The weight room in the indoor field house at Kent State University will soon be named after Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison.
A donation of $100,000 will do that.
Harrison, an Akron, Ohio, native who played at Kent State before embarking upon a unique, winding NFL journey that’s taken him from street free agent to NFL Defensive Player of the Year, had his $100,000 donation approved by the school’s board of trustees on Wednesday.
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The Steelers released Harrison three times in 2002-03. He signed an off-season contract with the Baltimore Ravens and played a season in NFL Europe. He re-signed with the Steelers after the Ravens released him, and in 2004 got a spot start when starting outside linebacker Joey Porter was ejected for a pregame fight at Cleveland.
His career has taken off from there. He was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, the same season he returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII, and is a four-time Pro Bowler. Harrison, 34, is battling back from knee surgery and missed last week’s Steelers season opener at Denver.
Kent State’s news release said Harrison’s donation will fund scholarships and facility upgrades. Having his name on the weight room will have special meaning to Harrison. Early in his career, Harrison would return to campus in the NFL off-season to work with then-Kent State strength coach Ryan Tedford.
Harrison now lives and trains in Arizona in the off-season but has remained close to the school, attending last season’s nationally televised game against Central Michigan and watching from the sideline.
“We are extremely grateful to James for his commitment to Kent State and the football program,” Kent State athletic director Joel Nielsen said. “He is one of the most recognizable figures in the NFL today, and his support is sure to have a lasting effect on our student-athletes now and in the future.”
A Kent State source said Harrison started inquiring about how he could donate to the program “shortly after the ink was dry on his new contract,” a $51 million deal he signed in 2009.
He’s also been an active fundraiser at Akron Coventry, his high school alma mater, and has made donations to the football program and student-athletes there while asking that his work not make headlines.
There’s a rags-to-riches theme in his pre-NFL story, too. The youngest of 14 children, Harrison showed up at Kent State as an academic non-qualifier for football in 1998 and drove a student campus bus while paying his own way. He got eligible, got on scholarship and played for the Flashes from 1999 to 2001. The Flashes last had a winning season in 2001, going 6-5 in part thanks to a late, game-saving sack by Harrison in the season finale over Miami-Ohio.
The quarterback he sacked? Ben Roethlisberger, now his teammate in Pittsburgh.
Harrison’s head coach at Kent State was Dean Pees, who’s now the Ravens defensive coordinator. Harrison’s one-time Kent State teammate, Cleveland Browns return specialist Joshua Cribbs, also pledged $100,000 to the school when his jersey was retired in a 2010 ceremony.
Harrison’s Kent State jersey isn’t retired — yet. His donation ensures that his legacy will live on.