February 2nd, 2009
05:26 PM ET

Super Bowl Lesson: The humiliating journey of James Harrison

[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]

Michael Schulder
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.

soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Georgia Ortiz

    If the administration is really concerned to get people spending why don't they do an executive order requiring credit cards to limit interest to say 5% including the default rate. I notice that some of the greedy banks are charging 25 – 32% interest. That is really criminal. At one time it was illegal to charge more than 12% – I think.

    February 2, 2009 at 10:47 pm |
  2. Michelle

    Good for him. That play was so amazing.
    Harrison and the Steelers pled like champions,
    That is why the won the Super Bowl.

    February 2, 2009 at 9:54 pm |
  3. Laci#10

    This play has made history and this should now show drafters to pay closer attention to football players. It seems if players dont do anything big, they are ignored sometime. This was a great game and that 100yrd made it even better.

    February 2, 2009 at 9:15 pm |
  4. Annie Kate

    James' touchdown was awesome. To know the story behind the touchdown leaves you with pride in a man whose human spirit was indomitable. I wish James the best of luck and a big thank you for what was a wonderful exciting play no matter where you saw it from.

    February 2, 2009 at 9:13 pm |
  5. tari donohue

    But what was that about him beating the crap out of Francisco and obtaining a nice 15 yard penalty for his team? Is the boy still at. . . Kent State?

    February 2, 2009 at 8:47 pm |
  6. alibifoxes

    Yes, it was a great play, but I think his personal foul punching a downed Cardinals player REPEATEDLY speaks more for his character than a good, indeed great display of athleticism and determination. Anyone can have a great play, but a man assaulted another player. It's unacceptable, and will taint the glory of the longest play in Superbowl history.

    February 2, 2009 at 8:03 pm |
  7. shebber

    Im tired of people putting him as nothing but a hero and forgetting about the way that unnecessary roughness penalty came about. First he punched the guy, and then when he was trying to get up Harrison knocked him over twice! Not to mention this all took place AFTER the play had ended... Yes he made an amazing play by running down the entire field but that is still no excuse for forgetting the fact that he acted like nothing more than a bully.

    February 2, 2009 at 7:45 pm |
  8. Lauren R. Wheeling, WV

    Thank you, James Harrison. As least as much as "the miracle on the Hudson" story, James Harrison's story of toughing it out, even when unpopular, even when it seems your coworkers don't want you around. was something that I REALLY needed to hear right now (I was downgraded from a desk job to a janitor's job, and start swabbing floors in one week, all in the name of saving a few bucks. ialso live in a homeless shelter.). We all go through times when it seems like nobody loves us or wants us, but that doesn't mean we don't have something good to offer the world!! Wow. I did not know his story; thanks CNN for sharing his story. I feel uplifted!!

    February 2, 2009 at 7:27 pm |
  9. McCay

    Harrison and the record books will have the last word. Well done.

    Not saying that he's a perfect guy; but he excels in his sports profession, beyond many other talented men. Well done.

    February 2, 2009 at 6:40 pm |
  10. Rikki, Fargo, ND

    That play was amazing, I have to agree! I couldn't believe it! And when they reviewed it to see if it was in fact a touchdown...I was on the edge of my seat! I really wanted him to have the touchdown!

    February 2, 2009 at 6:26 pm |
  11. Alpha

    Most definitely the Hoghlight of the game IMO.

    February 2, 2009 at 6:25 pm |
  12. Laurie Meisel

    So many times we need to hit rock bottom before we can rise up again.

    James Harrison rose and this time the whole world was watching!


    I am not a big football fan, but that was probably one of the sweetest plays I have ever seen in sports history!

    February 2, 2009 at 6:17 pm |
  13. santoangelo

    That play was indeed incredible.

    February 2, 2009 at 5:54 pm |