Confessions of an NFL Hitman
Harrison, photographed at home with his own guns — an FN Five-Seven pistol and a Smith & Wesson 460V revolver.
Credit: Nathaniel Welch
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."