[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/02/02/art.vert.harrison.jpg caption="James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs back an interception for 100 for a touchdown in the second quarter against the Arizona Cardinals during Super Bowl XLIII." width=292 height=320]
CNN Senior Executive Producer
From what I've read about college football, if you want to find a player with NFL potential - Kent State is generally not the first place on your list. There's talent there. But The Golden Flashes, as the Kent State team is called, consistently loses an average of more than 60 percent of its games. They've only had one winning season since 1987. James Harrison didn't even get a scholarship when he enrolled at Kent State. He was a strong high school player, being eyed by some of the big college football powerhouses, when he got into trouble in school. The powerhouses crossed him off their list. He was what you call a "walk on" at Kent State. When he graduated there in 2002, he did not get drafted by the NFL. The scouts thought he didn't have what it takes.
If James Harrison had listened to the scouts, he would have proved them right. Instead, he followed his stubborn steak. Between 2002 and 2004 he bounced between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens and even had a short stint with a pro football team in Europe – not usually a ticket back to the NFL. The Steelers cut him three times before they hired him back. He couldn't seem to grasp the defensive coach's strategies. He was often limited to playing on the practice squad. A mere sparring partner.
James Harrison has never been quoted using the word humiliation. But how must he have felt in the days before the 2005 Super Bowl, when his own Steelers held a pep rally for its fans and didn't even invite him. "By the time I found out about it," he told Sports Illustrated, "it was already over." That's the kind of slight that can deflate any human being.
At one point in his career Harrison thought about quitting. Hard to believe, after watching the Super Bowl, that we're talking about the same James Harrison, Number 92, the 6-foot 242 pound Pittsburgh linebacker, who intercepted an Arizona pass at the goal line with seconds left in the first half, and ran it 100 yards for a momentum changing touchdown. When he landed on his head, you wondered from the replays if he was seriously injured as he lay there. He wasn't. "I was tired as a dog."
There's no need to sugar coat James Harrison. Bad judgment in high school kept him out of big time college football. Sports Illustrated called his personality "irascible." The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports he took an anger management class last year. Hard to believe after seeing that unnecessary roughness penalty against him in the final quarter which could have cost his team the game.
I'm leaving out a lot of details about how James Harrison went from being ignored in the NFL draft, and cut three times, to becoming an All-Pro defensive lineman. But persisting despite all the "no's" from people who "know," prepared that 242 pounder for making the longest run in Super Bowl history. "People said I couldn't do this or couldn't do that," Harrison said recently. "I was too short, too slow." Some people get beaten down by negative feedback. James Harrison got built up. "Basically, I play and prepare myself in the offseason with the thoughts of what people said I couldn't do."
As for the touchdown that will go down in history: "Those last couple of yards were probably tougher than anything I've done in my life," he said "but probably more gratifying than anything I've done in football."
The toughest yards are always the most gratifying.
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