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
"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.