Harrison 1st undrafted AP Defensive Player of Year
PITTSBURGH -- James Harrison wasn't drafted out of Kent State, was cut four times before finally making it onto an NFL roster, yet is The Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year in only his second season as a Pittsburgh Steelers starter.
A tough road? For sure. Now, it gets even more difficult for Harrison, a self-made player who won an honor normally reserved for stars.
Joe Greene, Mel Blount and Jack Lambert, Defensive Players of the Year for the Steelers during the 1970s, are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Rod Woodson, the 1993 winner, could be enshrined in Canton as early as next year.
So all Harrison must do is play at a Hall of Fame level the rest of his career, right?
"I've got a whole bunch more to go to even be mentioned in the category of that group of guys," Harrison said.
What Harrison has done in a brief time is remarkable enough.
Harrison earned 22 votes to 13 for Dallas linebacker DeMarcus Ware in balloting by a nationwide panel of 50 sports writers and broadcasters. The award began in 1971 and, while a large percentage of the winners were first-round draft picks, Harrison is a different kind of first -- the only non-drafted player to win.
"It couldn't happen to a better guy," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "He's worked his tail off to get to where he is. You appreciate it more, considering where he came from and how he got here."
Supposedly too short and not quite fast enough to play in the league, Harrison was helped along by two major breaks after not getting any for a couple of years.
A week before the Steelers went to camp in 2004, outside linebacker Clark Haggans was injured, causing coach Bill Cowher to bring back Harrison literally hours before camp began. Harrison had been cut three times previously by Pittsburgh. Later that season, Joey Porter got into a pregame fight in Cleveland, and Harrison unexpectedly made his first NFL start.
"Somebody else's misfortune is somebody else's fortune," Harrison said. "It's just hard work, perseverance and little blessings here and there."
A lot of sacks, too -- 24½ the last two seasons.
The intense, competitive Harrison began progressing after he quit fighting the structure and regimen of pro ball, so much so the Steelers released Porter after the 2006 season and made Harrison a starter. He was chosen by his teammates as their MVP in each of the two seasons since.
"It should have been unanimous," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.
This season, Harrison had a team-record 16 sacks and led the league with seven forced fumbles as the Steelers allowed the fewest total yards, passing yards and points. They just missed -- by about 60 yards -- becoming the first defense since the 1970 NFL merger to lead the league in the four major defensive statistics.
"I do what the defense allows me to do and what my teammates allow me to do," Harrison said. "If those other 10 guys do their job, I do my job and play within the confines of the defense and how coach (Dick) LeBeau teaches us, I make the plays I'm able to make."
Teammate James Farrior said Harrison's workouts remain the talk of the locker room. Harrison works out as many as three times daily during the offseason, adding an evening workout if he didn't like one of his daytime sessions.
"He's very tuned into what he has to do to make himself better," Farrior said. "That's all he strives for, to try to be better than anybody else, and you can see his determination when he's out there on the field."
Harrison still plays on special teams -- he had 12 tackles there -- and is so willing to take on extra roles that he filled in as a long snapper when Greg Warren was hurt Oct. 26 against the Giants. Even when Harrison's bad snap led to a Giants safety, his teammates rushed to defend him.
While the Steelers had four Defensive Players of the Year from 1972-76 (Greene (1972, 1974), Blount (1975) and Lambert (1976), Harrison and Woodson are their only winners in the last 32 years.
What a coincidence that two of the best linebackers in their history came from the same school -- Lambert also played at Kent State -- and both were downgraded by some scouts for supposedly not being physically equipped to play in the league.
"Just to prove people wrong and I can do this," Harrison said when asked what motivates him. "I can do this at this level."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press
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