Harrison overcomes off-the-field issues to shine on the field

It easily could have gone much differently for James Harrison.

That's not to say Harrison's road to stardom with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Super Bowl XLIII -- including being named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year this season -- has not been paved with many obstacles, some by his own doing.

It began in Akron, Ohio, for the youngest of 14 children of James and Mildred Harrison, strict parents who put limitations on what kinds of activities he could do in his early youth.

It continued at Coventry High, where the two-way star played mostly against teams with no black players and with opposing fans in the stands who would scream racial epithets at him -- one time causing him to make an obscene gesture toward them that got him ejected.

Other incidents -- including an arrest his senior year for assault after shooting a BB gun in the locker room -- scared off recruiters and forced this academic no-qualifier to enroll at nearby Kent State, where his parents had to pay his tuition.

The path eventually took Harrison to NFL Europe and a stint with the Rhein Fire after he was cut four times by the Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens.

The bumps and bruises he has sustained on the gridiron, however, pale in comparison to what he has endured off the field.

"I remember the game they ejected him," 26-year Coventry offensive coordinator Gary Hutt said. "Mind you, there were only one or two black players in the whole league.

"It was a big game, and the place was packed with people pressed up against the fence. They were ruthless in some of the things they were saying.

"After the game, he didn't go home on the team bus. Instead, I took him home in my car with my two little sons," Hutt said. "On the ride home, my 6-year-old son at the time asked him why he did what he did. He told my boy he didn't know why he did it, but he was sorry."

Just like Jack Lambert, the Hall of Famer and former Kent State and Steelers linebacker, Harrison made an impression at Kent State, even after a rocky start.

Eventually, Harrison became a star at Kent State and eventual team captain. Among some big names he laid the pads on is former Purdue and current New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

In 2001, Harrison was named All-Mid-American Conference with a league-leading 12 sacks. His last two sacks that season came when he helped secure Kent State's first winning season in 14 years with back-to-back sacks on the game's final two plays, as Miami of Ohio was driving for a winning touchdown. Ironically, the quarterback he sacked on those two plays was Ben Roethlisberger, who's now his teammate on the Steelers.

What came next was the toughest part of Harrison's journey to stardom -- when after the fourth cut and a knee injury in Germany, he contemplated becoming a truck driver.

Finally, in 2004, Harrison got a break; an injury to starting outside linebacker Clark Haggans caused the Steelers to re-sign him.

That season, he made his debut against his boyhood idols, the Cleveland Browns. He finished with six tackles and one sack, and his career began to blossom.

Except for one thing.

The problems with anger and rage that began in his youth had not been extinguished.

In 2005, he made headlines by tackling a Browns fan who came onto the field.

Even after signing a four-year, $6.5 million-plus contract in 2006 and becoming a starter, making the Pro Bowl and being elected team MVP by the Steelers, his troubles with anger didn't cease.

This past March, Harrison's girlfriend and the mother of his son, James Harrison III, pressed assault charges against him. After attending anger-management counseling, the charges were dropped.

This season, the 6-foot, 255-pound linebacker set a Steelers record with 16 sacks and led the NFL with seven forced fumbles. He was named the Associated Press' NFL Defensive Player of the Year, an award he shares with Steelers Hall of Famers Lambert, Joe Greene and Mel Blount. He was the first undrafted player to win the award.

Harrison also appears to be working on a new image.

"After the Steelers won the Super Bowl, we had an event at Coventry to build a relationship between James and the school," said Hutt, who organized the event. "James took pictures with the kids and signed hundreds of autographs. The kids just love him when he returns."

In the fall, Harrison returned to Coventry to donate $8,000 in Nike Super Speed spikes for every player and coach, from freshman players through the varsity squads.

"He's a tough loner who's learned the hard way how to put things behind him," Hutt said. "And now he's becoming a real man."

Harold Abend covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.