• One of the first African-American students at his Ohio high school, Harrison was a one-of-a-kind athlete who was at the center of a few controversies. And through it all, he was pretty much the same guy you see today
By Jonathan Jones
January 30, 2018

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CONVENTRY TOWNSHIP, Ohio — One of Cyle Feldman’s duties on the Coventry High football staff, along with being an offensive coordinator who didn’t call plays, was to drive the kids who lived outside the district home after practice.

James Harrison was one of those kids. Most weekend nights he’d load up in coach Feldman’s car and drive six miles north to Akron, where Feldman would drop off the star fullback/tailback/linebacker/edge rusher on Noah Avenue, right off Copley Road.

“We used to sit in the car together—sometimes we’d talk and sometimes we wouldn’t,” Feldman says.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The James Harrison you see today is just about the same James Harrison that you got in high school. Bald head. Surly. Bigger than nearly all of his peers. He could seemingly do anything on the football field. And he gave you no idea where you stood with him at any given moment.

“He’s headstrong,” says Mike Hallett, Harrison’s defensive coordinator at Coventry. “He has an unbreakable will. Those are things that, while they can drive you a little crazy when you’re coaching high school football, it’s also some of the intangibles that allows a guy to make it to the NFL [and] have a longstanding career at that level.”

The James Harrison story is well-documented. He starred at nearby Kent State but went undrafted in 2002 after teams balked at his tweener status. Harrison signed with the Steelers, got cut, ended up in NFL Europe, signed with the Steelers again, worked to become a starter, won AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2009, scored the longest play in Super Bowl history, became the NFL’s workout-video king, won his release from the Steelers this season and has had an immediate impact for the Patriots while looking for his third Super Bowl ring.

Twenty years ago, Harrison had been branded as an immature high schooler with poor grades. It’s true he wasn’t the best student. But when The MMQB visited some of his old coaches last week, it revealed a more complicated picture than simply labeling a teenager as “immature.”

He began high school at Archbishop Hoban in Akron, but didn’t last past his freshman year. According to two Coventry coaches, it was due to either (or some combination of) his not fitting in at the private, college-prep school or being the target of a rumored racial incident there.

The late Mo Tipton, who had been the coach at Hoban, left to become the head coach at Coventry and Harrison went with him. In the mid-90s, open enrollment had just started in the greater Cleveland area. Harrison and fellow linebacker Jonathan Holloman went to Coventry, where, according to multiple coaches, they were believed to be the school’s first African-American students. (Mind you: This was not the South in the 1960s. This was Akron in the ’90s, four decades after Brown v. Board.)

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Coventry hadn’t experienced a winning season since the 1970s, but Tipton and his young firebrand assistants coached Harrison and his teammates to consecutive 8-2 seasons. That success didn’t come without incident, even within the team. In the parking lot walking to the practice field one day, one of the white Coventry players referred to Harrison as “boy.”

“I remember going over to James and making sure that we had a teachable moment in self-control,” Feldman says. “He responded in a manner where I had to really work as an assistant coach in de-escalating the situation. And it [worked]. And I’m not so sure a little bit of sensitivity teaching wasn’t in store [for the white players]. We were able to do that as a staff.” In Harrison’s senior season, Coventry was 8-0 entering the penultimate game at Tusky Valley. The home crowd taunted Harrison all night with “dirty, racial” jeers, former assistant and current Coventry teacher Joe Headley says. So after Harrison scored a touchdown, he ran along the Tusky Valley sideline extending both middle fingers to the opposing fans.

“He did the double bird all the way down the sideline, and rightly so,” Headley says. “From the time we stepped off the bus they were on it. I don’t know if they were purposely trying to get James out of his game or if they were that backward-ass down there.

“If you know James, James will get to the point. And I think any human being would have [once that was] all you can take.”

Coventry won to go to 9-0, but Harrison was suspended for the next game against rival Manchester because of the gesture. The previous year Coventry had beaten Manchester for the first time in years, and the game is remembered today for Harrison marching through their stretch lines in pregame to let them know he wasn’t afraid. Without Harrison this year, though, Coventry fell 21-12, finishing the season 9-1.

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At some point during Harrison’s senior year came the incident most associated with his high school career, known around the school as “BB-Gate.” There are various stories, and 20 years later it’s still unclear exactly what happened in that locker room. But it involved one of Harrison’s teammates getting shot in the butt and the finger being pointed at Harrison. Harrison pled guilty to a minor charge. A defensive coach present at the time lost his job. Headley remembers it as a PR nightmare for the school.

“Some people will tell you it was harmless locker room fun, just boys being boys. You hear gun and school and other people think, O.K. that takes on a whole new level,” Headley says. “In James’ mind I’m sure it was harmless horsin’ around in the locker room. If I’m the guy taking the BB in the ass, I might look at that situation totally different.”

The incident wrecked any chance of Harrison going to a high Division-I college. He eventually returned to school to finish his senior year and did well enough academically to partially qualify at nearby Kent State. He would have to sit out his freshman year due to academics, but he eventually became a first-team all-conference player.

His high school career was one of the first of many times when Harrison beat the odds and proved people wrong, a characteristic that has defined his 16-year NFL career. And Feldman, the coach who shuttled Harrison back home every night, remembers that achievement well.

“He invited me to a dinner at the Silver Pheasant in Stowe when he signed to go to Kent State,” Feldman says. “James and his mom and brother and family were all there. It was a time that we celebrated him going to college.

“That’s my greatest memory because we were celebrating success in a situation where he obviously took that opportunity and [it] made him what he is today.”

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