Harrison fits the spotlight, even if he’s reluctant

A crazy man? Maybe, maybe not. But James Harrison certainly comes off as crazy, man.

This was a statement of fact — and one Harrison would in some ways appreciate — before he became the focal point of Hard Knocks with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Hard Knocks is really good television, by the way.

So is Harrison.

The 35-year old Akron native is starting again with the Bengals after a remarkable run with the Steelers that really started only after the Steelers cut him multiple times. The Ravens actually cut him once, too.

The youngest of 14 children, a prop 48 case who started his college career by paying his own way, an undrafted NFL prospect trying to make it by way of special teams and NFL Europe before he made one of the most memorable plays in Super Bowl history then was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, Harrison has always been a survivor. In an NFL sense he is again, his run ended in Pittsburgh by an injury-riddled 2012 and a big salary on the books for 2013.

Harrison went through the first wave of free agency last spring with interest but no deal. He eventually signed with the Bengals for $2.6 million this season, and the Bengals eventually signed on with HBO to do Hard Knocks, the NFL’s annual all-access training camp reality show.

Through three Hard Knocks episodes, we’ve seen Harrison fly multiple middle fingers at the HBO cameras, dance to a teammate singing Luther Vandross, lift inhuman amounts of weight at 6 a.m. and play a little football, too. On the most recent episode, we saw Harrison getting 300 tiny needles stuck into his back and legs by his acupuncturist, who told the cameras that 300 is a larger-than-usual amount of needles but is the number that Harrison requested when they first met six years ago.

During this segment, Harrison wore only a white towel and a smile.

We also saw Harrison explain his gestures and feelings about having cameras tail his every move by telling Bengals.com that the Hard Knocks cameras didn’t deserve to be there. He said the locker room is for football players who have sweated and earned their way there, and there’s been at least point when he told the cameras if they wanted some time with him, they’d have to show up at 6 a.m. and meet him in the weight room.

The cameras did. Also in the most recent episode is a reminder that Harrison’s muscles still have muscles.

Harrison plays mean; there’s plenty of tape to back that up. He scowls like he’s mean, too, carries himself like he’s mean and can be mean. No one who knows even a little about Harrison envies those cameramen who have encountered him over the last month or so.

His dabbling in social media over the last couple years represents a 180-degree turn from the gruff (understatement), rough, private Harrison who came up through the city of Akron, once drove a student bus at Kent State and took the NFL’s least-glorious roads to stardom.

But it’s really him on Twitter and Facebook giving away tickets, telling jokes and interacting with fans. For proof, go to his 2011 tweet after the NFL passed new rules on helmet-to-helmet contact: “I’m absolutely sure now after this last rule change that the people making the rules at the NFL are idiots.”

He’s entitled to his opinions, as both viewers and producers of Hard Knocks know. Harrison was entitled to his opinions in 2011, too, when he called NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell “stupid,” “devil,” and “dictator” and posed for a magazine cover shirtless while holding two guns.

He and Goodell know one another from plenty of meetings about fines for hits the NFL has deemed illegal.

No one is certain that this Harrison-Bengals experiment will work. He’s in a new defense after playing as a 3-4 outside linebacker and mostly as a pass rusher, and all the acupuncture in the world can’t fix the fact that age catches up with every NFL player. But Harrison had a down year last year in part because he missed all of training camp while trying to get healthy. The Bengals are managing his snaps, and Harrison looks like a guy who’s enjoying his new scenery and his next chance.

When I went to watch the Bengals practice on Monday, he even smiled when he came to the sideline between reps. And he knew those cameras were watching.

With 64 career sacks and five Pro Bowl appearances, Harrison carries some clout. On the latest Hard Knocks episode, Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is shown ribbing rookie running back Giovani Bernard about his struggles with blocking. Gruden tells Bernard, “I’m going to let you block Harrison all day today.”

Other players laugh. Bernard’s eyes get really big.

In another scene, Harrison starts taking snaps alongside quarterback Andy Dalton on the sideline during last week’s preseason game. Harrison throws a couple of passes and tells Dalton he may try quarterbacking next.  

Crazy James Harrison and his crazy NFL journey might only have a year left. He might have two. Or, with all those needles and all those muscles, maybe at 35 he’s just at the halfway point. He’s even threatening to move to quarterback.

That’s the great thing about Harrison. No one really ever knows what’s coming next.