On the Steelers: Too Mean, Too Hard, Too Good
James Harrison came by his tough-guy reputation honestly. He transferred from one high school to another, got kicked out of that one, and twice was suspended from the football team of his third school.
As a freshman, a 12th-grader hassled him in the school hallway, and Harrison reared back and punched him in the face, knocking him straight into the hospital.
At age 12, James sped down the highway at 75 mph behind the wheel of his dad's Ford Escort when his father, asleep in the passenger seat, woke up. "He told me I shouldn't be speeding," Harrison said, "so I told him I was following the flow of traffic, just like he said." His father nodded and went back to sleep.
If you think Harrison's hits on a football field are hard, you should hear about his childhood. Harrison's early years growing up in Akron, Ohio, are the most gripping part of his new biography, "Never Give Up." Author Bill Moushey, with Harrison's agent Bill Parise, turns Harrison's compelling story into a good book with a cherry on top -- their subject winning NFL defensive player of the year and then making a historic, game-changing play to help the Steelers win the Super Bowl. "It's the greatest single defensive play in Super Bowl history," his coach, Dick LeBeau, states flatly.
Most Steelers fans know the inside and out of the latter, although you will still find inside tidbits here; his youthful years, though, are the ones you will most remember. First mined in a chapter in Jim Wexell's fine book, "Steeler Nation," Moushey has the advantage of devoting more print to Harrison's Akron years, and it is well done.
Through a combination of an aunt's murder and his parents' combined broods from previous marriages and their own, Harrison had 21 siblings. Together, they could field an offense and a defense without anyone playing two ways.
"I was very stern, believed in discipline," his mother, Mildred, said.
Throughout the book, Harrison displays his mother's influence, particularly her advice that "if somebody messes with you, you defend yourself. You don't go out and look for trouble, but if trouble comes to you, you don't run." That, and his intrinsic truth-telling nature, sometimes either got him into trouble or did not get him out of it.
Many pro athletes can point to their bad-child-turned-good stories about maturing and finding a way. Jerome Bettis wrote in his book about selling drugs on a street corner as a kid.
One difference with Harrison that "Never Give Up" brings out is that this was not a bad kid but a good one who would not back down, including the racism he experienced in attending lily-white schools and from opponents. After influential white parents pressed for charges against him, he took the fall for a BB-gun prank that went awry among teammates in the locker room.
"I've broken murderers and killers, and I'm going to break you, too," the cop interrogating the high school senior threatened him.
Moushey, Parise and Harrison do not sidestep difficult stories from the player's past nor his most recent experiences. Harrison tackles them head-on as he would a halfback. They include his honest admission of his domestic-abuse case, his refusal to travel to the White House, the almost tragic attack by his pit bull on his infant son, the reasons big-time recruiters were scared off during his senior season in high school and more.
It's not all nitty-gritty. There is humor and there is triumph throughout the book. Both occurred in one instance when Drew Brees, now the NFL passing dandy with the New Orleans Saints, chastised Harrison when Brees' Purdue team played Harrison's Kent State. Brees told Harrison his tough play could injure him and keep him from going high in the NFL draft.
"I told him as far as I was concerned, the only place he was going was on the ground," Harrison said.
You also will find interesting the dichotomy of Harrison's tough-guy image contrasted by his shyness, his fear of flying and the kinds of tattoos he wears on his arms and chest.
Want more? Buy the book. It should be in all the bookstores by now, in Giant Eagles and at www.jamesharrisonnevergiveup.com.
First Published November 1, 2009 12:00 am