WHEN THE Steelers last hosted a Super Bowl pep rally for fans three years ago, James Harrison, an undrafted backup linebacker, wasn't there. "By the time I found out about it," Harrison says, "it was already over." He didn't escape anyone's attention at last Friday's rally, which drew nearly 30,000 fans to Heinz Field. Not only was Harrison among the more loudly cheered Steelers, but many of his vocal supporters also wore his number 92 jersey.
Harrison, 30, owes his recent popularity to perseverance and Pro Bowl seasons in 2007 and '08. The linchpin of the league's top-ranked defense, he was Pittsburgh's second-leading tackler (92), broke the franchise sack record (16) and forced a league-leading seven fumbles on the way to being named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year—the first undrafted player to do so. "It's really just his third year of playing full time, and he's only going to get better," says coordinator Dick LeBeau. "He's got a tremendous blend of strength and speed, and he has a competitive heart."
But the true significance of Harrison's achievement is measured in the long road he's traveled. A walk-on at Kent State, the 6-foot, 242-pound Harrison became All-MAC but was written off by NFL scouts as too short. He signed with Pittsburgh in 2002, but his irascible personality and his struggles to learn LeBeau's 3--4 scheme led the Steelers to cut him three times in 13 months. The Ravens picked him up in February 2004 and allocated him that spring to NFL Europe's Rhein Fire—a two-month stint that Harrison says he "hated everything about except for the football." His contempt soon grew to include the Ravens themselves when Baltimore let him go after one snap at minicamp. Harrison spent the next six weeks in his native Akron contemplating whether to ditch football for a more stable career, but when the Steelers lost linebacker Clark Haggans to a weightlifting injury in July '04, Pittsburgh called Harrison to offer him yet another chance.
Now fully versed in LeBeau's system, he has excelled in every spot he's been plugged into. That includes wedge buster, where he made his mark on the '05 title team—and despite his linebacking eminence, Harrison still trots out for kickoffs. He tied for third on the Steelers in special teams tackles this year, with 12.
As memorable as his first championship experience was, Harrison says, "it's totally different now. My role in the whole big scheme of things this time around means more to me than that one did." That role also means he won't be overlooked come Sunday.
JOHN BIEVER (HARRISON)
PITT STOPPER The ornery Harrison broke the franchise record for sacks.