By Jim Wexell
The players on the right side of a Steelers defensive front that's causing so much havoc these days in the NFL arrived in Pittsburgh as mere afterthoughts in 2002.
Brett Keisel, the right defensive end was drafted in the seventh round — selection 7b, to be more precise — and James Harrison, the right outside linebacker, came along as a free agent after the draft.
And to again be more precise, Harrison was only signed then because the Steelers wanted one of his agent's other prospects, a since-forgotten cornerback who didn't sign with the team. So the Steelers were stuck with the throw-in of this little recruiting tale.
"James continues to be the beast that everyone fears," Keisel was saying more than eight years later. "And he only gets better each year. I don't think there's a better outside linebacker, a harder worker, a harder player in the National Football League than James."
He just goes by James now. He was "Silverback" as a reserve behind Joey Porter and Clark Haggans, and then he became "Deebo" after rising to first-team status in 2007. But he became just James sometime after being named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, making arguably the greatest play in Super Bowl history in 2009 and becoming the first player in Steelers history to record double-digit sacks for a third consecutive season in 2010. The latter is a feat that surprises those who have been around for awhile.
"That is surprising to me because Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene were great outside 'backers, great pass rushers," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
Of course, there have been a few other pass rushers in Pittsburgh — guys named Russell, Ham, Lambert, Greenwood, Merriweather, Gildon, Porter. But none has done what Harrison has done the past three years with his 37 sacks heading into Week 17.
"He plays every down," was the way LeBeau chose to define him. "You'd still think he was an undrafted free agent trying to make the football team. He's been our Most Valuable Player, been three times to the Pro Bowl, but you'd think he was still trying to make the football team. He's a great leader by example. He plays every down."
And he's pretty much being held on every down. It's been a weekly complaint by Harrison, his teammates, his fans, and the media covering the team since he became a starter in 2007.
The holding is easy to spot on tape, the same tape the league has used to throw $125,000 worth of fines against Harrison.
After a $75,000 fine for a bang-bang, catch-and-hit of Browns WR Mohamed Massaquoi, Harrison considered retiring. But he came to his senses and went on to endure two things he dislikes nearly as much as fines: He twice stood in front of reporters and answered every single question, and he got on a plane to fly to New York to talk to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Neither course proved satisfying, but Harrison has since been supported by friend and foe alike.
"I think he's being targeted," Steelers defensive captain James Farrior said. "It's unfair and somebody's got to do something."
"I think he's being red-flagged," Ravens ROLB Terrell Suggs said. "Referees are kind of looking for him to see if he breathes on the quarterback wrong and he might get a flag. I think there is definitely some injustice and I think that's where the game has went."
Harrison vowed not to change his game, and he didn't. His sack of Jimmy Clausen on Dec. 23 was his 11th of the season. He leads the team in sacks but appears to be a distant second behind SS Troy Polamalu in the race for team MVP, which in this 11-4 season could equate to being the NFL Defensive MVP.
"You've gotta go with Troy right now," Farrior said. "The way he's been playing, the impact he's been making every game when he's out there is just unbelievable.
"But James is James. He's always going to be up there in the conversation for MVP. He's always going to have the numbers. It's just a matter of somebody outdoing him a little bit."
"You could say James is MVP every year as far as I'm concerned," LeBeau said. "He's there every down. He plays hard every down. He's always got double-digit sacks. He's excellent against the run. I don't know what the MVP is, but he always qualifies."
As for James?
"I'll just say I think I'm having a pretty good year," Harrison said. "I think in my career this is maybe second to the season I had in 2008, which was my best one.
"If you go and look at my play at my position of outside linebacker, I don't think anybody's doing better than I'm doing. There might be people with a few more sacks, but look at it all around. ... I think I'm doing a pretty good job. But without my teammates and coach LeBeau's great understanding of the game, I wouldn't be where I'm at."
The 6-0, 242-pound Harrison is in the top five among NFL outside linebackers in tackles with 94, and he leads the league in forced fumbles with six. More impressive is his standing in an organization that has been represented by some of the best defenders in league history. Harrison is second on the team's forced-fumbles list and seventh in sacks. But at age 32, after a well-chronicled late professional start, how much does he have left?
"I'm not going to sit here and say I could play eight or 10 more years," Harrison said. "I'm thinking maybe four, max of five. It depends on how the body holds up. That has a lot to do with just praying and what God blesses you with. God willing, hopefully I can get five more years."
God, of course, helps those who help themselves, and Harrison's workout routine is legendary among teammates. Three days after Super Bowl XLIII, for instance, he was back in the UPMC Sports Performance Complex weight room getting ready for the next season.
"Yeah he's serious about his job," Keisel said. "He's serious about the body of work he puts out every Sunday and about winning games. I don't know if anyone has a more rigorous offseason workout than James does. As far as his diet and rest and exercise, everything is focused around football and being the best player he can be. It's tough to find that in this league, especially as you get older."
Keisel might know Harrison better than anyone else. In fact, Harrison has called Keisel his best friend. So here's the up-close rundown:
"His nickname's Deebo," Keisel said. "Anyone who's seen the movie 'Friday' knows that's the bully of the movie, so everyone thinks that's the type of guy he is. And that is the type of guy he is on the football field. They're exactly right. But off the football field, around my son, around his son, around other kids, he's a big softie. He's a big family man and all that matters to him are his boys and his family. That's what makes him special. He knows what's important in life, and he's worked his tail off to get to this point."
Harrison's work with kids is almost as well-known as his work in the weight room. Harrison recently used the money that fans donated to the Facebook page "Pay James Harrison's Bogus Fine" to establish the James Harrison Family Foundation to assist children in emergency situations. And Harrison routinely disrupts postgame interviews to play with the children of his teammates. It not only amuses him, but also keeps him from having to bother with other adults.
"That might be true," Keisel said with a laugh. "Hey, you met his mom. What did she say? Kindness is a sign of weakness? So, I mean, you know what he's about."
Jim Wexell is the publisher of SteelCityInsider.net.