Legendary Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison was much more than just his persona and his workouts could easily break the wills of lesser men.
Harrison’s riveting story began in Akron, OH – the same city that produced NBA legend LeBron James.
Harrison’s football journey was never an easy one. He had to endure racial taunts on the high school gridiron. Several years later, many NFL teams passed up on him.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens released Harrison a combined total of four times before he finally established his NFL career in The Steel City.
James Harrison persevered and earned two Super Bowl rings, the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, and five consecutive Pro Bowl selections.
Who could ever forget Harrison’s memorable 100-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII?
James Harrison’s legacy will forever live in the hearts of Terrible Towel-waving Steeler Nation fans everywhere.
James Henry Harrison, Jr. was born to parents James, Sr. and Mildred in Akron, OH on May 4, 1978.
Harrison is the youngest of fourteen siblings.
He grew up following the Cleveland Browns, per ESPN’s Harold Abend.
His father James, Sr. drove a chemical truck to provide for his family.
For his part, James, Jr. struggled with anger issues when he was growing up in Akron.
According to Men’s Journal’s Paul Solotaroff, Harrison punched holes in his walls when he lost video game competitions, set himself and an attic rug ablaze, and shot birds and squirrels within his house’s vicinity.
His mother Mildred brought her belt she called “Black Beauty” to school and whipped James with it to keep him in line.
Harrison, who slept beside his parents until he was twelve years old, first attended Archbishop Hoban High School near his hometown of Akron.
Unfortunately, Harrison stayed only until his freshman year.
Two coaches told SI.com’s Jonathan Jones in January 2018 that the root causes of Harrison’s short stint were his inability to fit in and a possible racial incident.
When Archbishop Hoban Knights head football coach Mo Tipton left for Coventry High School, Harrison promptly followed suit.
Multiple coaches told SI.com that Harrison and linebacker Jonathan Holloman were the school’s first African-American students.
With Harrison on board, the Coventry Comets recorded two consecutive 8-2 win-loss seasons.
Coventry Football Stadium featured on A Football Life last night with James Harrison pic.twitter.com/6QI21nzxcD
— Coach Harrold (@Harrold59) September 25, 2021
The Comets had an eight-game winning streak heading into their matchup against the Tusky Valley Trojans in Harrison’s senior season.
Former Comets assistant football coach Joe Headley told Jones the home crowd taunted Harrison with racial slurs.
After Harrison scored a touchdown for the Comets, he raced down the sideline and extended both of his middle fingers to the Trojans fans.
“He did the double bird all the way down the sideline, and rightly so,” Headley told SI.com in 2018. “If you know James, James will get to the point. And I think any human being would have (once that was) all you can take.”
Although the Comets won and extended their winning streak, Harrison was suspended for the next game against the Manchester Greyhounds because of his obscene gesture.
The Comets lost to the Greyhounds, 21-12.
Harrison also figured in an incident known in Coventry High School annals as “BB-Gate.” According to SI.com, Harrison allegedly shot one of his teammates with a BB gun in his butt. The former eventually pled to a minor charge.
Headley felt it was nothing but a harmless prank on Harrison’s part. However, the victim could’ve interpreted the situation differently, per Jones.
At the time, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Ohio State Buckeyes, and Nebraska Cornhuskers had their radars on Harrison, per Bleacher Report’s Chris Dolbow.
Alas, the “BB-Gate” fiasco ruined Harrison’s chances of attending a Division I school.
Fortunately, Harrison qualified at nearby Kent State University – the same school that produced legendary college football coach Nick Saban.
Harrison invited Coventry Comets offensive coordinator Clyde Feldman to dinner at the Silver Pheasant restaurant where he and his family celebrated his admission into Kent State.
Harrison regularly rode with Feldman after football practice during his high school days.
James Harrison somehow beat the odds and earned a spot on the Kent State Golden Flashes roster. It was a recurring theme for the rest of his memorable gridiron career.
College Days With The Kent State Golden Flashes
James Harrison attended Kent State University from 1998 to 2001.
Harrison had sub-par grades during his true freshman year. It turned out he skipped classes and played the video game “Final Fantasy VII” to his heart’s content, per Men’s Journal.
According to ESPN’s Elizabeth Merrill, Mildred Harrison drove 20 miles to Kent, OH, got his grades, and told him to pack up because she wasn’t going to pay for his tuition fees with marks like that.
James Harrison promised her he would own up to it.
Kent State head football coach Dean Pees implemented a night study hall for Harrison and his teammates. The system reaped enormous dividends – Harrison eventually became a dean’s lister.
James Harrison beat the odds yet again.
Harrison sat out his freshman season with the Kent State Golden Flashes in 1998 because of NCAA academic guidelines.
The Golden Flashes were an atrocious 0-11 in Pees’ first year at the helm.
Harrison started at linebacker in the Golden Flashes’ final three games of the 1999 NCAA campaign. He led Kent State with eight tackles for loss that year. He also had 67 total tackles.
— Blitzburgh✨ (@Blitz_Burgh) April 28, 2019
Harrison also won a Power Elite Award for his exemplary performance in Kent State’s weight room, per the team’s official athletics website.
James Harrison’s reputation as a bona fide gym and workout freak was in full swing.
The Golden Flashes weren’t much better in 1999 – they won just two games and extended their bowl drought to twenty-seven years.
Harrison continued ascending in the college football ranks as the turn of the century drew near. He had 65 solo tackles in the 2000 NCAA season. His average of 9.6 tackles per game ranked him 10th in the MAC.
Harrison had four double-digit tackle games – including a season-high 14 against the Ohio Bobcats – in 2000. He also had a team-high three fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles.
Despite Harrison’s best efforts, the Golden Flashes won just one of eleven games in the 2000 NCAA season.
Pees named James Harrison, Brian Hallett and Rashan Hall co-captains in 2001.
Harrison led the MAC with 15.0 sacks that year. Two of those came in consecutive potential game-winning drives against Miami of Ohio quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, his future teammate with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Harrison’s late-game heroics preserved Kent State’s thrilling 24-20 victory and its first winning season since 1987. He finished the game with 12 tackles, 5.0 sacks, and a forced fumble.
James Harrison finished the 2001 NCAA season with 90 total tackles and 20 tackles for loss.
To nobody’s surprise, he earned All-Mid-American Conference honors at year’s end.
“It’s an honor whenever you get an award like that,” Harrison told Steelers.com’s Teresa Varley some nine years later. “I was just looking at another opportunity to do something that I enjoy doing. Any accolades that came along with it were just icing on the cake.”
James Harrison never expected to rise to prominence in the college football ranks. He would eventually embark on a memorable 15-year pro football career and become a Pittsburgh Steelers legend.
However, Harrison’s path to NFL stardom was anything but smooth sailing.
Pro Football Career
The Pittsburgh Steelers signed James Harrison as an undrafted free agent in 2002.
Harrison became the first Kent State alumnus to play linebacker for the Steelers since they drafted Jack Lambert twenty-eight years earlier.
Prior to the 6’0″, 242-lb. Harrison signing with the Steelers, many teams snubbed him because they thought he was too short to play linebacker and too light to play defensive end.
Harrison spent intermittent stretches with Pittsburgh’s practice squad for two years. The Steelers released him three times during that time frame.
He admitted to Bob Labriola of the Steelers’ official website almost twenty years later that he didn’t have a clue what he was doing when the Steelers’ routinely cut him. He gave up on plays easily and even walked off the field once, admitting to his ignorance.
Harrison’s Steelers teammates gave him the nickname “Two-Day Vet” because he already acted like a veteran just two days into training camp.
They also christened him “Deebo,” the bully from the movie “Friday.”
After Harrison’s early misfortunes in Pittsburgh, the Baltimore Ravens signed him in late 2003. They assigned him to NFL Europe’s Rhein Fire before releasing him.
Former Coventry Comets offensive coordinator Gary Hutt told ESPN that Harrison’s short stint in NFL Europe – which he hated – lit a fire in him.
From being undrafted to being cut 3x before being sent to NFL Europe & being cut again after I got back, to being on the practice squad, I smiled thru it all. None of it changed how felt about myself & my skills. It just fueled me to prove ALL of them wrong.🔥What fuels you? pic.twitter.com/JW7JcxFOjU
— James Harrison (@jharrison9292) July 19, 2021
At this point, James Harrison almost gave up on football.
He told Merrill in the days leading up to Super Bowl XLIII – the game that made him a football immortal – he seriously thought about becoming a bus driver, truck driver or veterinarian.
Harrison pondered on becoming a veterinarian because he loved animals. However, he balked at the thought of hitting the books again, per Merrill.
None of Harrison’s potential careers materialized. After Pittsburgh linebacker Clark Haggans sustained a freak lifting injury in the summer of 2004, the Steelers called up Harrison.
The spark that ignited within James Harrison’s soul during his short-lived NFL Europe tenure grew into a full-blown fire.
An invigorated Harrison seized his shot at redemption for all its worth – he reported for training camp with a thousand flash cards and pored over his playbook and notes on his floor mattress before retiring for the night.
Harrison even refused to have the Steelers install a television inside his room. He was locked in from the get-go.
“I wanted to feel like if I did get cut, I gave it everything I could,” Harrison told ESPN in early 2009. “There was nothing else I could do.”
Harrison had a relatively quiet stretch from 2004 to 2006. He had 96 solo tackles, 3.0 sacks, and two fumble recoveries during that time frame.
He made headlines twice during the 2005 NFL campaign.
First, he intercepted San Diego Chargers quarterback Drew Brees’ pass and leapt over future Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson during his 25-yard return.
Harrison then restrained an intoxicated and rowdy Cleveland Browns fan by slamming him on the ground several weeks later. Harrison pinned him down while waiting for authorities to take the man into custody.
The Steelers won an average of eleven games per season in James Harrison’s first three years in the National Football League.
They won their fifth Vince Lombardi Trophy after they beat the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.
Not only did future Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis end his NFL career in style, but James Harrison also earned the first of his two Super Bowl rings.
In a first-person essay Harrison wrote for USA TODAY Sports in December 2016, he revealed he wasn’t as meticulous about his body when he was in his early 20s – he drank and partied the night away like many of his teammates.
However, he realized in his fourth season he had to radically change his lifestyle if he wanted to play longer in the National Football League.
Harrison began training year-round almost every day. He upped the ante in his workouts during the offseason.
Today's James Harrison offseason workout included pushing 1,800 pounds.
Reminder: He's 39 years old. pic.twitter.com/YaDT72bAXa
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) July 20, 2017
Harrison’s bodywork specialists, chiropractor, and acupuncturist saw him twice a week to make sure his body was in peak physical condition.
In terms of nutrition, Harrison focused on a low-carb diet featuring organic and natural food. He only increased his carb intake several hours before a game.
Harrison also got a massage at least four times a week, prompting his Pittsburgh teammates to poke fun at him.
Harrison’s career skyrocketed after the Steelers released four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Joey Porter in 2007.
Harrison had 76 solo tackles, 8.5 sacks, seven forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries that year.
Pittsburgh won ten games but lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars 31-29 in the AFC Wild Card Game on a Josh Scobee 25-yard field goal with 37 seconds left.
Nonetheless, James Harrison earned the first of his five consecutive Pro Bowl selections. He also became a Second-Team All-Pro selection for the first time in his career.
Authorities charged Harrison with simple assault and criminal mischief for allegedly striking his girlfriend Beth Tibbott on her face with an open hand, per Merrill.
Police eventually dropped the charges. Harrison attended anger management classes in the ensuing weeks.
The altercation stemmed from an argument over their infant son James III’s baptism.
Harrison picked up where he left off the following season. He had a league-leading seven fumble recoveries and a career-high 16.0 sacks in 2008.
It was the best season of James Harrison’s 15-year NFL career.
It came as no surprise when he earned NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors – the first undrafted player in league history to pull off the feat – and his first First-Team All-Pro selection at season’s end.
Behind Harrison’s exploits, the Steelers won twelve games in 2008. They beat Kurt Warner’s Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII 27-23 for their sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy.
As for James Harrison, he earned his second Super Bowl ring in style.
It seemed the Cardinals were on the verge of scoring a touchdown just before halftime. However, Harrison intercepted Warner’s pass at the goal line and rumbled down the length of the Raymond James Stadium sideline for a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown.
— Blitzburgh✨ (@Blitz_Burgh) December 6, 2019
An exhausted Harrison collapsed in the end zone and tried to regain his breath for several minutes while his Steelers teammates surrounded him in jubilation.
It was the finest moment in James Harrison’s NFL career.
Harrison decided to skip the Steeler’s White House visit with President Barack Obama in May 2009. Harrison was also a no-show when President George W. Bush honored the Steelers three years earlier.
According to NFL.com, Harrison’s fear of flying could have been a factor.
“Why is it a big issue now that I’m not going if it wasn’t a big issue the last time?” Harrison told the league’s official website in the spring of 2009.
A family pit bull bit Harrison’s son James III in the thigh several weeks later. Harrison’s agent William Parise told The Associated Press (via ESPN) that the boy’s mother released the pit bull from its pen on May 23, 2009.
The pit bull also injured the mother and Harrison’s massage therapist, who both tried to help the boy. Harrison wasn’t home when the incident occurred but raced home when he found out.
Parise also told The Associated Press (via ESPN) that James III’s injuries were “serious but certainly not life-threatening.”
Harrison continued playing at a high level in the next two years. He had 130 solo tackles, 20.5 sacks, 11 forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries during that span.
The Steelers averaged eleven wins per year from 2009 to 2010. They lost to Aaron Rodgers’ Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV, 31-25.
Harrison officially became a member of Kent State University’s Varsity “K” Hall of Fame in 2010, per Varley. He donated $100,000 to the school, which, in turn, named its field house after him. The school also retired his No. 16 jersey three years later.
After Harrison underwent back surgery during the offseason, he flew to Arizona to train and recover. While Harrison is afraid of flying, he isn’t afraid of snakes.
He revealed to Solotaroff in July 2011 that he grabbed an intruding rattlesnake barehanded and threw it over the fence while he was in Arizona.
“Had to,” Harrison told Solotaroff. “My son was here visiting, so that b—h had to bounce out ASAP.”
James Harrison also earned notoriety for blasting NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in that same interview.
“Roger Goodell, who’s a crook and a puppet, said I was the dirtiest player in the league,” Harrison told Men’s Journal in the summer of 2011. “I hate him and will never respect him.”
Harrison had incurred some hefty fines over the years. He remembered the NFL fining $5,000 for him for slamming Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young’s head. When he claimed to just have touched New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, the NFL fined him $20,000.
Harrison also told Solotaroff the NFL would have banned him for life had he hit either Peyton Manning or Tom Brady high.
Between getting hit in the head or the knees, Harrison chose the former because the latter is both career- and life-threatening, per Men’s Journal.
At that point in James Harrison’s pro football career, the 33-year-old outside linebacker continued setting the bar high in the weight room – he could bench press 500 pounds with a close grip.
Harrison also executed spider crawls in a gym while pulling a pile of weight plates with a chain. He followed those up with power lunges while carrying 80-lb. dumbbells in each hand, per Solotaroff.
Harrison’s massage therapist Lisa Ripi, who also did double-duty as his housekeeper, regularly thrusted at least 300 needles on his back for acupuncture therapy well past 2 a.m.
Pittsburgh averaged a gaudy twelve wins per year from 2011 to 2017 – the homestretch of James Harrison’s pro football career. They never made it past the AFC title game during that stretch.
Harrison signed with the Cincinnati Bengals in the spring of 2013 following his release from the Steelers due to salary cap reasons.
He spent just one season in Cincinnati and had 30 total tackles, 2.0 sacks, and an interception. The 11-5 Bengals lost to the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Wild Card Game, 27-10.
Harrison announced his first retirement in the summer of 2014 but had a change of heart after Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin announced the defense had several significant injuries.
Harrison played for four more seasons in the Steel City. He signed a one-year deal with the Patriots in December 2017
He suited up in just one game for New England. He was on the sidelines when the Patriots lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII.
Prior to his short-lived stint in New England, James Harrison despised the New England Patriots.
“I hate those motherf—–s, especially those two clowns who talked about me after the fines,” Harrison told Men’s Journal in 2011.
He referred to Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi, two Patriots players who became football analysts after they retired.
On the other hand, James Harrison told Men’s Journal he respects his teammate, Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu, the most because of his high character.
Harrison announced his second and final retirement in an Instagram post (via NFL.com’s Kevin Patra) in the spring of 2018.
James Harrison finished his legendary 15-year NFL career with 583 solo tackles, 84.5 sacks, 34 forced fumbles, nine fumble recoveries, and eight interceptions.
James Harrison and his family currently reside in a northern suburb of Pittsburgh, PA.
While he’s sharing the same house with his girlfriend Beth Tibbot, a lawyer, the couple has no plans of getting married, per Solotaroff.
According to ESPN, Harrison’s interests outside of the gridiron include his sons James III and Henry, food, and fishing.
While James Harrison has had some anger management issues in the past, he has a soft side.
His former Coventry Comets offensive coordinator Gary Hutt told Merrill in 2009 that he regularly visits children’s hospitals by himself.
Harrison began investing in real estate during the 2011 NFL season. He and his partner Tom Janidas developed two off-campus residences near two West Virginia colleges that year.
“There’s no ceiling for James in the real estate business,” Janidas told Men’s Journal in the summer of 2011. “He’s as shrewd and focused an athlete as I’ve met.”
Back then, Harrison aspired to purchase a private jet so he could travel with his sons around the world.
— James Harrison (@jharrison9292) October 24, 2021
James Harrison began his acting career in April 2021. He played Apocalypse in the wrestling drama series “Heels.”