These days New England Patriots strong safety Rodney Harrison finds that revenge is best served cold, with a touch of self-control. Against Tennessee on Oct. 5 the 31-year-old Harrison was driven to the ground by a block from Titans left tackle Brad Hopkins, who, according to Harrison, punctuated the play by jamming a forearm against his throat. Three months later, in the teams' rematch in the AFC divisional playoffs, Harrison got even. On Tennessee's fifth play last Saturday, he steamed through a block and met Hopkins head-on. "I was looking for revenge, but I was determined it would be a clean hit," says Harrison, who had a reputation for being a dirty player before arriving in New England this season. "I looked him right in the eye." Harrison's right forearm smashed into Hopkins's sternum, flattening the bigger man.
"Got you back," Harrison said to Hopkins, careful to avoid the appearance of taunting, which would have resulted in a 15-yard penalty. "You're 320 [pounds]. I'm 215. How do you like that?"
In the relative quiet of the New England locker room after the Pats' 17-14 victory over Tennessee, Harrison broke into a wide grin. "I'll tell you what I'm pretty proud of," he said. "In the last eight games of the [regular] season, and tonight, I've had zero penalties. I think I'm the same guy, playing the same hard-nosed game, but with age comes maturity."
Harrison has been a key figure in the Patriots' drive to their third AFC Championship Game in the past eight years, and in- 11� wind chill against Tennessee he made two pivotal plays. Late in the first quarter Harrison nudged Titans tight end Shad Meier with an elbow, knocking him off his route, and made an interception that helped set up the Patriots' second touchdown. Then, on Tennessee's last play from scrimmage, a fourth-and-12 from the New England 42, Harrison blitzed for the seventh time in the game, forcing quarterback Steve McNair to throw early—a split second before Harrison leveled him. McNair's deep lob was underthrown and dropped by wideout Drew Bennett. "Tonight," Harrison said, "just continues the most enjoyable year I've had in pro football."
After nine seasons with the San Diego Chargers, Harrison landed in New England last March and was determined to do two things: play for a winner and clean up his tarnished reputation. Harrison had been fined some $300,000 during his career for flagrant or questionable hits, including a $111,764 fine and one-game suspension last season for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Oakland Raiders wideout Jerry Rice. Early in training camp last summer, Harrison got off on the wrong foot, blasting Pro Bowl wideout Troy Brown with a forearm and accidentally poking him in the eye. Immediately, Harrison heard a couple of new teammates call him a dirty player. "People thought I was washed up coming out of San Diego," he says. "I had to prove myself all over again, and that's how I play—hard but not dirty. But early on I was making more enemies than friends."
That changed after the Patriots surprisingly cut Pro Bowl free safety Lawyer Milloy for salary-cap reasons in the days leading up to the season opener. After a 31-0 opening loss to the Buffalo Bills, Harrison, who'd held off asserting himself as a team leader, not wanting to rock the boat on a veteran unit, started taking charge of the defense on the field. He was named a team captain, and he had one of his best years, leading the Pats with 140 tackles and chipping in three interceptions, three sacks and a forced fumble. He might be proudest of the fact that he has been fined but once all season—a $10,000 sanction for what the league ruled was an unnecessarily rough hit on Bennett in their regular-season meeting.
"We know what he is: a classic football player who's made a huge difference for us," says New England linebacker Ted Johnson. "We're thrilled he's on our team."