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
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."