He roamed the field for nine years in the Steel City, wreaking havoc on offenses with his blacked-out visor, “fear no man” attitude, superior strength and a burning desire to succeed. He etched his name on the long list of great linebackers for the Pittsburgh Steelers, a list that includes The Steel Curtain of the ‘70s, Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter and Levon Kirkland. Some had short stints with the team, but they all had major impacts during their time donning the black and yellow.
He holds most in common with Greg Lloyd in that they both came from small schools, were both ferocious on the field and viewed as undersized until their opponents were staring up at the numbers on their chest, realizing at that moment that a man’s heart should never be discounted due to physical appearance.
He is #92, James Harrison, and what else would you expect from the man who holds what many deem as the greatest play in Super Bowl history – a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown against Kurt warner and the Arizona Cardinals that shifted the entire momentum in the biggest game of the 2008 season.
This past Saturday, the former Steeler, Raven and Bengal announced his retirement from the NFL at the age of 36 on his Facebook page by saying, “I have made the difficult decision to retire as of today. My love for my family and the need to be there for them outweighs my desire to play the game. I have missed too many experiences with them because I devoted SO much time to my career. My love for the game isn't strong enough to make up for missing one more birthday or first day of school. I am retiring as a man who is truly grateful for all of his blessings. I am sincerely thankful to the people who have supported me over the years, first and foremost my family, the Rooney family and my Steeler family, also Mr. Brown, the Bengals organization and fans, and last but FAR from least, Steeler Nation. Thank you.”
I am a die-hard Steelers fan, and I have been ever since the 70’s. So while this event has great meaning to me as a fan, it has even more meaning to me as an example of determination and perseverance. Harrison was an undrafted rookie in 2002 when he was signed by the Steelers, the second linebacker from Kent State to play for the team since the great Jack Lambert. He was signed to the practice squad and was released three times before being signed by the Ravens.
He played in Europe and was cut a fourth time by the Ravens, eventually signing with the Steelers again in 2004. He would go on to become an All-Pro in 2007, win the AP Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 (the only non-drafted player to ever win the award), become a five time Pro-Bowl selection and win two Super Bowl rings. He was known for his incredible strength and vicious hits, which the Cleveland Browns can certainly attest to, but it is his drive to not only make a roster, but become one of the league’s best players that should garner the highest admiration.
When a dream is deferred not once or twice, but four times, many would choose to move on. Others might even crumble in defeat. But Harrison remained determined to succeed in the NFL, eventually winning multiple awards, gaining recognition as a defensive force to be reckoned with, weathering criticism (warranted and unwarranted) and having a lengthy ten-year career in a game where the average is roughly four.
People might choose to look at some of the negativity that surfaced during his playing days, which is completely understandable. However, I choose to look at his work ethic as an example of positivity that others should emulate.
I wanted to use a descriptive form of terminology that would encapsulate the determination and perseverance of Harrison, and I came across an old Japanese proverb “Nana-Korobi, Ya-Oki”, which means “Fall seven times, get up eight.”
Some might recognize this from Proverb 24:16 of the King James Bible “For a just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again; but the wicked shall fall into mischief”, but I think that most sports fans would attribute this to Converse and their 2005 commercial for Dwayne Wade. Yet no matter your point of reference, the meaning remains the same as it relates to James Harrison.
He was a man that fell multiple times, yet he never gave up on his dream of becoming a starting linebacker in the NFL. To me, that is a lesson everyone should learn from and remember when working to achieve their goals. You will always get knocked down as you pursue your dreams, and sometimes your dreams might take shape in other forms, but the determination and drive to accomplish what you want and set out to do should always remain the same. That is how you open doors that were previously locked. That is how you obtain a seat at the table that was without a setting for you. That is how you succeed.
So congratulations James Harrison on a great career, and may you continue to persevere as you take the next step in your life. Steeler Nation, and those that look to examples of perseverance for motivation, will be watching and cheering.