Harrison gives Steelers 'scary' presence

PITTSBURGH -- The manager wants to buy James Harrison a shot of tequila, the best in the house. It is lunchtime for the yuppies streaming in and out of a trendy sushi restaurant on the South Side, but it's happy hour for at least one more week in Pittsburgh. Little girls nervously stumble to the back for autographs. Old guys just want to make sure Harrison is comfortable and doesn't poke an eye with his chopsticks. How are you feeling? They couldn't hold you anymore last night, huh? That was a great game to watch. …

There will be no Patron -- Harrison passes because he has a meeting to go to in an hour. The glare never cracks. It's there when things go bad, when Harrison was cut four times and pondered becoming a bus driver. It's here in the best season of his life, when he's the NFL's defensive MVP and Super Bowl-bound.

Is James Harrison enjoying any of this? The answer, maybe, lies in his actions in the late hours of Jan. 18, when the Steelers beat Baltimore for the AFC championship. Pittsburgh hoisted a collective cup of Iron City beer; Harrison went home to watch cartoons, couldn't sleep, then stayed up most of the night paying bills and staring into space.

He is a thinker buried in 240 pounds of chiseled steel, a castoff who never asked why he was cut but never forgot any late-summer locker cleaning. He is bullheaded and proud and for years lugged around an old bag from his NFL Europe days, just to remind himself of where he came from.

He is still suspicious of his fame, even after two Pro Bowls, and randomly asks autograph seekers, "Do you know who I am?" before he signs. Three years ago, they answered with Willie Parker or a random practice-squad player.

Now they know Harrison, as much as Harrison allows.

"If I know you, I may be talkative," Harrison says. "If I don't know you, I may not say a word. If I don't say a word, my natural look is mean, so people take that as being scary."

The kids were terrified of him. Thirteen years later, alumni would call Gary Hutt, the old offensive coordinator at Coventry High in Akron, Ohio, and share black-and-blue stories about Harrison.

"Oh man, Coach," they'd say. "Remember how he used to beat the hell out of us in practice?"

Harrison's quiet confidence gave off the air that he was arrogant; his shaved head made him look like a football cyborg. One time, Coventry was playing rival Manchester, a team it rarely beat, and Harrison walked to where his opponents were warming up, took off his helmet and pointed. He said they weren't going to survive the game.

"My mouth hit the ground," Hutt says. "'James, what the hell are you doing?' He said, 'I'm just letting them know how it's going to be.'

"He was easy to hate. The way he looked, the way he didn't talk. ... He plays the game all the time."

Before he was leaping over LaDainian Tomlinson, Harrison was hurdling teenage boys at Coventry. He did it at least five times in high school. "That's illegal," one official told Hutt. "But I don't think I've ever seen it, and I can't call it because it's too pretty."

But high school had its share of ugly, too. Hutt says Harrison was one of the first African-Americans to play football at Coventry, and he was subjected to racial taunts during road games. He was suspended once for responding. And then another misstep cost him possible scholarship offers from Ohio State and Nebraska.

Harrison was arrested for shooting a BB gun in the locker room his senior year, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and wound up at Kent State. James was never a bad kid, says his mother, Mildred, who raised 14 children. He just needed a nudge every once in a while. Freshman year, Mildred got in a van and drove 20 miles to Kent State's campus. She'd just gotten James' grades. She told him to pack his things, that she wasn't paying for him to flunk out of school.

"Ma, I'll do better," he told her.

With the help of coach Dean Pees, who implemented a nightly study hall for his players, Harrison made the dean's list.

He is so much like his mom, right down to that glare. Mildred used to flash it when she told her kids to be home before the street lights flickered on, and James would drop everything and bolt into the house. She is long on love but slow to trust. First impressions are everything. Most of the time, when she sizes somebody up, she ends up being right.

The answering machine at Harrison's parents' house in Ohio tells phone solicitors that they're not interested, but hey, have a happy new year anyway.

"He doesn't need a lot of friends or crowds," Mildred says. "He does just fine by himself."

Harrison was not going to be one of those guys who held on. He would not be a rusting tomato can, waiting for the phone to ring for a chance on special teams, struggling to fit in at 30. The 6-foot Harrison had heard "no way" too many times in those first three NFL seasons. No, James, you're too small. No, you don't know the playbook.

Harrison joined the Steelers as an undrafted rookie in 2002, was cut in early September, but was re-signed and dressed for the final game of the regular season. The next year, the Steelers cut him twice.

"He was just like any other rookie," says Steelers veteran linebacker James Farrior. "He didn't really know the D. We'd be in practice, in training camp, and he might not know what he was doing so he'd just stop and throw his hands up and tell them to get him out of there. We thought the guy was crazy."

He was signed by Baltimore in early 2004, then sent to the Rhein Fire. It is there, Hutt believes, that something clicked with Harrison. He hated NFL Europe. Baltimore eventually cut him, and Harrison was about to move on. He thought about becoming a veterinarian, because he loved animals, then realized that it would take way too much time in school. Bus driver? Maybe. Trucks?

In late July '04, the Steelers called after linebacker Clark Haggans suffered a freak injury lifting weights. They wanted Harrison back for training camp. It wasn't the same Harrison. He went to camp armed with 1,000 flash cards, and laid on a mattress on the floor at night with his playbook and handwritten notes. Harrison refused to have a TV in his room for the entire camp.

"I wanted to feel like if I did get cut, I gave it everything I could," he says. "There was nothing else I could do.

"It started making sense."

He played in relative anonymity for the next three seasons, but did make the highlight reels for his LT leap and for body-slamming a rowdy Browns fan who ran onto the field on Christmas Eve 2005.

When the Steelers cut Joey Porter in 2007, Harrison's career took off. He had 3½ sacks and forced three fumbles in a "Monday Night Football" game against the Ravens, and was voted team MVP.

This season, Harrison set a team record with 16 sacks and had seven forced fumbles. He became the first undrafted player to earn the league's top defensive honor.

"I basically wanted to prove them wrong," Harrison says. "When somebody tells you you can't do something, to sit there and eat it and take it as gospel when you believe in your heart that you can … I just can't see dealing with that and rolling with that."

Hutt has a theory as to why a man who crunches quarterbacks would go home at night and watch hours of "Looney Tunes."

"I think he's in such a violent, violent scenario," Hutt says, "that it gives him peace. That's his place to get away from it all. I'm not kidding you, he'll sit there and watch cartoons for hours. He's a teddy bear."

Hutt paints a picture of a generous, often misunderstood man who quietly donated $8,000 worth of shoes to his old high school. He knows that Harrison's detractors are more apt to pay attention to other headlines.

In March, Harrison was charged with simple assault and criminal mischief for allegedly hitting his girlfriend across the face with an open hand and knocking off her glasses. The charges were eventually dropped, and Harrison went to anger-management classes. The woman, Beth Tibbott, is the mother of his son.

The argument, reportedly, erupted over their son's baptism. James Harrison III turned 1 in December, and, from all accounts, is doted on by his father. When Harrison is asked about his outside interests, he quickly says his son, food and fishing.

"He goes to the children's hospitals quite a bit," Hutt says. "I know a lot of guys do that, but he does it on his own. When he walks into a room, he's just really quiet. But there is a softer side of him."

It will not be on display this week in Tampa. Harrison, who is finishing up a plate of Hanalei rolls at Nakama, says the Super Bowl is great, but the celebrations on TV are a bit overdone. He signs another autograph, and a brown-haired girl puts a string of beads around his neck. The scary man nearly smiles.

"You have some people who portray me as a thug," Harrison says. "I couldn't care less. I've got to live with me; they don't. As long as I can live with me, I don't care what anybody else thinks."

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