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Steelers James Harrison Was Nearly Cut Before His 1st Mini Camp By Bill Cowher; Immediately Nicknamed “Two-Day Vet”

Charles LeClaire / USA TODAY Sports

Steelers James Harrison Was Nearly Cut Before His 1st Mini Camp By Bill Cowher; Immediately Nicknamed “Two-Day Vet”

Heading into the 2002 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers linebackers appeared to be the strength of their defense with the surging Joey Porter leading a group that included Steelers all-time leader in sacks, Jason Gildon, 2001 Rookie of the Year, Kendrell Bell, and free agent, James Farrior. So, when the Steelers assigned then-offensive assistant coach Mike Miller to Kent State’s Pro Day to look at James Harrison, few people took interest.

Ironically, one of those individuals who took low interest was James Harrison himself. While other players would constantly check in to see how they did, Miller took note of not only how impressive Harrison was in the various drills, but also how different he was compared to everyone else.

Steelers Joey Porter James Farrior

Pittsburgh Steelers linebackers Joey Porter (55) and James Farrior (51) celebrate after a play at Lambeau Field. Photo by Peter Diana / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (11/6/2005)

Mike Miller, per Polamalu: The Inspirational Story of Pittsburgh Steelers Safety Troy Polamalu; Jim Wexell:

“James acted like this was the biggest inconvenience of his life. He was so unimpressed with the entire process. He’d get up, run his 40, and go sit down. And he would have that stare. He’s just staring at you. And we’d be like, ‘OK, now we’re going to do this.’ Not until it was his turn would he get up. He’d come over, do it, then go sit down. Then he’d get on the bench and put up some ridiculous number, because he’s so strong, and then he’d go sit down. I thought, ‘Wow, this guy doesn’t seem very impressed with this whole thing.’ So I got back and said, ‘If his demeanor says anything about how tough he is, then we’d better get him.'”

Several teams had interest in Harrison who finished First Team All-MAC, but concerns over being too short for OLB and too small for a DE led to him being undrafted. The Steelers specialized in developing pass rushers from the OLB position, brought him in as a free agent, making him the first Kent State alumnus since Jack Lambert to play for the Steelers.

However, Harrison did not play much as a rookie, spending the majority of the season on the practice squad until the final two games. He struggled to pick up the system and some of that same indifferent demeanor that Miller saw at his Pro Day carried over to minicamp, something that did not escape the notice of Bill Cowher.

Bill Cowher, per Heart and Steel:

“Some rookies were so eager to play that they’d show up hours before they were required to be there. Harrison? He showed up late to his first minicamp. I almost sent him home right then.

On the field, if he couldn’t figure out a play, he would literally stop in the middle of it, throw his hands up in the air, and tell us to get him off the field. He definitely was a challenge. But the more we saw him play, the more we could see how much talent he had. The question was if his attitude would prevent him from reaching his potential.”

Cowher was not the only one who shared a similar view about Harrison that rookie year. James Farrior noted how the team thought he was “crazy.” Initially, his Steelers teammates dubbed him with the nickname “Two-Day Vet” because he acted like a veteran just two days into camp. Subsequently, he was christened “Deebo” who was the bully from the movie “Friday.”

Steelers James Harrison

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Cowher recognized that he was raw, but had something about him that could not be ignored. After spending the season on the practice squad, Harrison was brought back to compete for a roster spot again in 2003 and impressed his teammates with his play on special teams, collecting a team high 12 special teams tackles in the preseason. Harrison was still released as the Steelers invested a second round pick in Alonzo Jackson. This time around, it did not sit well with the Steelers veterans, in particular Porter, who would let his feelings be known some years later.

Joey Porter, per Polamalu: The Inspirational Story of Pittsburgh Steelers Safety Troy Polamalu; Jim Wexell:

“We were actually pissed. Not to take anything away from Matt Cushing, but one year we kept four tight ends. We cut (Harrison) and kept Cushing twice. We were like, ‘How can you tell me Cushing’s a better special teams player than Harrison?’ We were always mad, especially because of The Cowher Rule: I won’t get rid of good special teams players. And he did it twice. So that caught us off guard. The second time we released him and brought in Erik Flowers, and he was terrible. He was like trippin’ over the bags. We were like, ‘We let Deebo go for him?'”

Steelers get a “lucky break”

Heading into the 2004 season, it looked like it was over for Harrison. He was signed and cut by the Baltimore Ravens in 2003 and at age 26, he told the Beaver County Times that he was set to become a truck driver. When Clark Haggans broke his hand in a weight-lifting accident, Harrison was signed along with veteran OLB Adrian Ross prior to the 2004 season, primarily to be another body as Cowher noted that the Haggans injury was “a golden opportunity for Alonzo Jackson and (rookie) Nathaniel Adibi.” Cowher did even mention Harrison, who took a different approach to this training camp. He had a different mindset and determination to learn the defense, shunning a TV in his room for over 1,000 notecards to study the defense with.

There was no ignoring Harrison this time around, as he beat out Adibi and Ross and earned another nickname from his teammates: “Silverback.” And this time around, it was born 100% out of respect.

Steelers James Harrison

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Clark Haggans, per Polamalu: The Inspirational Story of Pittsburgh Steelers Safety Troy Polamalu; Jim Wexell:

“They’re big, strong gorillas from the Congo, the silverback gorilla.” Haggans explained. “They spend their days swinging on trees and breaking stuff. All the other apes and everyone in the jungle are afraid of him.”

While he was not yet striking fear into opponents yet, except on special teams where he excelled, that changed when Porter and William Green were both ejected for a pre-game fight vs. the Cleveland Browns. His performance on special teams led to Harrison getting the start over Jackson and Harrison made an impact playing in front of his hometown team.

Harrison made tackles on two of the Browns’ first three plays, one for a 3-yard loss and the other after a 1-yard gain on third down, and almost recorded a safety. But Browns quarterback Jeff Garcia eluded Harrison in the end zone and just got a pass away.

Harrison sacked Garcia on a third-and-5 play in the third quarter and played a key role in Russell Stuvaints’ fumble recovery for the touchdown that clinched the win. Harrison led the Steelers with six tackles, all solos.

Harrison would go on to be one of the most dominant OLBs in the history of the Steelers, winning the 2008 DPOY and a key part of multiple Super Bowl runs. Just imagine how different things could have been if Haggans did not break his hand that day. Sometimes, you really do need a lucky break.

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PMP; CSM; CSPO and host of the PMI-TB Agile Podcast. A lifelong Steelers fan, I had the chance of a lifetime when I was able to celebrate Super Bowl XLIII with the team. I love talking everything Steelers from the old days to the new and look forward to working with the team to grow this platform to be the premier Steelers site.

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