While he left briefly with a sprained MCL in his right knee against Baltimore, James Harrison returned to another sack in the third quarter. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH -- In his role as a player agent, Bill Parise regularly fields calls, emails and text messages from NFL teams asking about his clients. One call he didn't expect was the one he received Sept. 22 from Omar Khan, the Steelers' director of football and business administration.
A night after the Steelers dominated Carolina in a costly road win in which they lost the services of linebacker Jarvis Jones, among others, Khan was asking about the availability of James Harrison.
The 36-year-old was thought to be done after an underwhelming season in Cincinnati in 2013. He'd officially retired from football just a few weeks earlier in a ceremony with the Rooneys at the Steelers' training facility. Before that, he turned down an offer from Arizona.
"We had many, many conversations and he said 'I'm retired, I'm finished,'" said Parise, a Rochester native and former executive director of the Beaver County YMCA. "I really felt that he was retired. When the Steelers called me, it was like, 'OK, I'll talk to him. But I'm not sure where it's going to go.'"
Obviously, it went pretty well. Harrison was ultimately persuaded to return after consulting family, former teammates and coach Mike Tomlin.
"He's not one of those guys who can't live without football, but I think that was the deciding factor," Parise said.
It certainly wasn't for the money. He signed a one-year, $1.020 million contract, or $460,000 less than Terence Garvin. Consider it money well spent.
In 2006, when Harrison signed a four-year, $5.5 million contract, Parise declared that the Steelers were getting the "next great linebacker in Pittsburgh." From 2007-12, Harrison was exactly that, winning defensive player of the year in '08, the same year he helped Pittsburgh to its sixth Super Bowl title and second in four years.
At this point, Harrison might not be the "next great" linebacker, but he's been better than good, at least better than expected after a slow start. With four sacks in the last two games, Harrison has been a major factor in the Steelers' resurgence as he's gotten into better "football shape" as Tomlin calls it. The defense, while not great statistically, has shown marked improvement. The pass rush, the intimidation and swagger, long trademarks of Harrison, have returned.
"I just know that there are positive things that come with having James around," Tomlin said. "People get really comfortable in James’ presence. James is the type of guy that you like having on your football team and on your side in a lot of situations."
Parise goes back with Harrison from the beginning when he was undrafted out of Kent State because he was deemed too small and too slow for the NFL. He witnessed the game -- now the stuff of urban legend -- when Harrison sacked Miami (Ohio) quarterback Ben Roethlisberger five times in a game in 2001. And he was there when Harrison was cut four times before landing a regular spot in Pittsburgh.
As his agent, Parise isn't surprised to see Harrison, whose named is being bandied about for comeback player of the year, perform again at a high level. Nothing Harrison does surprises him, he says. As a friend, though, Parise is thrilled. The surly demeanor you see on Sundays isn't the guy he and his family have come to know.
"He's certainly a tough guy, but the very nature of his existence depends on that," he said.
Where all this leads Harrison, Parise isn't saying. They've had conversations about the future beyond this season, but that decision will be made at a later date.
"He's going to play this year, and he's going to play as hard as he can," Parise said.