What a surreal moment, watching James Harrison interact in the middle of the New England Patriots locker room — of all places — amid the buzz of yet another Super Bowl trip.
Harrison, for so long one of the faces of the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, stood at his locker passing out swag to some new teammates: Hats and T-shirts, in Patriots blue and red, bearing his nickname, Deebo, which derives from the hyped character from the Friday movies.
“Yeah, I’ll rock it,” declared cornerback Johnson Bademosi, whose stall is adjacent to Harrison’s. “That’s one way to support your teammate, by wearing his stuff.”
This was just one of the signs of Harrison’s transition to the domain of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Another indicator showed up Sunday, near the end of the AFC title game, when Harrison barreled through the middle and converged with Kyle Van Noy to blast Blake Bortles for a fumble that cost the Jaguars 9 yards on their last desperate possession.
The Steelers look rather dense, given how it all went down with Harrison, the NFL’s oldest defensive player. He was finally kicked to the curb Dec. 23 after repeatedly asking for his release. And who could blame Harrison — he ignited a national debate a few years ago, declaring he didn’t want his sons receiving “participation” trophies for merely playing sports rather than winning championships — after Tomlin buried him on the bench.
“I’m lucky I got a call,” Harrison told USA TODAY Sports. “That was part of the reason they released me, ‘He’s 39. Who else is going to call?’ “
Harrison said the Patriots were the only team to inquire. Belichick, who’s known to extract impact from veteran castoffs, undoubtedly sensed he could find snaps for a proud, intense competitor who happens to own pass-rushing skills the Patriots needed.
“At the end of the day, it was a business decision: Do I want to play or not play?” said Harrison. “So I went and took another job.”
Before Sunday, the last time I saw Harrison play was in Week 6 at Kansas City. The Chiefs had a chance to win with a last-minute TD drive. But on third-and-10, Harrison, who played 15 snaps that day, sacked Alex Smith for an 8-yard loss that virtually sealed the victory.
But it seemed unconscionable that Pittsburgh didn’t put Harrison in a rotation that included young linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree — especially as the pass rush wilted late in the year. It was embarrassing for Harrison to show up for a game and find his locker empty, unaware he’d be inactive. After he was cut, Dupree and center Maurkice Pouncey were among Steelers to claim he was a distraction. Seems that Harrison, a workaholic who led by example, deserved better.
But he does not want your pity. Harrison knows how far loyalty and sentimentality go in the NFL.
“I don’t know if I was disrespected,” he said. “That was their choice.”
Asked if he was bitter, Harrison grumbled, just like he did when I asked him during Steelers training camp about why he came back for a 15th season (he went on about not wanting to waste his time if the team couldn’t win the Super Bowl).
“I can’t be bitter about it,” he said. “It’s a business, and that was a business decision. It’s not personal.”
It’s a bit striking that Harrison again has a teammate who is older. He didn’t know Brady, 40, personally until joining the Patriots, but he likes the vibe. He used to chase Brady like crazy. Now it’s flipped to the point that shortly after Harrison arrived, he and Brady posed for a selfie.
“He’s cool,” Harrison said. “A good dude. He talks to everybody. It’s not like he’s stand-offish or anything.”
The same can be said of Harrison, who earned instant respect when he walked into the locker room. Ricky Jean Francois, the ninth-year defensive lineman, has pointed younger teammates toward Harrison, whom he calls “an encyclopedia” of knowledge about the ways of the NFL.
With experience comes a certain perspective.
“It’s all in God’s hands to be playing at 39,” Harrison said. “If that’s not a blessing, I don’t know what is.”
He claimed not to feel anything different in winning the AFC crown with the Patriots. Yet he acknowledges he’s had a surge of adrenaline that comes when you know you’re headed to the Super Bowl.
There are other aspects of his life that are status quo, too. He still gets up around 4 a.m., maintaining an extremely involved body management regimen. He was in the weight room at 5:45 a.m. following the defeat of Jacksonville.
“If you don’t start early,” he said, “you don’t have enough time in the day to get everything done that you need to.”
This season didn’t start with Harrison envisioning he’d wind up in New England. But it could end with him exemplifying the Patriots slogan seen around Gillette Stadium: Not Done Yet.