James Harrison made his return to Heinz Field after a controversial break-up with the Pittsburgh Steelers organization. Has the city forgiven Harrison?
Break-ups are always tough.
Especially when it comes to our sports teams, and especially in a city like Pittsburgh, where religion takes form in the colors of black and gold. The people of Pittsburgh take great pride in their sports teams, thanks in part to how the special relationship of the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins have been intertwined with family history.
So it’s no surprise that when a player leaves Pittsburgh to see if the grass is greener on the other side, fans take it personally. It happened when Mike Wallace chose to chase the money over staying in the steel city, and we are witnessing it happen with Le’Veon Bell’s current situation.
Yet no situation was quite as unique as James Harrison’s. Harrison, the un-drafted rookie free agent that turned out to be one of the best pass-rushers in his prime, was beloved by Pittsburgh during their Super Bowl run during the 2008 season, recording a franchise record 16 sacks on his way to earning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Of course, what he is remembered for most is the 100 yard interception return on the last play of the first half of Super Bowl XLIII, as the Steelers went on to win their sixth Super Bowl 27-23 over the Arizona Cardinals.
Following that moment, the legacy of James Harrison had been sealed. He was a hard-working guy that wasn’t handed anything in life, and had to earn everything along the way. Those lessons resonate with a blue-collar city like Pittsburgh, and thus Harrison had become synonymous with the Steelers franchise. Whether it be the aura of his nickname “Deebo” or the hard-hitting, brutally honest style of Harrison (pretty much told Roger Goodell to take a hike, won’t let his kids have participation trophies) Steelers fans loved having #92 on the field.
Yet as we know in life, things change. Nothing is permanent, and Harrison’s role was no exception. After the Steelers started a youth movement on defense and drafted two outside linebackers in Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt, Harrison’s role with the team began to diminish in 2017… quickly.
So much to the point where Harrison was virtually out of games, even not being dressed on some occasions by the coaching staff in order to get the likes of Dupree/Watt playing time. Harrison grew increasingly frustrated with the team, after being told his role would be prominent. What ensued was Harrison making his frustrations known publicly, and later being released.
The next step, however, was perhaps the closest thing to treason in Pittsburgh. In 2013, Harrison signed with division rival Cincinnati for a season before returning to the Steelers. This time around, Harrison joined the NFL equivalent of the dark side from Star Wars: The New England Patriots.
The backlash received from Steelers fans was second to none. Harrison’s legacy was officially set to fire and shipped away to sea, much like a Viking funeral. Jerseys were burned, teammates made comments, and per usual, social media played host to the feelings of the public.
It wasn’t just Harrison leaving, nor was it merely joining the Patriots. It was about one thing: Timing. The Steelers released Harrison per his request on December 23rd. On December 26th, Harrison joined the Patriots for a mere $58,234. What bothered Steelers fans the most? New England, a franchise that has dominated them since the turn of the millennium, was again one of the top teams in the AFC and another showdown was all but certain in the playoffs.
Harrison joined quite possibly the Steelers most-despised rival, before the playoffs, for minimal amount of money with loads of inside information. In the eyes of Pittsburgh, Harrison was a modern Benedict Arnold with shoulder pads.
Fast forward to the end of the season, and Harrison’s goal of playing/winning a championship was ruined by the underdog Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl. The Eagles had won, yet the image of Harrison walking through a storm of confetti empty-handed was nearly the equivalent of a championship for Steelers fans. In the off-season, Harrison retired for a second time, having his played his last snap against a franchise that he himself once hated in unison with Pittsburgh.
"“I should have another ring. 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” Harrison told Men’s Journal. “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!”“I hate those (expletives)…”"
Pittsburgh is a city that takes great pride in its past, and this season is the ten-year anniversary of the 2008 Super Bowl team that Harrison had such a huge part of. The reunion of the team was to be celebrated this past weekend at halftime when the Los Angeles Chargers came to town. The availability of Harrison was indeed in question, as his relationship and feelings towards the team/city were unclear.
More importantly, how would Steelers fans receive him? For a city that takes great pride in its past, would they be able to celebrate alongside Harrison? This was a heavy question running into Sunday’s game, and the answer would be found when the team was introduced one-by-one.
Harrison’s introduction was followed by a loud roar from the crowd. For the first time in what felt like an eternity, Harrison’s name was in a bright light in Pittsburgh, raising the ultimate question:
Have Steelers fans forgiven Harrison?
The reaction from the video certainly leads us to believe the relationship between Steelers fans and Harrison is back on good terms, or at least in the process of healing. As Jerry Seinfield once said, sports fans essentially cheer for laundry. The players come and go, but the uniform stays. Harrison is just another player in the long line of those to strap on the black and gold, yet his legacy remains heavily decorated with hard hits, sacks, and most importantly: Championships.
So, Steelers fans, I believe it is indeed time to put the events of last season in the past. Harrison has contributed far too much to this franchise to have his legacy still tainted, even if he did jump ship to the sworn enemy of the black and gold. While most fans have come to this realization, there will always be those who refuse to forgive Harrison, and that’s okay.
Just don’t ask Deebo for your bike back.