Harrison deals with his rep just fine

PHOENIX -- The outlaw was a frail and skinny kid. His mom had $40. She could pay the electric bill and keep the house warm and lit, or let her undersized son play football. Football won. "You won't regret this," he said.

His NFL opponents don't always see that inner hunger in Rodney Harrison. They see the outward anger. Receivers want to deck him; Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick tried to kiss him. That, really, took Harrison aback. But what better way to mess with a man's head than to hit him with the unexpected?

"That is probably the first time," Harrison says, "a man has ever blown kisses at me."

The outlaw of the NFL knows all about lines. Some defensive players safely plant themselves a foot behind it; others spend years trying to inch closer. Harrison tight ropes, grips and teeters, until he eventually strays to the other side.

He is sitting at a table during Super Bowl week, in front of a box of chocolates and a smattering of microphones. He is engaging and funny, the antithesis of his on-the-field role with the New England Patriots. There, Harrison gets fined. He sets aside $40,000 a year, as sort of a tantrum trust, to accommodate the commissioner's levies. There, he has earned the tag as the dirtiest player in the NFL.

Harrison's teammates scoff and say he doesn't deserve it, that he is a leader on an undefeated team that just so happened to rack up enough fines in 2007 to pay roughly 40 janitors' salaries in Boston. Fans say they love it, dirty or at least smudged, because the Patriots are going to their third Super Bowl in five years, and because Harrison brought attitude and color to Team Drab.

"I don't care what you or anyone else thinks about me," Harrison says. "My kids love me, God loves me, my wife loves me. I play the game the way it's supposed to be played. If you don't like it, too bad.

"They can fine me, they can throw flags, whatever. I'm going to play Rodney Harrison football, and that's what it is."

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Preseason, 1999. While with the San Diego Chargers, a young Rodney Harrison delivers a hit to the knee of St. Louis Rams quarterback Trent Green. It tears Green's ACL, MCL and lateral meniscus. Green misses the entire season, which, for the Rams, ends in a Super Bowl victory.

"I've watched that play 50 to 100 times," former St. Louis coach Dick Vermeil says. "It was a normal football play. I don't think there was anything deliberate about it. People tend to evaluate it more critically than a normal player because he had a reputation for taking some shots."

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Marian Catholic High School sits roughly 30 miles from the grit of Chicago. Hard-nosed coaches eat Cheetos for lunch and lumber around in old sneakers, and privileged boys wear designer shoes. Harrison's mother had to scrimp to send him there, to the college preparatory school where, in some ways, he seemed out of place.

Harrison saw his future there, and what he could be. He went from a wiry 150-pound kid to a sculpted 190-pound specimen. Basketball boosted his popularity. He led Marian to a regional championship, a rarity in their parts. His violent hits and general knack for rescuing the team in the final minutes made him a local hero in football.

"When you're going after people who weigh 100 pounds more than you," Marian Catholic coach Dave Mattio says, "you have to find ways to compete, and that's where toughness comes in.

"He's always had … I won't call it a mean streak, but a competitive streak that says, 'I'm going to outlast you.'"

What critics see as dirty play, Mattio sees as Harrison's survival skills showing through. He truly believes Harrison never sets out to hurt anyone. Off the field, he says, Harrison "wouldn't hurt a fly." On it, he watches the safety perform some familiar tricks. If a ball carrier is headed toward that out-of-bounds line, for example, Harrison is gonna whack 'em. If a guy shoves him, Harrison is gonna push back.

People close to Harrison suggest his mentality comes from being an undersized kid who always felt like the underdog, always needed an edge.

But it also came from his mother, who raised three kids in a single-parent family.

"One day, I'm going to be able to buy your house," he told her.

He now jokes that it almost broke him, buying her that house in Markham, Ill., in 1997, a fifth-round draft pick who hadn't quite established himself yet in the league.

"I am my mom," he says. "I'm feisty, I'm tough. I'm not going to let anyone push me around. That's the way my mom raised me. Trust in God. Believe in yourself."

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Dec. 29, 2007. In the waning minutes of a tight regular-season finale with the New York Giants, Harrison draws a 15-yard personal-foul penalty for yanking the facemask of offensive lineman Chris Snee. Patriots coach Bill Belichick pulls Harrison for six plays. Harrison is seen walking off the field, jawing at his coach.

"It went both ways," Snee says. "It's a physical game. Just two guys playing a physical game."

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When Harrison arrived at Patriots training camp five years ago, he did not make friends fast. There was a verbal exchange with Tom Brady and smack delivered on running back Kevin Faulk with a force that stirred some cages in the late summer.

Harrison had just come from San Diego, where he essentially had been told his skills were diminishing and his stay was up. He was 30 years old and angry. Again, there was something to prove.

"Rodney's a very intense player," Faulk says. "He came in, and some of the practice habits they had at San Diego weren't some of the practice habits we had with the New England Patriots. We kind of got into it a couple of times, but as players and as men, you tend to understand where he's coming from, and he understood where I was coming from."

They didn't know where he had been, torn between offers from the Denver Broncos and the Oakland Raiders, sitting in a T-shirt and shorts, praying he would make the right decision. Revenge should have led him to one of those AFC West stops. God, he says, drove him to New England.

By the end of the summer, his teammates said Harrison's fire was exactly what the defense needed. They named him a team captain. That season, he led all NFL defensive backs with 140 tackles, and he intercepted Peyton Manning in the end zone during a 24-14 victory in the AFC Championship.

The postseason? To Harrison, that always has been the best place to show them. He has seven interceptions in eight playoff games. He has two Super Bowl rings, after being told he was washed up.

"I love him," Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce says. "I love watching Rodney Harrison play. Actually, he's one of my favorite players. I think Rodney is a guy who's definitely going to be in the Hall of Fame, probably one of the few guys in the league that a lot of players look up to. Because he plays the game the way it should be played."

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Dec. 3, 2007. The Patriots intercept Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller in the fourth quarter of a heated game, and Harrison is pumped. He taunts Billick on the sideline in front of the "Monday Night Football" cameras. Billick blows three kisses his way.

"What did I say to him?" Harrison says. "Some things just don't belong in the media. We just had fun with it. I said a couple of things, and he had fun with it, and I had fun with it."

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Le Kevin Smith was a rookie, the 206th overall pick in the 2006 draft, lost among a team with rings and February purpose. One day, he walked up to Harrison's locker, seeking wisdom, armed with questions. How do you handle the fines? The reputation? How do you stay in the league so long?

Harrison uttered one sentence to Smith.

"There is only one way to play the game."

Harrison didn't finish the thought, but Smith assumed he meant hard.

At 35, Harrison's legs are slower and his skills, some say, are beginning to erode. He has played fewer games this season after serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Harrison says he doesn't care what people say about it, the whispers that he purchased human growth hormone, the questions. Did the man who spent a career on the edge, scraping for any advantage, pushing the rules, push too hard?

"Hot Rod has been in the game a long time," defensive tackle Vince Wilfork says. "That's one of the guys I talk to when I get my fines.

"He basically told me, 'Look, don't even worry about it. You play this game for one reason only, and that's to win a Super Bowl.'"

People who don't understand him, Wilfork says, don't understand football. He compares it to the dreaded pile, where men pinch and poke and step on each other. The shenanigans are accepted, for the most part, because the guys who are doing it are stuck at the bottom, just like you.

The outlaw who once was small and different now is on top. He knows it's fading. He throws in an extra push.

"My mom always told me, it's not about your size," Harrison says. "It's about your heart. The size of your heart.

"I'm feisty, I'm tough. I'm not going to let anyone push me around."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.