Steelers' Harrison spins new deal into incentive to do better

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The first time the Steelers signed James Harrison, they got him for a $5,000 signing bonus. Then they cut him, then cut him again, then cut him again.

Baltimore, another NFL team known for its great linebacker play, did not want to be outdone, so they too signed and cut him.

Yesterday, Harrison wore a dark brown suit that would have cut heavily into his first signing bonus. That's more like tip money for him now as the Steelers formally announced his six-year contract (he counts $6.2 million against their salary cap this year) that will pay him a signing bonus of $10 million, or 2,000 times his first as a pro.

And he intends to collect on the full $51,175,000 of the six-year contract, even though he will be 37 at its conclusion.

"I think I can play all six, maybe a little more," Harrison said.

And maybe play a little better, if that's possible. He made the Pro Bowl his first season as a starter at right outside linebacker in 2007. He was NFL defensive player of the year in '08 and was voted by his teammates as their MVP for a second consecutive year. Along the way, he set the team's sack record with 16, then turned in what has been called the best defensive play in Super Bowl history when he returned an interception 100 yards for the longest touchdown in the game's 43 years.

Bill Parise, his agent from the Beaver County township of Rochester, admitted that Harrison's play the past two seasons helped to offset his age. As Parise put it, "If you look at history ... the Steelers do not sign 30-year-old linebackers, certainly not to an unprecedented agreement. It was a major factor, and I think James' performance was the overshadowing criteria that helped us succeed."

The Steelers could have forced Harrison to play the final year of his old contract at $1.4 million, then made him the franchise player for 2010, keeping him until he turned 33. And it was not so much a reward for playing at such a high level for relatively low pay the past two years, but the Steelers' belief he can continue to do so.

"I don't feel like I have totally peaked," Harrison said. "I feel like I can get better at some things that I have seen on tape that I did last year that I feel I can do better this year."

Harrison has been driven in part by the rejections that began when he was not drafted out of Kent State in 2002 and signed with the Steelers as an undersized, 6-foot linebacker. That size now is seen as an asset as he gains leverage on taller tackles.

So, how will he perform now that he has what his agent termed the largest contract over five years of any NFL linebacker?

"There is not anything that I think I will approach differently," Harrison said. "I will just be a little more reckless on the field because I don't have to worry about too much anymore."

He smiled after that last tongue-in-cheek comment. It's hard to imagine Harrison playing the game in a more reckless manner.

"I want to make them proud and not let them down," he said of the Steelers. "I don't want them to feel like they gave me this money and now I'm going to go out and not perform. That is what is going to drive me."

NOTES -- Center Max Unger of Oregon, cornerback Vontae Davis of Illinois, defensive tackles Dorell Scott of Clemson and Sammie Lee Hill of Stillman, and guard Louis Vasquez of Texas Tech visited the Steelers yesterday as draft preparations continued.

Ed Bouchette can be reached at .


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