In a town that reveres defense, the Silverback made 10 tackles, had 3.5 sacks, hit the quarterback six times, intercepted a pass, knocked away another pass, forced three fumbles, recovered one, and did it all with panache. He squared up and delivered kill shots with the proverbial rising blow as balls bounced all over the field. He chased, tackled, yanked, stole, recovered, and ran – sometimes in sequence. He nearly had a safety, but the referee ruled forward progress had been halted at the one. Harrison that night became a cult hero, at least that's the way Mike Archer, his former position coach with the Steelers, put it.
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ONE NIGHT during James Harrison's rookie camp in Latrobe, Steelers linebackers coach Mike Archer went out for a drink at nearby Sharky's Bar. The rookie's unnatural strength was obvious even to reporters in those first couple of weeks of camp, so we asked Archer about him.
Archer was pounding a drink at the time, and when Harrison's name came up he turned sharply and glared – as if Harrison was the reason he was pounding the drink in the first place.
"I can't wait till we cut him," Archer said. More than five years later, Archer was asked if he remembered the conversation.
"I remember," Archer said. "I'm happy for him. He's an interesting young man and I'm happy for him because it's a great example of never giving up."
The defensive coordinator at North Carolina State, Archer said the Steelers signed Harrison after the 2002 draft as part of a free-agent package deal to get the guy they really wanted – a forgotten cornerback from Miami. The cornerback never signed.
"But we got James," Archer said, "and he was late for his first minicamp. He was late for the rookie camp and Bill (Cowher) got all over me about that. I remember calling him in Akron, wanting to know where he was, but he, you know, he was surly at times. And that's an understatement."
Archer's questions to Harrison about his assignments were often answered with a terse and challenging, "I don't know." But Harrison fell in line as he gained confidence. Because of injuries to Jason Gildon and Clark Haggans in the 2002 camp, Harrison played most of the Steelers' third preseason game, the one that opened Ford Field in Detroit. Harrison played in the base and the dime and impressed Cowher.
"Bill said after the game, ‘This guy's got a chance,'" Archer said. "We both wondered if cutting him would be a mistake. We weren't sure if someone would pick him up.
"The other thing about that game is James played with a broken thumb. Nobody knows that, because when practice started the next week for the regular season, after he cleared waivers, he was on the practice squad and he practiced every snap."
Harrison wasn't activated until December that season but he played special teams in the regular-season finale and played well, according to Archer.
"I left the team after the playoff game down in Tennessee," Archer said. "I know he went to camp the next summer and then they cut him. I don't know all the particulars. I've been back a couple times. Somebody told me that he thinks I was the reason he got cut. I don't really care, but that's not true."
Harrison let go of any grudge he'd held against Cowher that Monday night with a hug before the Ravens game. Harrison said later that he only disliked Cowher's decisions, not the man. Still …
"I don't think there was any love lost there," Archer said. "You know how Bill is. When James was late for his first minicamp, Bill jumped my ass and said, ‘If he doesn't want to be here, tell him not to come,' or something like that. You know how Bill is. So I explained it, but I worked with him every day. He was a different cat. He was a surly street kid. He reminded me a little bit of Greg Lloyd. He didn't trust anybody. Then some of those guys – Joey and Jason and Clark -- they did a good job with him that year. Those guys kind of took him under their wing and said, ‘Hey, you can play in this league. You've got the strength, but you've got to learn and they're trying to help you learn.' And then once he accepted that, then he really began to make progress where I could tell he cared about football because he would ask questions. He was playing inside backer and outside backer on the practice squad – with a broken thumb – and never missed a beat. I think he's got a tremendous amount of pride. Greg Lloyd had a tremendous amount of pride and this kid reminds me of that. I had some discussions with him a couple times because of some incidents. I'd say, ‘If you don't want to play, then go on and we'll bring somebody else in here.' And I could see his eyes. His eyes pierce right through you like, ‘Don't you tell me I can't play. I'm going to prove you wrong.'
"Our players here, when they watched that game, they said, ‘Coach, did you know that No. 92?' I told them I did, and they said, ‘God, dog, he's pretty good.' I told them he was a free agent, that nobody wanted him, and that he's a cult hero now. I'm sure in Western PA they're wearing No. 92 jerseys and they're not for Jason Gildon anymore."
The book "Steeler Nation: A Pittsburgh Team, An American Phenomenon" is available at PittsburghSportsPublishing.com.