By BOB LABRIOLA
On the same day the Steelers were fitted for their Super Bowl rings, the guy who played a major role in winning that game signed a contract extension binding him to the team for what figures to be the rest of his career.
James Harrison, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, signed a six-year contract on Tuesday that published reports are estimating to be the second-highest on the team to the one given to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger one year ago.
"Over the last several years James has demonstrated time and again that hard work and persistence pay off, and that culminated last year with him being named the Defensive Player of the Year and our team winning the Super Bowl," said Steelers president Art Rooney II. "Coming into this offseason it was one of our priorities to extend James' contract, so it's a good day."
In addition to winning the Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2008, Harrison also set a franchise single-season record with 16 sacks, and he was voted MVP by his teammates for the second consecutive season. He is the only undrafted rookie ever to go on to become the Defensive Player of the Year.
"I don't feel like I have totally peaked," said Harrison, who will be 31 on May 4. "I feel like I can get better at some things that I have seen on tape that I did last year. As far as learning the defense, I know what I'm supposed to do, I know what the guy on the left of me is supposed to do, I know what the guy on the right of me is supposed to do. Now I need to figure out what the guys behind me are supposed to do so that I can better help them and then help myself."
In Super Bowl XLIII, Harrison's interception and 100-yard return for a touchdown at the end of the first half gave the Steelers a 17-7 lead in a game they eventually won, 27-23. While the winning points came on Roethlisberger's 6-yard pass to Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds to play, Harrison's interception return was the longest play in Super Bowl history and the momentum swing it provided was a critical element to the outcome.
"To get a huge play like that in the biggest game, on the biggest stage, it was the difference in the game," said Troy Polamalu.
Added defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, "We don't win if James Harrison doesn't make that play."
But that was hardly the only time Harrison stepped up in a big way for the Steelers during their drive to an NFL record sixth Super Bowl championship. In the team's 11-10 win over San Diego, for example, Harrison had an interception in the first half that denied the Chargers a field goal, and then his sack/strip of quarterback Philip Rivers in the end zone led to a safety. That meant Harrison had a direct hand in five points in a game in which the margin of victory was only one.
And while his interception return always will be featured in Super Bowl highlights, another significant contribution were the three holding penalties Harrison drew on Arizona tackle Mike Gandy that day.
Shortly after stepping behind the microphone at the news conference called to commemorate this signing, Harrison thanked a number of people, including LeBeau, "because he is the guy who makes everything work. He draws up the defensive combinations that make me look like I'm a star. I just do what the puppet master tells me to do."
But LeBeau always has said his job is to create matchups, but it's the player who has to win the matchup to allow the scheme to succeed.
"James Harrison would be a tremendous player in anybody's scheme," LeBeau said. "He's just a great competitor. He's a young man who has been told 'no' a couple of times and I think that fueled him to be successful. There's no question in my mind that he would be good in anybody's system. He never stops on any play, never gives up in any game."
Harrison's path to stardom in the NFL was a rocky one. The Steelers waived him three times, and the Baltimore Ravens waived him once after first allocating him to NFL Europe. On the verge of pursuing a career outside football, Harrison was called by the Steelers just days before training camp opened in 2004 to fill a roster spot because Clark Haggans broke his hand lifting weights.
"I just wanted to come in here, give it a shot. I wanted to know that I gave everything that I could," said Harrison. "I wanted to know that I tried to learn the defense to the best of my abilities, that I handled situations with coaches differently, that I treated them the way they treated me, and then, if I didn't make it, I would have done everything that I could."
Harrison made the roster that summer primarily as a special teams player, but he also showed himself to be someone who could handle the outside linebacker spot when called upon. He got his first start in Cleveland that same season when Joey Porter was ejected for a pregame fight, and he responded with a sack and six tackles.
Harrison started three games in 2005, and then became a full-time starter in 2007 when Porter was released in March. That season, Harrison had 8.5 sacks, and he added another 1.5 in the playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. That set the stage for what he accomplished in 2008.
"It came down to getting the opportunity," said Harrison. "Once I got the opportunity, it came down to getting better at my craft. If you get a guy who is a first- or a second-round pick, he's going to get a year or two to develop. If you get a guy who's undrafted, if he doesn't come into camp and do something spectacular, he may have the opportunity to play on special teams or be on the practice squad."
Always driven to prove himself every time he steps on the field, Harrison promised he won't change his approach even though his bank account has changed dramatically.
"There is not anything that I will approach differently," said Harrison. "I'll just be a little more reckless on the field because I don't have to worry about too much anymore. I want to make the Steelers proud and not let them down. I don't want them to feel like they gave me this money, and now I'm going to go out and not perform. That's what is going to drive me."