TAMPA, Fla. – Troy Polamalu looked down from his podium at a 10-deep crush of media. Well, at least some of the questioners were actually reporters.
Ben Roethlisberger’s audience was just as deep. Even defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, seated in the stands of Raymond James Stadium on Tuesday, was difficult to get near.
James Harrison? The NFL defensive player of the year occasionally had pockets of people hurling questions at him. He wasn’t complaining about the spotty attendance.
“You make your statements on the field,” was Harrison’s mantra, something he has followed so well he has become the focal point of opposing offenses, if not of the media horde.
“My attitude only comes out when someone talks crazy to me on the field,” Harrison said. “They fined me for talking whatever, this or that. They done me wrong.”
That was in October, when he was nailed for $20,000 for criticizing the officiating, a lesson learned for the linebacker. The latest lesson, actually, in the education of a standout playing a position where the Steelers have been dominant throughout the Super Bowl era.
“So you go out there and prove everyone else wrong and do what you can do.”
What Harrison can do is best described by teammates and coaches who have seen him grow from a raw, undrafted special-teamer who was cut by the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens to the most dynamic defender in the NFL this season.
“He’s always had great intensity and that desire to play,” said James Farrior, Pittsburgh’s veteran linebacker and defensive leader.
“He’s made plays for us at critical times,” said Polamalu, like Harrison an All-Pro but, unlike Harrison, a player with a star’s aura. “He’s not just getting sacks at the end of games when other teams are in passing situations. He has all those sacks and forced fumbles that are critical to our success.
“And he’s mean. I don’t mean a mean guy – he has a very soft heart. But he has a mean demeanor (on the field).”
Of course, he would almost have to be in that, considering his job.
“Everybody wants to be included in a group of elite people, whether it’s linemen, linebackers or whatever it may be,” Harrison said. “You just want to come in and try and hold up the tradition. You don’t want to be the guy who comes in and slacks down.
“When they say that Pittsburgh comes in with a great set of linebackers except for so-and-so, you don’t want to be that guy.”
That Harrison would be one of the guys in Pittsburgh was uncertain. Undrafted out of Kent State in 2002, he was considered surly, difficult to coach and too undisciplined.
The Steelers released him three times and Baltimore cut him once in those early days. He played in NFL Europe and was on Pittsburgh’s practice squad.
It wasn’t until 2004 that Harrison stuck with the Steelers, thanks to his ferocity on special teams – and helped by an injury to linebacker Clark Haggans. In his first regular-season appearance, Harrison had a sack.
His development was slow through the next two seasons, held back in part because the Steelers had a Pro Bowler at outside linebacker in Joey Porter.
But the Steelers allowed Porter to leave for Miami as a high-priced free agent in 2007, and Harrison efficiently moved into the starting spot. Pittsburgh was so impressed by Harrison’s improvement that it already had extended his contract through 2009 even though he was not a starter.
“I figured the last time I got cut, that if I didn’t get picked up, that it would probably be over for me,” Harrison said. “Fortunately for me, Clark broke his hand and the Steelers called me back and here we are now.”
Toward the end of the Steelers’ one-hour availability, as Harrison counted down the minutes, along came a camera crew and a hulking, sweating man holding a microphone.
“Sapp,” Harrison said, “You got a question for me?”
Warren Sapp, the 1999 defensive player of the year, did, indeed. But first, Harrison played the reporter’s role.
“Hey, Sapp, how come you never had tough times and got drafted first round?” Harrison asked, a smile barely crossing his lips.
“Because I was a better player than you,” Sapp said, quickly adding, “In college.
“Now, we’re both defensive players of the year.”
Both own Super Bowl rings, too. But Sapp was a regular for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when they won in 2003. Harrison was a backup in 2006 and was involved in three tackles on special teams.
So Harrison admits he has a little more catching up to do with Sapp, beginning Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.
“It means a little bit more to me because I am a starter instead of playing just on special teams,” he said. “I have matured. I handle situations a lot differently now than I would back then. I have gotten better since then, too. I have learned the game and taken time to study the game.
“I didn’t know if I had it in me to play this well, but it has all come out.”