.

“I fell back in love with the game,” he says. “I enjoyed what I was doing again.”

Part of that, it seemed, came from how Harrison connected with the younger players on the team. They lifted together, flexed together and joked together. One day, while Antonio Brown was addressing a group of reporters, Harrison, a few lockers away, decided to do pull-ups in his own locker, completely naked, his back to the crowd.

“I died,” Ramon Foster, the Steelers guard, says. “It was by far the funniest thing I’ve seen him do.”

Harrison has let his guard down more and more, his teammates say. Where before they shied away, the young players feel comfortable approaching Harrison now, for tips on rushing the passer and tackling technique. Ryan Shazier has even tried following Harrison’s  weightlifting routine. “I just don’t use the same amount of weight,” he says, sheepishly.

But there’s no shame in that. Harrison works out almost every day, year-round. He lifts in a full sweat suit, eats mostly organic foods and has cut back on drinking. He meets with a chiropractor, a massage therapist and an acupuncturist multiple times a week. He asks for 300 acupuncture needles when the average athlete may take half that. And he credits all of this for why he’s still playing one of the NFL’s most physically demanding positions, at 38.

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William Gay, the 31-year-old corner who’s been Harrison’s teammate for eight seasons, thinks otherwise. “Everyone does the same thing,” Gay says. “Everybody works out, everybody eats right, everybody sleeps right. It’s a blessing from above. That’s pretty much what it is.”

The NFL has its own suspicions. The league investigated Harrison after an Al Jazeera report in 2015 that implicated Harrison in the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Even though Al Jazeera’s source, Charlie Sly, a supplement salesman who formerly worked at an Indianapolis anti-aging clinic, recanted his story, the NFL kept going. The league interviewed the players named in the Al Jazeera report, including Harrison, and ultimately cleared them in August.    

Throughout the investigation, Harrison maintained his innocence. In the past, when the NFL fined him for his vicious style of play, Harrison had said that he believed  Roger Goodell targeted him unfairly. Harrison famously told the magazine Men’s Journal in 2011 that, even if Goodell were on fire, he wouldn’t urinate on him to extinguish the flame.

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Once the NFL finally cleared Harrison, he fired back at the league office with an Instagram post: “I have WORKED for EVERYTHING I have since DAY ONE.” Since then, however, Harrison has remained mostly quiet on the subject, other than to point out on Instagram that the league has “randomly” drug tested him about eight or nine times this year.

Before I met with Harrison, a Steelers public relations staffer warned that if I brought up Al Jazeera or Roger Goodell, Harrison would end the interview. Maybe in his old age, Harrison had decided that it was better not wage a war with the league in the media.

I asked Harrison if he worried for his young teammates, for the state of the NFL he would be leaving behind someday. “I don’t know if I would say ‘worried,’ ” Harrison said. “I think we’ve got a group of guys that are more informed, who know what they should and shouldn’t fight for, and what they should and shouldn’t be worried about. I feel like if they continue to grow in those areas, everything will be all right.

James Harrison and Ray Lewis after a November 2009 game.

James Harrison and Ray Lewis after a November 2009 game.

“I think some of the older guys understand. When I was young, I didn’t care anything about what they’re talking about now. All you worried about was, Oh, I’m getting paid. You’ve got to get guys informed starting out younger, because the league is getting younger. I mean, how many players do you have that are 30-plus-years old now in the league? Compared to what you had 10 years ago?

“If [the league] keeps them young, the young cat ain’t worried about nothing but his money. The older guy, he’s starting to think for himself.”

* * *

After the Steelers beat the Browns 24-9 in Cleveland in mid-November, Mike Tomlin addressed his team in the visitors’ locker room and dedicated the win to Harrison, who had just broken the Steelers’ franchise record for career sacks. Tomlin invited Harrison to come to the front of the room and address the team if he wanted. The floor was his.

Harrison normally wouldn’t say much. After the Steelers’ playoff win over the Bengals last season, he made a rare speech, lauding Ben Roethlisberger for coming back from an injury to lead the team to victory. But even that was typical James Harrison, brief and a tad gruff.

In Cleveland, when everyone turned to look at Harrison, on the outer edge of the group, he was sobbing. He was thinking about his father, who had died in May. With that, the clapping and celebrating stopped and a procession formed, people coming and hugging Harrison.

That may have been a turning point in the Steelers’ season. Since then, Pittsburgh has won four more games and vaulted to the top of the AFC North, with Harrison leading the way. He has started six games and his five sacks are the most on the team. He’s playing so well, Roethlisberger often jokes that Harrison may play longer than anyone else on the team.   

“He doesn’t show any signs of slowing down,” Roethlisberger says. “If anything, he’s getting better. Whatever special, magical, chemical, herbal thing that he’s doing—maybe we all should do it.”


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