Steelers: James Harrison deserves a champion’s retirement

Jan 17, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison (92) walks off the field after a loss against the Denver Broncos during the third quarter of the AFC Divisional round playoff game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 17, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison (92) walks off the field after a loss against the Denver Broncos during the third quarter of the AFC Divisional round playoff game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports /

Throughout the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ storied franchise, many of its greatest athletes have left the NFL on the most unceremonious of terms.

Terry Bradshaw, who led the Steelers’ offense to four Super Bowl victories during the 1970’s, spent his final year in the league watching from the sidelines during the 1983 season due to an injured elbow on his throwing arm. He would retire following the Steelers’ loss to the Raiders in the ’83 divisional round of the playoffs.

Most recently, the careers of modern Steelers’ heroes such as Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu came to a halt without the glitz and glamour expected for the careers the two of them had in Pittsburgh.

For Ward, a new regime of wide receivers made him the odd man out after the 2011 season, while it became unbearably noticeable that Polamalu became a liability in a secondary that was not without its many issues. This ultimately lead to his retirement before the start of the 2015 season.

Perhaps the most memorable retirement in Steelers’ history came at the end of Super Bowl XL, when running back Jerome Bettis announced, with Lombardi trophy in hand, that he had played in the final game of his career. It was a fitting end for an athlete that put everything on the line in his ten years in Pittsburgh to help ensure the Steelers obtained their fifth championship title.

Now, over a decade since Bettis hung up his cleats, another iconic member of the Steelers’ organization is nearing the end of his illustrious career. A career built on the inability to give up, tireless devotion to keeping his body in peak physical condition, devastating hits on his opponents, and controversy.

Of course, it is the career of none other than outside linebacker James Harrison.

Harrison’s journey to becoming one of the most feared linebackers in Steelers’ history is a well documented one. From going undrafted out of Kent State in 2002, being cut by the Steelers multiple times, his stint in NFL Europe, to finally making the Steelers’ final roster in the 2004 season.

The linebacker who was considered to be undersized by many continued to make play after play for the Steelers’ defense as the years went by. He earned Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2008, his best year as a professional, en route to Super Bowl XLIII where his interception in the waning seconds of the first half helped the Steelers’ secure their sixth Lombardi trophy.

Six years later, after a stint with the Cincinnati Bengals, he nearly faced the fate of many Steelers’ greats before him when he announced his retirement in September of 2014. Three weeks later, Jarvis Jones‘ dislocated wrist would send the Steelers calling, bringing Harrison out of retirement for a season where he recorded 5.5 sacks, and was Pittsburgh’s best pass rusher once again.

Even with Jones’ return in 2015 and the drafting of Bud Dupree, Harrison was still a major asset to the Steelers’ linebacker corps. After struggling with the decision to remain in Pittsburgh or join his former defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, in Tennessee, Harrison remained in the city where he made a name for himself.

Harrison led all Steelers’ linebackers in sacks last season with a total of five. Three of those came in week thirteen where he demolished the Indianapolis Colts’ offensive line and made Matt Hasselbeck‘s time under center a living nightmare. He played a pivotal role in the Steelers’ playoff run where he recorded two sacks in two games.

Talks of retirement once again loomed after the Steelers’ loss to the Denver Broncos early this year, and who could blame him? Even Bettis was ready to hang up his cleats after losing to the New England Patriots in the 2004 AFC championship game. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger convinced him to come back for one more year, and it payed off for him.

Harrison would need convincing from no one to return for his thirteenth season in a Steelers’ uniform. It was announced in February by Harrison’s agent, Bill Parise,  that he would return in 2016 by stating: “He’s under contract for one more year. We plan to honor that.”  

The thirty-eight year old linebacker will play a similar role to the one Bettis played behind Willie Parker in the final season of his career. Harrison appeared in 55% of snaps played in 2015, and that number is expected to stay the same, or lessen, as the Steelers attempt to determine if Jones is worthy of a new contract after 2016 and begin readying Dupree as the eventual leader of the linebacker corps.

No matter the outcome of Harrison’s 2016 campaign, he deserves to retire a champion. With perhaps the best offense in the league and a defense that is steadily gaining its footing after a couple of seasons in distress, it is very possible that could happen. What better way to truly end his career by defying father time and proving that age cannot limit the determination to succeed?

Not only does Harrison have the chance to retire with a third Super Bowl ring on his resume’, but he is only three sacks away from claiming the Steelers’ all-time sack record set by Jason Gildon in 2003. While he already has a career worthy of being enshrined into the halls of Canton, Ohio, achieving these feats would only add to his chances of eventually donning a golden jacket.

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James Harrison will forever be a legend within the city of Pittsburgh. He could have easily declined the Steelers’ request to return in 2014 and lived out the rest of his life as a family man, but the call of success brought him back into the fold. He can make his case as greatest linebacker in Steelers’ history by doing what so many before him failed to do: Go out a champion.