By Will Graves
September 8, 2015
Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison (92) warms up before an NFL preseason football game against the Carolina Panthers, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- James Harrison wants to make something very clear, so he does it in a very James Harrison sort of way: by glancing up from his chair and briefly flashing the withering glare that makes disagreeing with the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker seem unwise.
The 37-year-old gets it, really. He's the old guy now. The last one standing from a group that reeled off three Super Bowl appearances in six years, the final one nearly a half-decade ago. It's easy to look at the sea of 20-somethings around the locker room and point to the four-time Pro Bowler as the sage leader of a group thirsting for knowledge.
Only, Harrison insists, it's not true. Oh, the part about the kids pestering him for wisdom is true. It's the part about Harrison somehow reluctantly filling the void left by the retirement of Troy Polamalu,Brett Keisel and Ike Taylor that rings hollow.
"I haven't embraced anything any more or any less than I have the last seven or eight years,'' Harrison said. ''It's just that now people actually want to make it and talk about it and make it seem like I'm doing something more that I didn't do before.''
Maybe it's because Harrison spent so much of his prime commanding attention for other things, namely his frenetic play as one of the most feared hitters of his generation, and his seemingly endless clashes with the commissioner's office. His default setting as antagonist made it easy to overlook Harrison was a self-made man who never forgot what it was like to be considered too short, too slow and too small to make it.
The slights fueled his rise from the practice squad to 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. It also led him to become an open book eager to share the philosophy that has shaped a singular 13-year career - one that shows no signs of slowing down after some old friends coaxed him out of an 18-day retirement last fall. He responded by finishing with 5 1/2 sacks for a team that surged to the AFC North title.
Dietary tips. Workout regimens. Recovery solutions. Pass rush techniques. A highly disciplined offseason program that includes weeks training in the Arizona heat. How to survive as a disruptive force, which he always has been.
''It's just now (everyone) make it seem like 'Oh, he's taking this big leadership role,'' he says. ''He's doing this. He's doing that.' It's no different than it was before.''
Well, some things have changed, and not just the faces next to him in the huddle.
Ten years ago Harrison's legendary workouts were the equivalent of weight room urban legends. Instagram, Facebook and Twitter have created a new tableau. One day he's bench pressing hundreds of pounds with a brick resting on his chest, the next he's running on an underwater treadmill wearing a facemask that he appears to have bummed from a comic book villain. During one memorable session last fall Harrison did pushups with 310-pound center Maurkice Pouncey sitting on his back.
Is he showing off? Of course. He's also setting a tone. Jarvis Jones, taken in the first round two years ago to replace Harrison, can't help but stare at his mentor.
''You'll be looking at him, some of the stuff he'll be doing and you'll be like, 'Wow,''' Jones said. ''He's been a beast for so long. He's showing us the way and continuing to be a revolving door for us.''
The key word there is ''continuing.'' The invitation for teammates to join him out in the desert over the winter at a camp run by Harrison's personal trainer has always been there. It's just that more Steelers are taking Harrison up on the offer.
Jones, Sean Spence and Ryan Shazier joined Harrison this time in a variety of drills that look like they could have been cribbed from a World's Strongest Man competition. In a beach ''volleyball'' game they flung a 10-pound medicine ball back and forth over the net.
It's the kind of work that can make you ''angry strong'' as Spence put it, a fitting description for the fury with which Harrison plays. It's no coincidence his nickname is ''Deebo'' in honor of the menacing bully from the 1990's comedy ''Friday,'' a facade Harrison welcomes even if it's not as accurate as it used to be.
Sure, he can still turn a given film session into an uncomfortable silence with just one look, a tension he likes to milk before defusing with a laugh. More often he's pulling Jones or Dupree to the side for a chat or serving as defensive coordinator Keith Butler's conscience.
''He's almost like a player/coach,'' Butler said. ''He knows what I like, what I don't like. If there's a discrepancy, he sets them straight.''
It's not just idle talk. Harrison's preferred method of communication remains showing, not telling. Once he found his legs after Keisel and Polamalu coaxed him to come back last fall, Harrison picked up two sacks in consecutive wins over Indianapolis and Baltimore and 1 1/2 in a pivotal late-season victory over Cincinnati.
Harrison was so productive there was never really any talk of Pittsburgh cutting him, as it did in the spring of 2013. He's lighter than a year ago and provided the defense's signature moment of a forgettable preseason, crashing through a swarm of bodies and directly into Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers for a safety on Aug. 23.
He only mentions the end in vague terms. The fire he assumed had gone out last summer has been stoked back to life. Butler keeps saying he's going to limit Harrison to 20-25 snaps a game, but understands putting any sort of parameters on what Harrison can do isn't a great idea.
''He's a freak, he's not kind of a freak, he is a freak,'' Butler said. ''You can't keep him on a leash. Not him.''
Same as it ever was.
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