Harrison’s remarkable NFL run comes to an end

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison provided one of the most memorable moments in Super Bowl history in Super Bowl XLIII. After intercepting Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner at the goal line, Harrison returned the interception 100 yards for a Steelers score. 

Kim Klement/usatoday

James Harrison quietly and humbly announced his retirement from football via Facebook on Saturday.

From driving a student bus to help pay his Kent State tuition to the NFL’s waiver wire to the now-extinct NFL Europe and ultimately to winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year and making one of the most memorable plays in Super Bowl history, Harrison had a quite a run.

Quietly. Humbly. Angrily. Violently.

His way. Always his way.

"I have made the difficult decision to retire as of today," the 36-year-old Harrison wrote. "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."

Harrison played with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2004-12 — he was cut three times early in his career and also cut once by the Baltimore Ravens — and played last season with the Bengals. An Akron native, he starred at Kent State after starting out as a non-qualifier. In part because he’s not really his listed height of 6-foot and in part because of his temper, he had to go the long route as undrafted player in the NFL.

He was 29 before he became a full-time starter. After that NFL Europe trip the Ravens released Harrison, and he began making plans to get his commercial driver’s license and pursue a career in trucking.

But Steelers linebacker Clark Haggans broke his hand in that summer of 2004, so the Steelers called Harrison and he signed up for another training camp of covering kicks, playing as a backup and doing whatever he was asked to make the roster. He did, and that November before a game in Cleveland, the Steelers’ other starting outside linebacker, Joey Porter, was ejected for a pregame fight.

Harrison got his first career start, made 6 tackles and recorded his first NFL sack. In 2005 he was a more regular contributor and made his first NFL highlight reel, again in Cleveland, when he grabbed a fan who had run on to the field and body-slammed him to the ground.

That was Harrison, and his style wasn’t for everyone. He got repeatedly fined for dangerous and or late hits. He rubbed people the wrong way on and off the field, including his first coaches at the Steelers. During a college game Drew Brees told Harrison to quit hitting him after he’d released the ball because "I’m going to The League, man."

Harrison replied: "You have to survive today first."

Before Joshua Cribbs made the Cleveland Browns as an undratfed free agent and set an NFL record for kickoff return touchdowns, he was a freshman trying to win the quarterback’s job at Kent State.

"In my very first practice I was wearing the red no-contact jersey," Cribbs said this weekend. "I turned the corner and that jersey didn’t stop James. He full out hit me. He was a senior, I was a freshman, and the point was made. It was his team.

"James was a tone setter. He’s always been a tough and aggressive player. In (an NFL game) he once hit one of my blockers on a kick return so hard that I felt the hit."

He was a repeat visitor to the office of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and frequent contributor to league charities via fines for some of his hits. In a 2011 magazine article entitled "Confessions of an NFL hitman" he called Goodell "stupid," "devil," and "dictator" and posed for the magazine’s cover shirtless while holding two guns. After the NFL passed new rules on helmet-to-helmet contact, he wrote on Twitter: "I’m absolutely sure now after this last rule change that the people making the rules at the NFL are idiots."

His 100-yard interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII helped the Steelers win their sixth Lombardi Trophy. He went to five Pro Bowls and won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award after recording 16 sacks in 2008, and eventually Harrison got a $51 million contract from the Steelers.

In 1995, I watched him catch a screen pass in a high school game, elude a defender by leaping over him and go in for a touchdown of longer than 60 yards. More than a decade later, he had an interception on Monday Night Football and leapt over Antonio Gates on the subsequent return.

He cared not how he was viewed or regarded outside his own locker room. Before high school games, he’d casually walk through the other team’s warmup and stretching lines, daring someone to say something or escort him back to the proper side of the field. Last summer, HBO’s Hard Knocks cameras caught Harrison flashing middle fingers when he didn’t want to be taped, lifting inhuman amounts of weight at 6 a.m. during training camp and taking an acupuncture treatment with more than 300 tiny needles in his back at one time.

In that scene, he wore only a white towel and a smile.

After Harrison’s high school coach died a few years back, I stood at Harrison’s locker in Pittsburgh after a game waiting to ask what that coach, Mo Tipton, had meant to his career.

Harrison had done more than five minutes of an interview still in his uniform, except for his shoulder pads, with ice and wraps over much of his body. He’d done most of the interview with his head down, answering questions politely and thoroughly but without showing too much interest in the interview going a second longer than he thought it needed to.

Again, his way.

When most of the reporters and cameras had moved on, I asked about the coach. Harrison looked up at me, made eye contact, and gave me a thoughtful answer. When I asked a couple follow-ups, he went back to answering with his head down.

Sensing I was about out of time, I told Harrison I’d noticed him walk around slowly after the game. I’d noticed that he was still basically in uniform, too, and I asked if it was getting harder and harder for him to get his body ready and recovered as he got older.

He sneered at me.

I got the message.

This weekend, I got my answer. And one of the most unlikely NFL success stories has officially come to an end.