Game Face: Q&A with Steelers Linebacker (and dad) James Harrison
SP: What is the most common misconception about James Harrison?
J.H.: I don’t know because I don’t read what is written about me.
SP: Why not?
J.H.: Because I don’t really care what people write about me. I know who I am, what kind of person I am, so I couldn’t care less about what other people say. As long as I can live with me, that’s all that matters.
SP: Since you’ve become a father (of James Harrison III, now 2 year old), has your perspective on life changed?
J.H.: It definitely changes your outlook on a lot of things. You don’t have just yourself to worry about anymore. You have another life to look out for, someone else to take care of. My son has just brought a lot of joy to my life. I’m just very happy and blessed that I have him.
SP: Was your son on your mind when you signed your long-term contract in the spring?
J.H.: Definitely. Going into what is possibly my last big contract, and really my biggest one so far, I wanted to make sure I got what I was worth on the market and something that would set my son up for the rest of his life, and I think we accomplished that.
SP: You’re known as an intense dude on the field. Does being around your son allow you to get away from the intensity of football?
J.H.: You know, I’m intense on the field. That’s football. But I think that’s a misconception about me, that I’m the same person off the field that I am on it – I’m not. It’s just two different worlds. For some reason, people find it hard to believe that I can be [intense] on the field but NOT be when I’m off it, even though someone like Troy Polamalu comes with that same intensity on the field but off the field, he’s a totally different person. I can’t go onto the football field and act the same way I do when I’m with my son. That’s not going to work; it’s just two different types of mentalities that you have to have. I love just being with my son…it’s just a joy. That’s what I look forward to every day: just going home, playing with him and hearing what his new word for the day is. [Laughs].
SP: Obviously he means a lot to you – so you must have been devastated when you found out he was bitten by your dog. What was your initial reaction? And looking back now, were you surprised by the media attention it received?
J.H.: I had about a million thoughts, all at the same time. Is he OK? Will he be OK? Is there permanent damage? Will he have scars? Does he need surgery? How did the dog get out? It was a flood of emotions. And I am never surprised at the media – we are the Pittsburgh Steelers and I am the team MVP and the defensive player of the year in the NFL. What I have for dinner is news. I understand that. But when it is personal, the media could give me some room.
SP: Your life off the field has been almost as much of a roller coaster as it’s been on it. Do you think you can use your past experiences to teach your son?
J.H.: You can tell somebody something all you want. My parents told me, "Don’t do this; don’t do that." But there comes a time when you stop listening and go out and make your own mistakes. Of course, I’m going to tell my son, "Don’t do this because this is what happened with me," but there will come a time where he will have to go out and do his own thing and learn his own lessons. Hopefully, he’ll listen to me, but chances are he won’t always.
SP: You’re known as a "workout warrior." Give me an example of your normal workout routine.
J.H.: It depends on what time of year it is. During spring I’ll work out after practice, go home and nap, then go work out with my personal trainer later that day. After dinner, I’ll either go play basketball or go to another gym in Wexford and do a little something there.
SP: That sounds like a full day – what do you do when you’re not playing football or working out?
J.H.: When I’m not playing football or working out? Other than playing with my son, not much else. I don’t really go on vacations or anything, and I really don’t like traveling too much. I like being at home.
SP: You’ve always seemed to play with a chip on your shoulder. Now that you’ve been recognized as the defensive player of the year and you have that big contract, what can you use for motivation?
J.H.: My motivation is just to be the best I can be and get better each year. You can have a reputation, but if you don’t go out and prove it, it means nothing. So I don’t want to just be the guy they "say" is a good player; I want to go out and do it.
SP: What was going through your mind during your famous interception and runback in Super Bowl XLIII?
J.H.: Right when I caught the ball, I saw that there was nothing but green grass. There was nobody in front of me but [Kurt] Warner. But all of a sudden, it was like a swarm of bees – a red jersey here, a red jersey there, and I’m like, "Oh my God, what’s goin’ on?" By the time I got to the 50-yard line, I was thinking, "I don’t know if I’m going to make it." But [LaMarr] Woodley came up and hit a running back, and Ryan Clark was running with me the whole way, and he took out a lineman. Then I saw [Steve] Breaston, but I never saw [Larry] Fitzgerald. To be honest, if Fitzgerald would have been able to put his hand where he was trying to put it, he would have stripped the ball out because I didn’t even know he was there.
SP: When did you first see the replay?
J.H.: Pretty soon after we got back to the hotel that night.
SP: What did you think when you first watched it?
J.H.: I was thinking that I was way more tired after the run than I looked on TV. When I was laid out on the field, I felt a whole lot worse than y’all probably thought I did. [Laughs] I was just happy we won the game.
SP: After watching your touchdown run, it struck me that you would make a good offensive player. Have you ever thought about playing offense?
J.H.: Listen, I’ve been trying to do that for years. The year before last, I played a little fullback in camp. I got in on only two plays, but I scored a touchdown on one. They have some film of it somewhere. You should check it out.
SP: During the course of a game, how many plays out of 10 do you think you are held by an offensive lineman?
J.H.: I would say at least four or five times out of 10. How many penalties they actually call? Now that’s a different story.
SP: Do you think it’s because many opposing tackles are often so much taller than you?
J.H.: To be honest, I don’t know why it happens so often. And I really don’t know why it’s not called. You’ll have to ask the refs. Some of the stuff is just blatant. I had a guy once grab my facemask and just yank it all the way around. I looked up at the ref, and he just throws his hands up like, "I didn’t see it." How did he not see it when he’s looking dead at me as he’s ripping the helmet off my head? Actually, they called it a lot more in the Super Bowl than they did during the season. I think they only missed maybe one or two.
SP: Do you think they don’t call holding because it happens so often?
J.H.: Yeah, I think it’s gotten to a point where it’s like with Shaq. You give him a little ticky-tack foul, and they’re not going to call it. You have to basically hang on his arm and try to yank him to the ground before they call it. Whereas you get a guy like LeBron or Kobe, they get a little hand slap and a foul is called. With me, I think they say, "Well, the guy can make it around the corner with someone holding him, but if they don’t drag him to the ground, we’re not going to call it."
SP: When you were playing for the Golden Flashes of Kent State, did you think you had what it takes to play in the NFL?
J.H.: I really didn’t know I could play in the NFL until I got here. It’s not like we played against that caliber of competition [in college]. I would only get maybe one game a year in college where I would go against a guy who would be at this level. But the scouts were telling me they thought I could play at this level, so after I didn’t get drafted, I waited around and the Steelers called.
SP: You’re the second great Steelers linebacker to hail from Kent State. Have you ever met or talked to Jack Lambert?
J.H.: I never met him or talked to him, but he sent me a letter after that Baltimore game [Nov. 5, 2007]. He said that if I go out and play every game like that, I’ll have a long and successful career. I still have that letter. I’m framing it with the jersey I played in that night.
SP: When you were struggling in NFL Europe, then released by both the Steelers and the Ravens, did you ever think we’d be standing here talking about your being the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year?
J.H.: Back then, I was just trying to make a roster, so to think that I went from there to here – it’s amazing.
SP: What are your thoughts on Dick LeBeau? Many people think he’s one of the greatest defensive innovators in the history of the game. Do you agree with that sentiment?
J.H.: Yeah, he’s been around the league for 51 years, so there’s not too much he hasn’t seen or doesn’t know. Each year, he’s coming up with something fresh for the defense.
SP: Is LeBeau’s scheming a big reason why you’ve had so much success?
J.H.: This defense is built around its linebackers. In the 3-4 defense, our front line is meant to take up blocks and that’s what they do. It’s a defense built for the linebackers to make plays.
SP: Do you feel fortunate that you’re in a position to learn and succeed under someone like coach LeBeau?
J.H.: Of course. Any time you can learn from someone who played in the league as long as he did and has been around the game for even longer as a head coach or defensive coordinator, it’s a great thing.
SP: You have 13 older brothers and sisters. Do you think being the youngest of 14 kids forged your personality on the field?
J.H.: I don’t know if that had anything to do with it. Like I said, I separate on-the-field stuff from off-the-field stuff. My nearest sibling is eight years older than me, so by the time I got into my teenage years, everyone was gone, so it wasn’t like I had to fight and scrap for everything I wanted.
SP: What do you like to watch on TV?
J.H.: I like cartoons. I like "Family Guy," "American Dad," anything on the "Adult Swim" lineup… except for that "Robot Chicken." I also like old-school cartoons like "Tom and Jerry," "Bugs Bunny," "Daffy Duck." When they had that "Dragonball Z" on, that was cool. "Aquateen Hunger Force," stuff like that.
SP: No offense, but you don’t really seem like the cartoon type.
J.H.: I don’t go home and watch sports on TV. If I see something, it’s because someone else brought it to my attention, especially if it’s sports. If I’m ever watching a game, it’s probably because my dad is there and he wants to watch it. If I’m watching sports, it’s because I’m here and that’s what’s on the TV. I just sit back and watch cartoons. I think that’s why me and my son get along so well.
Craig McConnell is a born-and-bred Pittsburgher. He is a coordinating producer at FSN, where he’s worked since 2001. Before joining FSN, Craig worked as a videographer at WSYX-TV in Columbus and WTOV-TV in Steubenville. He lives in Hampton with his wife, Jill, and their two kids, Derek and Leah.