Harrison: 'It's where I started, got my break'

His name is often mentioned with some of the best linebackers ever to play for the Steelers, and rightfully so. Because James Harrison did the same thing some of the great linebackers before him did. He changed the outcome of games with his play, caused offensive coordinators to lose sleep, and dominated on defense game in and game out.

"I don't feel like I am up there as being one of the legendary linebackers the Steelers had," said Harrison. "There are some big names up there to compete with. Just to have my name in the argument feels very good to me."

His name will be in more than the argument. He will always be a part of the Steelers lore, always a member of the black and gold, especially now.

Earlier this week Harrison announced via social media that he was retiring from the NFL after 11 seasons. One of the most menacing linebackers ever deciding to call it quits to spend time with his family that includes young sons James, 6, and, Henry, 4. He spent this offseason unsigned by any team, and it gave him the opportunity to enjoy the day-to-day moments in life, something he no longer wants to miss out on.

"That was the big thing that made me realize I didn't want to play anymore, getting the opportunity to actually be around in the months I am not normally around, to hang with your family, your kids, parents, sister and brothers," said Harrison. "It just came down to my desire to want to play wasn't as strong as my desire to be with my family. Everyone said what if you were in Pittsburgh? I thought about that scenario and it would have been the same answer."

Retiring from the Steelers, that is how he wanted to go out. He played 10 of his 11 seasons in the black and gold, his final with the Cincinnati Bengals. And even though he has Ohio roots, he is Pittsburgh through and through. So on Friday, Harrison made it official, retiring with a legacy that always will have him cemented as one of the greatest Steelers linebackers.

"To get the opportunity to come back and officially end it as a Steeler feels good," said Harrison. "It's where I started, got my break and had the majority of my success. It's a good feeling. For them to give me the opportunity and want me to come back, I am thankful. The Steelers organization has been very good to me. I am thankful for everything the Rooneys and the organization has done for me. I am thankful for the fans. I will tell you that right now, there is no group that is more loyal and knowledgeable than Steelers Nation. Right now I am thankful to have this opportunity.

"Playing linebacker for the Steelers was about going out and holding up your end of the bargain and making sure it was something fans would talk about and people remember. That's what I did." 

There is a lot Harrison will be remembered for from his playing days, from his on field demeanor that was reminiscent of Greg Lloyd's nasty personality to his 100-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. What matters to him, though, is that he is remembered for playing like a Steelers' linebacker should play.

"I guess I want to be known as one of the typical Steelers linebackers, hard-working, and a guy that gave his all," said Harrison. "The linebackers the Steelers have had from past Super Bowls and so forth, you don't want to be the guy that comes in or the group that comes in and they are talking about Steelers of the past, teams of the past, this group was a great group of guys, these linebackers were a great group of linebackers. You don't want to be the group that they say this group was okay. You want to be in that argument.

"I took pride in going out and trying to force a young man to do something he didn't want to do. That is ultimately what it is, me putting my will up against yours and who comes out on top. I don't want to go out there and let a guy push me around, run the ball all over me and do whatever they want to do. I want to go out there and be the aggressor, be the guy that dictates what you have to do and need to do to try and stop us."

For many fans though, it will always come back to that play in Super Bowl XLIII. The Cardinals had the ball at the one-yard line with 18 seconds to play in the half and the Steelers holding a slim 10-7 lead. Harrison stepped in front of a Kurt Warner pass and rambled down the sideline for 100 yards, sending the Steelers into the half up 17-7 and taking the wind out of the Cardinals sails.

"To be honest it was a good play," he said. "I don't look at it as this great, significant, overly whatever you want to call it play. It was just a good play. I had 10 other guys on the field with me who were a great part of that play. Without them you don't accomplish what we did and I don't get to the other end zone. That wasn't just me; that was 10 other guys on the field. They all should be in on that, not just me."

Take a look at some of the best photos from the career of Steelers linebacker James Harrison.

He does admit, though, that it would be number one on his highlight reel, and the way he looks at it, probably the only highlight you might get to see.

"What is crazy is I really can't think of another play that was that memorable," said Harrison. "That is the ultimate stage of what is the goal of playing the game and you come through like that as a defense that is something all of us remember.

"It's fun to see it replayed because you know what the outcome is already. It takes you back a little bit and you get to reminisce. That's history now, though."

Harrison was named the AFC and NFL's Defensive Player of the Year during that 2008 Super Bowl season, setting a Steelers' single-season record with 16 sacks. He was voted to the Pro Bowl five consecutive years (2007-11) and twice voted Steelers MVP (2007-08). He remains ranked fourth in team history with 64 career sacks. But individual numbers really never meant much to him. Being a team player is what mattered.

"I felt like I was willing to do whatever," he said. "It was whatever they wanted me to do, I did whatever I was asked to do and I tried to do it to the best of my abilities, whether it was something I wanted to do, or if it was something I liked to do. It was something they wanted me to do and they felt like it something that I should do to help the team. That's what I did.

"The ultimate goal is winning games and championships. That is what should matter. That is part of being a Steeler. The group that came in with us understood the big goal was to win, not about personal accolades. Those come with winning. Think about winning first and everything else will fall in place."

It's hard to imagine that Harrison entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie, signing with the Steelers in 2002. It wasn't an easy road for him. He was released before the start of the 2002 season, signed to the practice squad, and then activated late that season. The following year, it was again a struggle when he made the final roster in 2003, but was released days later, signed to the practice squad and then released from there to sit out the entire year.

The third time was a charm for him, finally catching on in 2004 when he played in 16 games, starting four of them. He is easily the poster child for never quitting, not letting the ups and downs keep him from pursuing his dream.

"It's prayer and preparation," said Harrison of his will. "Coach (Dick) LeBeau told us a long time ago, prepare as if everything depends on you and I want you to pray as if everything depends on God. With those two things, and I am not a real overly religious person, but everything happens for a reason. From start to finish the things I went through, the way I got into the league, how everything broke out in my career and at the end was meant to be."

Harrison said he loved playing for Head Coach Mike Tomlin, thrilled that he kept the 3-4 defense when he arrived in 2007. But he and LeBeau had a special bond, one that will never be broken.

"Coach LeBeau was almost like a father figure," said Harrison. "He was a man that lived the same thing he preached. He treated everybody the same. That is the big thing that came through for me. When he first got here I was a young guy, didn't always know what I was doing. He didn't talk down to a guy just because he was younger. He treated everybody the same and that is something that really went over well with me. He treated a second, third year guy the same way he treated Pro Bowl guys. That is something I really liked about him.

"And, Coach LeBeau's defense is superb. It's built to let your linebackers play. If you have all of the guys you need to play that defense, that defense isn't going to crack. I don't care what happens, if you play it the way he tells you to play it and you are able to perform your job the way it needs to be performed, that defense doesn't break."

Harrison plans on staying in touch with his former teammates, keeping the relationships he had during his playing days alive. It's a family atmosphere in the Steelers locker room, and while he will be around his family at home, he will miss that.

"The only thing you miss about not playing is the locker room, the guys you are used to seeing day in and day out and your interactions in the locker room, trips on the road, the things you did, laughing and joking," said Harrison. "I am not going to miss the game that much, I am sure I will miss it a little bit. The biggest thing is the relationships you built and the people that you met. That is the biggest thing you are going to miss."

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