PITTSBURGH – The greatest encounter I never had with James Harrison happened about a week after the Steelers outside linebacker griped that officials had allowed too much holding in a 26-21 win at Jacksonville in 2008.
When prodded why he hadn’t gotten more calls a still-incensed Harrison said that maybe the officials had money on the game.
I had to write it and less than a week later Harrison received a $25,000 fine by the NFL. He taped the letter explaining why he had been fined on the wall next to his locker, and he asked a pack of reporters later in the day something to the effect of where is that (expletive) Scott Brown? He owes me $25,000.
I paraphrased what Harrison said because I wasn’t there when he said it. I was at the opposite end of the Steelers locker room, and to this day I’m glad I only heard second hand what Harrison had said.
The reason: I’m not sure how I would have reacted had I been among the reporters and Harrison showed any inclination that he was serious about collecting my supposed debt.
Nobody that I have covered on a regular basis could intimidate the way James Harrison does, and that is one of many reasons why Steelers fans need to cheer him Sunday night even though he will be playing in a Bengals uniform at Heinz Field.
Harrison emerged as the most unlikely link to the “Steel Curtain” defenses, having been discarded by the Steelers three times before finally sticking with the club.
But his menacing glower came to define the defenses that helped return the Steelers to prominence as much as Jack Lambert’s gap-toothed snarl served as the ultimate snapshot for the defenses that transformed Pittsburgh from perennial also-ran into the team of the 1970s.
It is fitting that Lambert and Harrison both played their college ball at Kent State since the two were so alike in temperament and approach to the game.
Harrison could be as ornery as he was intimidating and as Steelers free safety Ryan Clark said, “Was he the nicest guy ever? Not really.”
But Harrison turned into a leader and the type of player others would fall behind because they saw what took place behind the scenes.
Harrison simply outworked everyone to go from undrafted and unwanted free agent to perennial Pro Bowler and one of the premier pass-rushers in the NFL.
Consider what Dick LeBeau recalled after returning for a second stint as Steelers defensive coordinator in 2004: “There were two guys in here every day, Brett Keisel and James Harrison. They both ended up being pretty dang good football players.”
Here is what Jason Worilds said when I asked him Thursday if he has been around anyone who worked harder than Harrison.
“I haven’t seen it,” said Worilds, who apprenticed for three seasons behind Harrison. “His approach to the game, day in and day out, was the biggest thing I took from him.”
That is but a fraction of his legacy with the Steelers.
And Harrison’s body of work -- not to mention his famous body slam of a trespassing Browns fan -- has earned the cheers Steelers fans should shower him with Sunday night when he first steps onto the turf at Heinz Field.