One of the people I talked to for a feature story on 1998 Coventry High School graduate James Harrison playing in last season’s Super Bowl was Jim France.
The longtime Manchester High School head football coach, whose opinion I really respect, coached against Harrison in the 1990s and talked about a great touchdown run he made against the Panthers while playing running back, going past, over and through defenders. When France, who isn’t one to give praise – especially high praise – when it’s not deserved, finished the story, he said in a matter-of-fact fashion that Harrison would be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame someday.
"He certainly deserves it, in my opinion," France said.
That really opened my eyes. I knew that Harrison had long been a great player, but, for whatever reason, I never thought of him as a Hall of Famer. It’s not that I think he was underserving of it, but rather it was just that I never thought about his worthiness for the Hall.
Now when I do, he is certainly deserving of strong consideration, in the very least, and, in my opinion, he should be in there someday sooner rather than later. He was simply that good, that impactful, that much of a game changer, and he did so on grand stages for great teams.
With the Hall having inducted its 2018 class last week, it’s a good time to take a look at Harrison, now 40.
Harrison, who played collegiately at Kent State, which retired his No. 16 and named its fieldhouse in his honor, spent 15 years in the NFL, mostly in three different stints with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but also with the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots, for whom he played in the Super Bowl before retiring – this time for good.
He finished with 794 tackles, 84.5 sacks. 34 forced fumbles, eight fumble recoveries, eight interceptions and one defensive TD.
Those numbers are impressive, and so is the fact that Harrison was:
- A two-time Super Bowl champion.
- A five-time Pro Bowler.
- A two-time first-team All-Pro.
- A two-time second-team All-Pro.
- And the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2008.
Not bad – certainly not bad at all – for a guy who didn’t have tremendous size (he was just 6-foot and 242 pounds) or speed but more than made up for it by knowing how to play the game and having a tremendous drive to prove wrong anyone who had ever doubted him at any stage of his career, going all the way back to his days with the Comets 20-some-odd years ago when he was one of the first African Americans to ever play football for the school.
But beyond all the awards and statistics, how was Harrison looked upon by those who watched him play, especially those from other NFL cities, and specifically those in the AFC North, where he spent almost all of his career?
One such observer is longtime Cleveland Browns radio play-by-play announcer Jim Donovan, whose called games against Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati twice a year, every year, throughout Harrison’s career.
"Oh, I definitely think he belongs in the Hall of Fame," Donovan said. "When I think of the guys that Pittsburgh has had over the years who are tough as nails and come off the edge to disrupt plays and sack the quarterback, I think of James Harrison. When I think of the one guy on the Pittsburgh defense that opposing offensive coordinators had to be aware of on every single play, I think of James Harrison.
"He had so many huge games against the Browns. He was always affecting those games."
The truth is, James Harrison did it not just to the Browns, but to every team.
And that’s why he has a chance to go into the Hall when he becomes eligible after sitting out five seasons, which would be 2023.