Fading memories do not allow a recounting of the precise game, but the moment itself is nonetheless vivid. It was late 1994, and Steelers linebacker Kevin Greene, with 14 sacks already under his belt, stormed into the backfield and threw the opposing quarterback to the turf.
Ready to record history, NBC Sports flashed the graphic:
“Kevin Greene ties Steelers single season sack record”
- Except it was not to be
And thus Mike Merriweather’s single season sack record of 15, set ten years ealier, remained unthreated for another 13 season.
Until today. Until James Harrison got a crack at it. Fifteen games into his second season as a starter, James Harrison tied, then broke the record.
James Harrison: The Making of a Legend
We all remember from our elementary school that fables begin with a grain of truth, and then as yarns are spun and re-spun facts get exaggerated, truths gets stretched, and legends are formed.
- James Harrison is a legend in the making, except for that his story requires no exaggeration.
Opposing quarterbacks look upon James Harrison with fear, knowing he is a man who will pursue them with relentless determination. Opposing offensive lineman see James Harrison as a player the must hold, lest their quarterback be pummeled.
Yet, for years to come Harrison will be held up as a beacon of hope to players who might not have great physical stature, may not be in high profile college programs, but have it where it counts: In the heart.
Harrison played at Kent State, a school more renowned for its role in anti-Vietnam protests than for producing pro football players. Harrison’s began his ride in the NFL in the off season of 2002, when he became a little noticed rookie free agent acquisition. From there is trajectory took the course of an errant missile.
- During the next three seasons Harrison was cut five times, including a stint with the Baltimore Ravens, who detailed him to NFL Europe’s Rein Fire and the cut him summarily, without even so much as a thank you.
At this point Harrison was ready to hang it up and become a veterinarian, until a freak injury to Clark Haggans brought him back to the Steelers once more.
But the year was 2004, and this time James Harrison was here to stay.
Kent State Linebackers as Pittsburgh Steelers
Perhaps there is something in the water at Kent State. Perhaps it has something to do with years that end with the digit 4. Perhaps its due to something strange in the stars that brings a special alignment of time, place and dominant play at linebacker.
Thirty years before Harrison finally seized his spot in the Steelers roster, another undersized but overachieving linebacker came to the Steelers from Kent State, and his name was Jack Lambert.
- Both are men of few words
- Both are fierce copetitors
- Neither man is wont to be intimidated
Its fitting then that Harrison shares a connection with a linebacker such as Jack Lambert, because Harrison is quickly showing he belongs in that elite company.
The Steelers Linebacker Legacy
The NFL has played 40 Pro Bowls since 1969. 15 Steelers linebackers have made a collective 46 appearances in those games. During that time the Steelers became sinuous with dominating defense.
The list of fellow Steelers linebackers who made the Pro Bowl reads like a veritable who’s of NFL All Pro Linebackers:
Merriweather set the Steelers sack record in 1984, but his sack total never even approached double digits after that. Other than Kevin Greene, no even came close to breaking the Steelers sack record.
Going Beyond the Numbers
On its own, the Steelers single season sack record is impressive, but the truth is that numbers do not define greatness. For evidence of that look no further than Jason Gildon, who is the Steelers all time leader in sacks. Glidon was good, but does anyone consider him to be truly great?
In just two seasons as a starter James Harrison has shown he share something else with the likes of Lambert, Lloyd, and Porter.
He can change the course of games with the force of his will. Consider:
- Sept 29th vs. Baltimore
The Ravens have a 13-10 one play after Pittsburgh has just scored its first touchdown. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco drops back 9 yards from his 20 and James Harrison is there, forcing a fumble which LaMarr Woodley returns for a touchdown.
Harrison finishes the game with 11 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
- October 5th vs. Jacksonville
Pittsburgh has just taken the lead in the 4th with 1:53 to play. The Jaguars have the ball at their 39 with 47 second to play. James Harrison sacks Garrard and stips the ball, knocking them back to their 33. Two incomplete passes later and the game is over.
- November 16, 2008 vs. San Diego
The Chargers are holding 7 point lead but are backed up to their third. James Harrison darts into the backfield sacks Philip Rivers, strips the ball, and tackles McNeil for the safety
40 plays later the Chargers are at the Steelers 17 with 1:33 left to play in the half. Philip Rivers what should be a sure touchdown pass that James Harrison intercepts at the 10 and returns 33 yards. The Steelers covert the turnover into a field goal. James Harrison has now accounted for 5 points in a game the Steelers will win 11-10.
- November 30th vs. New England
The Steelers already had the game in hand, with a 20-10 lead in the third quarter, but if they had any ideas about comebacks, James Harrison there disabuse them of such heroics, as he sack strips Matt Cassel twice on to consecutive drives.
These are just a few of moments from Harrion’s highlight reel. The blunt truth is that we still don’t know how dominate of a player Harrison can be, because James Harrison is held on almost every play.
Primed for the Playoffs
The post-season is the time for PrimeTime players to truly step up. In the playoffs last year against the Jaguars, James Harrison had eight tackles, 1.5 sacks, and defensed 3 passes – one more than his regular season total for 2007.
Harrison did suffer a hip pointer in the Steelers regular season loss to the Titans, but he still returned to the game to record his record breaking sack.
He’s now had two weeks to rest.
If in football, unlike finance, past performance is any indicator of future return, Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers had better be ready.
P.S. As most of you know, on Monday January 5th, James Harrison was named the AP's NFL Defensive Player of the year!
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