Up here in an end-of-time exurb called Troon, carved high into the bluffs above Scottsdale, Arizona, it's all Charles Darwin and sun-split rocks, life forms baked to the core. Diamondbacks and scorpions slip through the gates of the copper-colored homes in these hills, while wild boar joust with gaunt coyotes over trash cans pushed to the curb. Even in May, the heat is a monster, pressing its breath on you in the haze.
It's no more imposing, though, than the force that awaits me as I swing my Jeep onto the apron of a three-car driveway. He answers the door wearing only a towel and a glare that could scare away bats. "You're early," growls James Harrison, the black-hat linebacker of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the scourge of the National Football League's vexed campaign to check concussive tackles. "You said noon. It's five of," he goes on, letting the scowl linger a beat.
It's his signature expression, the one he shows reporters who dare ask him questions after practice and the one he turned on Roger Goodell when the commissioner of the league summoned Harrison to his office last fall to explain his knockout hits. Harrison's attendance in New York was all but mandatory: He had hung up furiously on Goodell after calling him to challenge an enormous fine, one of several he got last year. The meeting went poorly, by all accounts, and Harrison ended the season the NFL's most heavily fined player in a single season, with $100,000 in levies.
Harrison, who lives in a suburb north of Pittsburgh, has come to Arizona to heal and train after back surgery over the winter, and he is bored and antagonized by the desert. "There's snakes out there. I grabbed a rattler by his tail and threw him over the fence last month."
You grabbed a rattler bare-handed?
"Had to," he says. "My son was here visiting, so that bitch had to bounce out. ASAP."
Yes, of course, James Harrison grabs poisonous snakes and twirls them overhead with trumpets blaring. This is the man who seized Vince Young and dunked the Titans quarterback, all 230 pounds of him, headfirst into the turf like a cruller. This is the man who knocked two Cleveland Browns cold in the span of seven minutes last year and then baited Goodell with his postgame comments, saying he liked to "hurt" opponents. He amended that in the next breath, saying he tried to inflict pain without causing serious injury, but it sounded like lawyer-ese and was ignored.
He turns on his heel without further remark and disappears down the hall to get dressed. He's remarkably short for a bull-rush linebacker, going 6 feet (barely) without socks and cleats, but marvelously carved for a man of 250, with delts and calves like bocce balls and thunderous, smooth-shaved quads. (The only hair on Harrison is the pointy beard he's been trying to grow all spring. He's kept his skull bald since his sophomore year of high school, when he approached his opponents before a game, doffed his helmet to show his new-mown pate, and told them they were going to die that day.)
He comes back in a Nike tee and black mesh shorts that cover his shins. It's the getup he'll sport for the next three days, wearing it to steakhouses, where men in Brioni stare at him in pique, and to jewel-box bistros, where ladies who lunch glower at him over lobster salad. Harrison makes just under $9 million a year and has closets full of handmade, brightly colored suits that he wears when the mood arises. But in lily-white Scottsdale, where he barely knows a soul, he couldn't care less about the feelings of the local swells or their custom of donning socks to dine in public. My world, my terms, his outfit announces.
Which is another way of saying that Harrison – refreshingly – is the same guy off the field as on, working through an old and complicated grudge about being disrespected. Having to pay his way to college (and Kent State at that) after a brilliant but suspension-filled high school career; going undrafted as a pass-rush linebacker in '02 despite setting a school record for sacks in a season; and getting cut four times, three by the Steelers, in favor of players with far less strength and speed: That is jet fuel to him and always has been, the reason you can't get him to take a down off. Harrison, who played in agony last season with lower-back woes he didn't report (he never missed a series, let alone a start), had a discectomy after Pittsburgh's loss to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV, then flew here in March, three weeks post-surgery, to push like a madman with fitness guru Ian Danney. Six days a week, he is up at first light to train in Danney's sweatbox gym, running in hot sand pits and doing backward hurdles after giant leg-press sets. But he is back home by 10 am, and that leaves the rest of the day to text and tweet – and seethe over last season's insults. The fines, the flags, his branding as a thug: They try his soul long after the fact, trailing him to this posh but desolate place, where even the air burns and crackles.
"My rep is James Harrison, mean son of a bitch who loves hitting the hell out of people," he says. "But up until last year, there was no word of me being dirty – till Roger Goodell, who's a crook and a puppet, said I was the dirtiest player in the league. If that man was on fire and I had to piss to put him out, I wouldn't do it. I hate him and will never respect him."
Thus begins a three-day bonfire rant that burns far and wide before it stops, scorching the commissioner and his top assistants, the studio analysts at two networks, and the stars and franchises he most despises, none more than the New England Patriots. The diatribe is wildly impolitic and starts fights that no one needs, least of all Harrison. But along the way it says timely things about violence in the NFL and stops to consider, however tersely, the effect of all those hits upon himself. And that, more than anything – more than the grudges, the name-calling – makes Harrison worth hearing.
As far back as 1960, at least, when Chuck Bednarik, the cement-mixer linebacker of the Philadelphia Eagles, almost beheaded New York Giants flanker Frank Gifford with a blindside shot at midfield, we've indulged a certain hypocrisy regarding pro football's gilded mayhem. We know that players we've loved and lived through are damaged by the collisions, but we don't wring our hands or click the games off, as we've largely done with boxing. Instead, we cheer hits we can feel in our molars, playing the best back in our heads and on our laptops like backyard wrestling fanboys. We want it both ways, the blood and the beauty, and wouldn't have watched at record rates last year if all we were served was tiptoe catches by men falling out of bounds.
But as much as football thrives on seating us front row at a war, it's gotten a lot harder to ignore the fallen or to pretend that they bounce back up. The 2010 season was a relentless loop of avert-your-gaze hits, shattering all records for on-field concussions and season-ending shears of soft tissue (468 players placed on injured reserve, a 22 percent jump from 2009; 261 documented concussions, or almost 30 percent more than in 2008). One weekend last October, dubbed "Black-and-Blue Sunday," there were 11 men concussed, several of them severely, including two – Eagles wideout DeSean Jackson and his tackler, Atlanta's Dunta Robinson – knocked stiff on the same play. It was also the day that Harrison iced the two Browns, though neither hit was flagged by officials nor looked, through the prism of slow-motion replay, like a deliberate attempt to injure. Nonetheless, the league had a riot on its hands. The football press, which ducked the subject of concussions until it was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the conversation by a series of grim reports in the New York Times, erupted that week in righteous indignation, screaming, "Something must be done!" in zombie chorus. At his office in New York, Goodell gathered his senior staff to craft a stern response. Robinson and the Patriots' Brandon Meriweather were fined $50,000 each, an enormous leap from the usual toll of $4,000 to $10,000. And Harrison, who had never been fined more than $5,000, was charged $75,000 for his knockout hit on Cleveland receiver Mohamed Massaquoi.
Harrison, who was home getting a massage on his off day when the news came down about the fine (he learned of it via the crawl on ESPN), leapt off the table, apoplectic. "I lost it completely, said, 'Fuck y'all, I quit if you're gonna fine me that for a legal hit.' Spoke to my player rep and my agent, said, 'That's it, I'm done. What papers do I have to sign to retire today?' And if my agent hadn't have said, 'You'll have to pay back six mill,' I'd've been out the game and not looked back."
That last bit is hokum and Harrison knows it. He desperately loves football for its fireball explosions, the blood burn he gets from planting his right foot and blowing up the guy with the ball. It is all he's ever craved since he discovered at 10 that he could smash another kid as hard as he liked and not catch a whipping from his mother, Mildred. The only thing close to the joy he gets from hitting is the pleasure he takes in proving people wrong, none more than the suits in the NFL office. That is why he still boils over losing to Green Bay in last year's Super Bowl: He wanted so badly to mount the postgame podium, snatch the trophy from Roger Goodell, and tell him to his face, on national TV, exactly where to stick those fines. "I'd have whispered in his ear, 'Why don't you quit and do something else, like start your own league in flag football?'"
What incensed him, beyond the size of the deductions from his checks or the sense that he'd been bull's-eyed for his comments last October, was the notion, shared by many on the Steelers and other teams, that Goodell is blind to the sport's complexities, having never played college or professional ball. (Though, to be fair, what recent commissioner in any sport has?) When Harrison was summoned to league headquarters in November to meet with Goodell, NFL executive vice president Ray Anderson, and director of football operations Merton Hanks, he was made to watch a reel of his questionable hits plucked from four years as a starter. "They take 10 plays out of 4,000 snaps and want to know my thought process on each," he says. "What I tried to explain to Goodell, but he was too stupid to understand, is that dudes crouch when you go to hit them. With Massaquoi, my target area was his waist and chest, but he lowered himself at the last possible second and I couldn't adjust to his adjustment. But Goodell, who's a devil, ain't hearing that. Where's the damn discretion, the common sense?"
He goes on in cold fury, spitting curses and charges, none of which will earn him sympathy from the "devil" or endorsements for Double Stuf Oreos. "Faggot Goodell" (also described as a "punk" and "dictator" by Harrison), Anderson ("another dummy who never played a down"), and Hanks, a former Pro Bowl safety with the Niners ("he needs to be ashamed because he played D before, though he never was what you'd call a real hitter"), conspired, he says, to target the Steelers, who have "too much force, too much swag, and are predominantly black." Says Harrison: "We sent them a tape of 27 hits from games that following week – 27 hits like mine or worse – but none of 'em got flagged or fined. And what'd they say to us? Nothing, not a peep. So I guess they ain't fouls unless we do 'em." (Asked for comment on Harrison's claim that he and the Steelers are targeted, a league official said only, "There were 262 fines issued last season to players other than James Harrison for unnecessary roughness. Other than noting that fact, we do not wish to comment.")
There is more in this vein from Harrison, a great deal more, of which this is but a taste. "Clay Matthews, who's all hype – he had a couple of three-sack games in the first four weeks and was never heard from again – I'm quite sure I saw him put his helmet on Michael Vick and never paid a dime. But if I hit Peyton Manning or Tom Brady high, they'd have fucked around and kicked me out of the league." And: "I slammed Vince Young on his head and paid five grand, but just touched Drew Brees and that was 20. You think black players don't see this shit and lose all respect for Goodell?"
Such outbursts aside, though, his gripe isn't race; it's, rather, about the soul of the game. Football, as he's played it and the greats before him played it – the Lamberts and Nitschkes and, yes, Bednariks – has always been a crucible of force on force, big men bleeding for every yard, with the winners being the ones going the extra step: hitting harder, training longer, dying younger. The game lives by a code in which honor and pain are words that describe the same thing, and while the league – belatedly – is thinking long and hard about how to protect its players, there is no protecting them from themselves, at least by Harrison's lights. "I get dinged about three times a year and don't know where I am for a little minute. But unless I'm asleep, you're not getting me out of the game, and most guys feel the same way. If a guy has a choice of hitting me high or low, hit me in the head and I'll pay your fine. Just don't hit me in the knee, 'cause that's life-threatening. How'm I going to feed my family if I can't run?"
If you've been wondering why players hit higher than they used to, here's as good a reason as any. A concussion is, on average, a one-game injury, according to numbers kept by the league. But a torn medial collateral ligament is a season or more – and the NFL is the only major sport that refuses to guarantee contracts. Stack up the far-off prospect of brain damage against a voided $30 million, and most players will roll the dice on the former. "Guys tackle high now and are taught that way. We're not gonna change that up because you say so," says James Farrior, the Steelers' inside linebacker, a two-time Pro Bowler himself. If you're aiming higher, though, you're leading with your head, which courts the risk of helmet-to-helmet hits. But the Steelers don't want their players wrapping up low and letting the runner have forward progress. Says Harrison: "That's what we're told by Coach LeBeau – blow through the guy, not to him. When the fines came down, he said, 'Don't change a damn thing. You're doing it the way we do it on this team.'"
That would be Dick LeBeau, the Hall of Fame defensive coordinator who's as revered as any in the league. (When he was elected to Canton last year, every single member of the current Steelers flew in to hear his induction speech.) An elegant tackler in his day as a Pro Bowl corner for the Lions, LeBeau, like the man he works for, head coach Mike Tomlin, is a principled and heartful student of the game, not the least bit goony or fire-breathing. Though LeBeau couldn't be reached to confirm Harrison's version of what he told the team, his brand of Steeler football is to hit fiercely at full throttle, and only to the whistle, not beyond.
For the past four years, Harrison has embodied that ethos, a self-made star of the highest order. The very best linebackers excel at two of the three tasks that fall to their position. They rush the passer and stop the run, like the Packers' Clay Matthews and the Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware, but aren't especially useful in pass coverage. Or they defend the outlet throws (think Houston's Brian Cushing and San Francisco's Patrick Willis) but don't collapse the pocket with their blitzes. Harrison does all three and forces fumbles besides, knocking more balls out with his tomahawk strips than anyone since Derrick Thomas. "He's basically unblockable," says Ryan Clark, a Steelers safety. "Just watch him during a game: He's either making a play or being held by one or more guys." Harrison was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, when his numbers across the board (16 sacks, 101 tackles, and seven forced fumbles) were freak-show good, and he might have won the trophy again last year if his back hadn't seized and cost him power. He's a half-foot shorter than most of the tackles trying to block him, but gets tremendous leverage from his hips and quads, a drivetrain like no one else his size. "He's weight-room strong but super-strong in games, a lower body with insane amounts of pop," says Steve Saunders of Power Train Sports, Harrison's fitness guru in Pittsburgh. "Combine that with his upper body – he benches 500, close-grip – and James can move guys anywhere he wants."
One evening, after dinner, Harrison drives us to the airport to pick up Lisa Ripi, his massage therapist. Ripi, a petite but powerfully built woman (she was a professional bodybuilder in her 20s), has two of the most coveted hands in the NFL. Four dozen players, among them the Steelers' Farrior and the Giants' Brandon Jacobs and Osi Umenyiora, fly her around the country to treat them, expensively and out of their own pockets, to postgame or midweek massages. But none of her star clients – a roster that also includes celebrities like Adam Sandler and Russell Brand – is half so devoted as the one she's just come to see. Harrison brings her out for a week at a time, gets marathon rubdowns and acupuncture treatments, and pays her to run his house as well, cooking and dusting and folding. On this night, having flown five hours (in coach!) from New York City, she changes into short shorts, tidies his living room, then puts him on the table around midnight. It's quite the tableau vivant by his oversize bed: a pale blonde perched like a pilot bird on Harrison's naked rump, grunting and squeezing while Harrison tweets to his 50,000 followers on Twitter. Ripi works him like a heavy bag, driving elbows and knees into resistant knots, then hops off the table, unzips a case, and twists 200 needles into his back. Most human beings can stand a hundred; Harrison is annoyed there aren't more. "I need another row," he grunts, showing his scowl. Ripi, exhausted (it's well past 2 now, or 5 am Eastern time), sticks another hundred or so in. "Therapy whore," she says, draping a towel over his rear. It's not entirely clear that she means this kindly.
As much as Ripi sees him, she's just one of many people hired to keep Harrison going. He employs two personal trainers on a revolving basis; an active release therapist (don't ask – too arcane); and a homeopath to pump him with IV vitamins. He bought a hyperbaric chamber that he spends an hour a day in, taking enriched oxygen to speed the healing process after his savage workouts. Having waited five years, a lifetime in football, for his chance to become a starter, he works harder as an All-Pro – a great deal harder – than he did when he first broke in. "There are guys who are workaholics, and then there's James. Dudes hurt themselves training with him," says teammate Clark. While Reggie Bush IMs from a Vegas pool (or wherever he's tweeting the lockout), Harrison's doing spider crawls across a gym while pulling a stack of plates by a chain, and backing those up with power lunges, an 80-pound dumbbell in each hand. Come June, if there's a season, he'll add a second session a day, then tack on a third before camp.
Asked what, at 33 and fresh off surgery, still pushes him this hard, he harrumphs, "The money," then stops and thinks a moment. "Nah, it ain't that. I got plenty of money, and I'm much more careful how I spend it." (Harrison signed a six-year, $51 million extension after his monster season in '08.) Fumbling for an answer, he tries out "pride" but doesn't sound convinced of it. Likely as not, what drives him now is the fury that drove him as a boy, when, as the youngest of 14 kids in the house, he had some epic meltdowns. He punched holes in the walls when he lost video games, set fire to himself and an attic rug playing with lit matches and rubbing alcohol, and ran around shooting birds and squirrels in his yard in Akron, Ohio.
Oddly, he was the quiet one of six brothers and seven sisters, speaking to almost no one outside the family and sleeping with his parents till he was 12. "James was my baby, a mama's boy," says Mildred Harrison, who with her husband, James Sr., a retired trucker, still lives in the house where she raised her kids on a diet of love and sternness. Wielding a belt that she called Black Beauty – "My mom would come to school and whip us in class," says Harrison – she successfully saw each of her progeny through high school and on to stable jobs and college. Most of them settled within five or six blocks of her and travel, en masse, to Harrison's home games. "I haven't missed one in eight years," she says.
Somewhere in the process of dealing blunt-force lessons, Mildred taught her kids to come out swinging if bigger people pushed them around. This may have worked too well with Harrison. In high school, he tried to attack an assistant coach who bad-mouthed him to other players; told fans of a rival school to suck his dick after they shouted racial taunts during a game; and shot a kid in the butt with a BB gun, though to be fair, several teammates did it too. "He was the most physically tough player I've ever been around, but he had some anger problems off the field," says Mo Tipton, the now retired head coach at Coventry High School in Akron. "When Kent State called, I told them he'd be the best defensive player in the conference – if he was still on the team as a junior."
Harrison was suspended for the first two stunts and arrested and charged for the third offense before pleading to a misdemeanor. That almost killed his career before it started. The colleges that pursued him (Ohio State and Michigan State, among many) turned their backs, and even Kent State pulled its scholarship offer when he bombed his ACTs. If his parents hadn't borrowed money to send him there, he'd probably be driving a semi now and playing beer-league football. He repaid them by not going to class for a year, holed up with the video gameFinal Fantasy VII; it took Mildred showing up with a moving van to scare some sense into him. Harrison buckled down, earned dean's list grades, and became an All-Conference linebacker, sacking Ben Roethlisberger five times in a game against conference bullies Miami of Ohio.
But very few are drafted from the Mid-American Conference, and Harrison was lucky to snag a training camp deal with Pittsburgh in 2002. (Signing bonus: $4,000.) He showed up late, with a chip on his shoulder, and barely bothered to crack the complex playbook. "I thought he was straight crazy, had emotional issues. He'd stop in the middle of plays and say, 'Take me out,'" says Farrior. "You could see he was a beast, but he didn't like structure. He still doesn't, but takes it better."
After being cut four times in the span of two years (once by the Baltimore Ravens), Harrison was ready to chuck the game and set about earning his trucker's license. Then he caught a break. Clark Haggans, a Steelers linebacker, broke a hand while lifting weights, and Harrison got one last invite in '04. He came to camp burning to learn the blitzes and stayed up nights turning flash cards over and scribbling play cues on his wristbands. Harrison made the team as a special-teams monster, crushing kickoff returners (and the occasional fan who ran onfield) with pile-driving shots you have to YouTube. But the Steelers made him wait three years to start and thought so little of his long-term prospects that they took linebackers with their top two picks that spring. Properly insulted, Harrison came out blazing, taking apart the Ravens by himself that fall with one of the great Monday night jobs in history. (Three-and-a-half sacks and three forced fumbles, 10 tackles, one recovery, and an interception.) He was named the team MVP that '07 season and the league's best defender the following year, and became the (then) highest-paid linebacker in history in '09. He hasn't looked back since, except in anger. "There's a river," he reckons, "of people that want to cheat me."
"I should have another ring," he says, apropos of nothing as we drive back from lunch one scorching afternoon, the sun still a demon at 4 pm. "We were the best team in football in 2004, but the Patriots, who we beat during the regular season, stole our signals and picked up 90 percent of our blitzes" in the AFC title game. "They got busted for it later, but, hey, they're Goodell's boys, so he slapped 'em $500,000 and burned the tapes. Was he going to rescind their Super Bowls? – man, hell no!"
He's just getting started on the Pats. "I hate those motherfuckers," he says, "especially those two clowns who talked about me after the fines." He's referring to Rodney Harrison, the ex-Patriot turned analyst on NBC's Sunday Night Football, and Tedy Bruschi, another former Pat who appears on ESPN. "Sayin' I'm dirty – shit, Harrison was the dirtiest player ever, a steroid cheater who was known by the whole world to be a headhunter and late hitter. And Bruschi's an idiot, straight-up simple. I'd like to meet them both in a dark alley."
When Harrison gets going on one of these runs, there's no telling where he'll end up. He can be biting (and baiting) on a wide range of subjects: Ask him, at your peril, his views on gay marriage, which make Glenn Beck sound squishy; his position on spanking (he's for it, and how; his two young sons should try handing down fines); and if you ever get him going on gun control, better whip out your Kevlar notepad. (Harrison says the answer to campus shootings is to arm all the teachers and students.) But then, without prompting, he'll turn on a dime and offer a sober plank on player safety, saying the league should trim the season to 14 games, begin off-season training activities in May, not March, and cut training camp down to just a couple of weeks of one-a-day practices, not two. That way, he says, "we're not bangin' heads so much in August; that's where the brain trauma comes from."
There is less than no chance of any of this happening; the league is determined to add games, not cut them, and the union hasn't pushed to end two-a-days, though if it listened to its members, it would. Fewer hits to the head in camp would constitute major harm reduction, according to a recent study of college players by the National Institutes of Health; it found that a majority of concussions occurred during practice, not in actual games.
Harrison, for all his bluster, isn't heedless of the facts or the effect of all those hits on his long-range health. "When you hit a dude hard, you feel it, too, and the Steelers go at play-to-die speeds. But if, God forbid, I wind up having brain damage, so be it. That's something I'll have to deal with down the road."
He has three years left on his handsome contract, and if he's lucky enough, he says, to finish that out, he'll quit and turn to his new passion: real estate. With his partner, a veteran developer named Tom Janidas, he's building off-campus housing at two colleges in West Virginia, and has already put together an impressive portfolio, with many more units to come. "There's no ceiling for James in the real estate business; he's as shrewd and focused an athlete as I've met," says Janidas, who made a sizable fortune building malls and surgical centers. "I couldn't have cared less about his fame. I only take quick studies, and he's that." Harrison talks avidly about future projects and amassing his own major fortune, then buying a jet to show his sons the world, taking them "wherever they have running water."
He lives with the boys' mother, a lawyer named Beth Tibbot, though they have no plans to marry. In 2008 he was arrested for domestic assault after a fight over their oldest son's baptism. (She opposed it, but Harrison insisted. He wanted his sons, he says, "to know God.") He broke down the door Tibbot had locked herself behind, shattered the phone she'd used to call the cops, and hit her in the face with an open hand. Harrison, to his credit, quickly copped to what he did, and the charges went away after he took anger-management classes, the success of which you can judge for yourself.
Because it remains an open question for him: Can he catalyze the rage he plays the game with, hitting high and hard but within the rules, while preventing it from leaking into his life? One morning, driving back home in his giant SUV, he got going on the long list of players who piss him off, including Houston's Brian Cushing, suspended last season for doping: "That boy is juiced out of his mind." Then he laid down fire on some of his friends in black-and-gold, calling Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenall a "fumble machine" for getting stripped by Matthews in the Super Bowl, a late-game flub that stopped the Steelers cold on their drive for a go-ahead score, and groaning about Roethlisberger's fecklessness, including two bonehead interceptions that day. "Hey, at least throw a pick on their side of the field instead of asking the D to bail you out again. Or hand the ball off and stop trying to act like Peyton Manning. You ain't that and you know it, man; you just get paid like he does."
There's more of this stuff. His near-punchout of Bruce Arians, the Steelers' offensive coordinator, during an altercation in practice; and his ambiguous take on Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh's sanctified safety: "He's the one guy in football I respect absolutely, 'cause he's spiritual and lives it like he talks it. You know, he gets more flags than anyone on our team but never gets fined for nothin'. He's so polite and talks so softly that he could tell Goodell to kiss his ass, and Goodell would smile and say thank you."
But for now, at least, Harrison's probably said enough. He doesn't need invective to make his point that he plays a savage game and that any attempts to childproof the sport will be met with fierce resistance. The players are so big now, so fast and so fit, that no fines, however stiff, or threats of suspension can keep them from hurting one another. At some point in the future, the keepers of the kingdom will have a decision to make: either drastically rewrite the sport's DNA (outlaw tackling above the waist, say, and impose weight limits) or watch it die in flames like ancient Rome. For now, though, these men are our gladiators, and horrified or not, we throng the coliseums, hoisting two thumbs merrily in the air.