As the NFL's defensive player of the year, James Harrison has no fear. As someone forced to fly across country, that's another story.
Harrison did not list his fear of flying among the reasons for turning down a trip to visit the White House and President Barack Obama tomorrow. But a well-placed source said he believes that is what will keep the Steelers linebacker home while his teammates make the short hop to Washington.
The source described Harrison as a "wreck" when he must take team flights during the season and avoids plane rides when he can.
"Yeah, there's a lot of truth to that," confirmed Bill Parise, Harrison's agent. "When James was in college, his mother had to drive him to all the away games. That's the absolute truth. The transition for him into the NFL was real difficult at first.
"He can get on airplanes and fly, obviously, but he doesn't like to."
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Of course, Harrison could make the eight-hour round trip from Pittsburgh to the nation's capital by car, but obviously is unwilling to go that road, either.
"Let me ask you a question," Harrison asked reporters who greeted him coming off the practice field yesterday. "Why is it a big issue now that I'm not going if it wasn't a big issue the last time?"
Harrison, a backup linebacker for the Steelers when they won Super Bowl XL, did not join his teammates three years ago when they visited President George W. Bush.
However, Harrison's stature has changed since then. He's a two-time Pro Bowl linebacker and the NFL defensive player of 2008, and his 100-yard touchdown with an interception in Super Bowl XLIII was the longest play in that game's history.
"Hey, James ain't changed," he responded. "I guess my profile did, but I didn't change. I'm not going because I don't want to go."
Harrison added, seemingly in a joking manner, that the White House is not in the safest area of Washington.
"It's not a good neighborhood over there, either," he said. "It's a bad neighborhood."
Harrison said he was surprised by the reaction to his declining an offer to visit the White House. "They're making a big deal out of this: 'Oh, my, James Harrison is not going to the White House; he must be a devil worshipper!' "
He said he will remain in Pittsburgh tomorrow to "work out, run, get ready."
No teammate faulted Harrison for skipping what most consider an honor that goes with winning the Super Bowl.
"Oh, man, he really didn't want to go anyway," said fellow linebacker James Farrior, the Steelers' defensive captain. "He didn't go the last time and nobody made a big deal about it. I think if he would have kept his mouth shut nobody would have noticed it this time, either."
But Farrior understood that all the attention comes with the new territory for Harrison.
"When you have the defensive player of the year, he's going to get a lot of attention.So whatever he says, people are going to listen," said Farrior.
He said the Steelers have plans to visit wounded military personnel at Walter Reed Army Medical Center as they did on their previous White House trip.
"It's good to go visit the troops and visit the guys who are helping this country and keeping our freedom," Farrior said. "I told [Harrison] if we go visit the troops in the hospital he has to make his own trip by himself to go out there, and he said that he would."
As for Farrior's feeling about the trip, he said: "It's always an honor to go visit the White House and visit the president. I'll be happy about it."
Harrison had questioned why the Steelers had to win a Super Bowl to be invited, but tight end Matt Spaeth said that is one of the spoils of a championship.
"This is one of those things not many people get an opportunity to do," said Spaeth, who was not on the Super Bowl XL champions. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Winning the Super Bowl is special, and this is one among the many reasons why it is.
"I think it's a pretty cool deal."
NOTES -- Outside linebacker Bruce Davis has switched numbers, wearing Larry Foote's vacated No. 50. Davis wore No. 53 as a seldom-used rookie last season. ... Safeties Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu were among those absent as the Steelers took the field for voluntary workouts for the first time since their minicamp more than two weeks earlier. Polamalu has said he will train on the West Coast again. Clark is recovering from shoulder surgery.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published May 20, 2009 4:15 AM