The local area – not just Northeast Ohio or even Greater Akron-Canton, but rather the small group of communities that make up the coverage boundaries of The Suburbanite – have a real, legitimate stake in Super Bowl 52 on Sunday night between the defending champion New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles.
It comes in the person of Coventry High School graduate James Harrison. But it’s no longer as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, with whom he played parts of 14 seasons and won two Super Bowls, but rather as an outside linebacker/pass-rushing specialist with the arch-rival Patriots.
In typical Harrison fashion, he is taking the road less traveled. He is doing it his way. He is defying the odds. He is proving wrong those people who have doubted him.
Signing with the Patriots just a little more than a month ago, on Dec. 26, three days after he was released by the Steelers because they thought he was washed up, has re-invigorated Harrison.
He knows he can still play and said so all this season when he languished on the bench with Pittsburgh behind younger players. He publicly made it clear when he signed with New England what he thought – not much of all, and none of it good -- of the Steelers’ actions, their treatment of him, their lack of faith in him.
Despite being 39 years old, way past the age when position players in the NFL retire, he knew he could still play – and can still play, beyond this season, he says – and proved it when his pressure on Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles helped force an interception late in the AFC Championship Game that helped the Patriots preserve an improbable, come-from-behind 24-20 victory.
It was supposed to be Pittsburgh and New England playing in the AFC title game. All season long, that’s what everybody thought. That’s what everybody predicted. But the Harrison-less Steelers didn’t even make it that far, being stunned – at home, no less – by the Jaguars in the divisional round.
So while the Steelers are sitting home, Harrison is in the Super Bowl with the Patriots.
Don’t doubt for a minute how much he relishes that "gotcha" moment in regards to Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin, who thought Harrison was done and refused to play him all year. It will be one of those, "Hey, Coach, how do I look from here?" stares as he stands on the field in Minneapolis on Sunday night ready to help the Patriots win a Super Bowl trophy that the Steelers won’t get.
But Harrison almost didn’t make it to college, let alone to the NFL and a long, outstanding career highlighted by Super Bowl appearances where he turned in some of his best performances on the game’s grandest stage. When he was finishing up his standout career at Coventry two decades ago, some well-documented incidents blocked his path and ended the interest of big-time schools like Michigan and Nebraska. The incidents included challenging a Comets assistant coach to a fight on the sideline during a game, shooting a BB gun at a Coventry assistant coach in the locker room and making an obscene gesture to opposing fans at Tusky Valley when he had been ejected from the game following a late hit and was being escorted off the field.
Gary Hutt, a longtime high school football coach in the area who served at a bunch of schools, including at Coventry from 1994-2012, became a mentor to Harrison during his three years with the Comets after he played his freshman season at Hoban before transferring. Harrison doesn’t have a big sphere of close friends, people he trusts.
"James has often said that if you have more friends than fingers, you have too many friends," Hutt said with a laugh from his home just south of Myrtle Beach, S.C., where he moved two years ago with his mother to assist with her declining health (she died a week ago, just hours before this interview).
Hutt is in that small circle. When Harrison celebrates his birthday every two years with a big party in Akron, Huff is invited and goes.
"I wasn’t a father figure to James – his dad, who died a couple years ago, was that – but he learned to trust me because he realized that I knew football and could him help him develop as a player, and he knew that while I would tell him when he made a mistake and wouldn’t condone it and wouldn’t defend it, I never yelled at him. I would have always have his back."
That’s what you would expect from a man who, when he was an assistant at Canton McKinley, was called "a player’s coach by both head coach Spider Miller and two-time All-Ohio cornerback Reggie Corner, who went on to play at the University of Akron and for the Buffalo Bills.
A player’s coach is what – and who – Harrison needed at that point in his life.
The talent was there. Harrison could play when he arrived at Coventry as a sophomore in 1995.
"He was man among boys," said Hutt, now 61. "He played not only defense for us, but also running back. He had 385 yards and six touchdowns on 18 carries in one game. He was our punter, too, averaging 30 yards a kick. Sometimes he would decide to fake the kick and take off and run if they didn’t rush him. He’d get 20, 30 yards. No one could tackle him. Anything we gave him to do, he could do.
But where Hutt did his best work with Harrison was off the field, nurturing him as he was growing as a player and as a young man during those formative years. Harrison, who lived near Buchtel High School, was the first African-American football player in Coventry history. And he was also one of the first African-American players, if not the first, in the history of the Principals Athletic Conference, the league in which Coventry played at a time. It wasn’t easy at times breaking down those barriers.
"Did James make mistakes in all of those incidents? Yes, of course he did, and he knows it. I told him so at the time, and so did others," Hutt said. "But there were other parts of those stories that never got told.
"Like the BB gun incident. There was a white player involved in that. But nothing happened to him. Was that fair? I don’t think so.
"And in that game down at Tusky Valley, their fans were yelling the N-word at James the whole game. I know that for a fact. I was down on the sideline. I heard every bit of it.
"When he hit their kid out of bounds, should he have been flagged? Should he have gotten a personal foul? Yes, of course. But did he deserve to get thrown out of the game? No, not at all.
"I drove to all the away games because I always took my two sons with me. So I took James home from there that night. I ended up driving him a lot of times from practices and games.
"When he got to our sideline, I remember asking him, ‘What happened? What were you thinking?’ He told me, ‘I don’t know.’
"James made mistakes. Just like a lot of high school boys, he did things he shouldn’t have. But the important thing is that he learned from those mistakes and turned himself around."
Let’s be honest, though. If you’re a young guy like Harrison, you don’t see anyone else who looks like you and adults are calling you derogatory names that dig into your soul and your ancestry, can we really blame you all that much for fighting back?
I think not.
But that’s ancient history.
As good as Harrison was at Coventry, Hutt wonders just how much better he could have been had he worked at football.
"We couldn’t get him in the weight room back in high school, but now he lives in the weight room," Hutt said. "The way he strengthens himself and conditions himself and takes care of his body by working with three different doctors, is what has allowed him to play so long."
But that journey almost never happened. When the big schools quit recruiting him, Harrison, wanting to stay in football and without a viable alternative then as a player, took a job as an assistant to Cyle Feldman when the Comets assistant left to become the head coach at Ravenna High School.
Harrison stayed a season there and, needing a job, was ready to start the training to become a Metro bus driver in Akron. In Pittsburgh, they already had "The Bus" by that time in running back Jerome Bettis. Would Harrison have become "The Bus Driver?" We’ll never know.
"Can you imagine somebody getting on a bus and seeing James, with that shaved head and scowl, looking back at them from the driver’s seat?" Huff said with a laugh.
It never came to that. In being at Ravenna, Harrison was able to network and get a walk-on invitation just down the road at Kent State. It was the break he needed, as he earned a scholarship and became a star with the Flashes even though, at just 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, 25 pounds heavier than when he came out of Coventry, he was hardly the prototypical size to play as a Division I linebacker.
But despite more success at another level, Harrison didn’t get picked in the NFL Draft. Again, his size – or lack thereof – worked against him. And again, he refused to believe his career was over, spending time on the practice squad of the Steelers for two years. Rival Baltimore signed him in late 2003 and sent him to the Rhein Fire of NFL Europe, but the Ravens eventually cut him. He then re-signed with Pittsburgh in 2004 and got the last big break – literally and figuratively – he needed when veteran linebacker Clark Haggans broke his hand. Harrison stepped in for him and rose to stardom.
Almost a decade and a half later, after almost everybody on that 2004 Steelers team – and just about everybody else playing in the NFL then - has retired, he’s still going strong.
As Manchester head coach Jim France, who coached against Harrison, said, "He’s probably going to get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame."
Hutt added, "Let me be clear on this, James Harrison is a tremendous example for young people not just in football, but all walks of life, really. He has shown that if you’re willing to work hard enough, if you’re willing to believe in yourself and if you’re willing to learn from your mistakes, you can accomplish just about anything."