IF YOU'VE SEEN THE URBAN SLACKER FILM FRIDAY, THEN YOU'RE familiar with the character Deebo, the neighborhood bully whose Vesuvian outbursts provide the movie some comedic thrust. And if you met James Harrison, you'd think the character was based on him. Both men have shaved heads, club-bouncer builds and unblinking stares—but, even more to the point, both possess unyielding dispositions. When the laconic outside linebacker first stood his ground as an undrafted rookie out of Kent State, in 2002, refusing to take the ritual hazing from his veteran teammates, he was given special dispensation and promptly dubbed Deebo to reflect his style. Says linebacker James Farrior of Harrison's nickname, "Man, it just seemed like the perfect fit. He just had this hard edge about him that would not allow you to pick on or mess with him."
It would take four more years for the six-foot, 242-pound Harrison to find a place on the Steelers' defense. But thanks to his fighting spirit and the outsized satisfaction he takes in force-feeding crow to his detractors—"If there's something that you say that I can't do," the 30-year-old Harrison says, "I'm going to do everything between heaven and hell to prove you wrong"—he has emerged as the most intimidating member of the NFL's toughest schoolyard gang and a key figure in bringing a record sixth Super Bowl championship to Pittsburgh.
The linchpin of the league's top-ranked defense, Harrison was the Steelers' second-leading tackler (92), set the franchise sack record (16) and forced a league-leading seven fumbles on the way to being named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year. He is the first undrafted player to win the award, and of the four Steelers to have won it before him, three—Joe Greene ('72, '74), Mel Blount ('75) and Jack Lambert ('76)—are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The fourth, Rod Woodson ('93), will be enshrined at Canton this summer in his first year of eligibility. "The exciting thing with James is it's really just his second year of playing full time, and he's only going to get better," says longtime Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "He's got a tremendous blend of strength and speed, and he has a competitive heart."
HARRISON'S BULLY PERSONA WAS FORGED BY HIS MOTHER TO GUARD him against a lifetime of slights and suffering—some of the slights perceived, some of the suffering self-inflicted. He grew up in Akron, the youngest in a blended family of 14. His father, James Sr., was a chemical truck driver. His mother, Mildred, was a no-nonsense disciplinarian who, in her own words, "could swing a belt like nobody's business," and was often inspired to do so when the kids thought to challenge one of her favorite rules: "The only person allowed to raise their voice at home was Mildred," she says. It was just one of a number of edicts that Mildred imposed on the young James, who had to check in with her if he wanted to leave the block and had to be back home before darkness fell. Still, despite her sternness, Mildred instilled in her son a healthy rebellious streak, goading him into "standing up for what he believes in and saying what he wants," she says. "I wouldn't allow him to let nobody punk him down or be scared."
Her approach helped turn James from a timid kid into a tempestuous football star who did things his way. He went to two high schools as a freshman and eventually followed his coach to Coventry High in suburban Akron as a sophomore in 1994. His senior year proved the most tumultuous: A linebacker and running back, he was suspended for the season's first two games for challenging an assistant coach to a fight, then suspended for another for grabbing his crotch in response to racist taunting from a hostile road crowd. In February of his senior year he was charged with misdemeanor assault and in the end pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, stemming from an incident in the fall in which he fired a BB gun in the locker room. The affair ultimately cost him the interest of major colleges such as Ohio State, Notre Dame and Nebraska.
His disciplinary record, combined with his subpar standardized test scores, forced him to enroll at Kent State without a once-promised football scholarship. His parents paid the freight his freshman year—taking out three loans to cover the nearly $15,000 in tuition and room and board—and almost pulled him out when he failed to lift his grades. "When I got the first report card," Mildred recalls, "I went up there with my brother and said, 'Get all his stuff and put it in the van. We're going home. I'm not paying for this.' "
She eventually relented and let Harrison stay in school and walk on to the team in his third year. He was immediately put on "coaches' table," a more stringent version of the traditional study-table program, in which the football team's academic underachievers were sequestered inside the football offices to study under coaches' supervision until they met the team's 2.5-point GPA threshold.
Unsurprisingly, Harrison bridled under these strictures and didn't hide his frustration at being benched. "I was starting a program where I needed to have guys doing things the right way, and I needed him to set a good example," says Dean Pees, the former Golden Flash head coach who is now the defensive coordinator for the New England Patriots. "It was the same thing in football. I mean, the guy he was playing behind wasn't even close to as good as he was. He knew it. I knew it. He also knew I wasn't going to change. I wasn't going to play him until he gave me what he had."
So Harrison gritted his teeth and submitted to the daily two-hour study halls, upped his conditioning off the field and saw quick results. When he got his GPA up to snuff, he wasted little time in letting his coaches know, scrawling JAMES HARRISON 3.0 on their office dry-erase boards. Two years later he was named a team captain and an all-conference selection. In the season finale against perennial MAC power Miami (Ohio), Harrison showed the relentlessness and determination that would become his trademark, fighting through holds and double teams to produce three sacks of future Steelers teammate Ben Roethlisberger (and pick up assists on two more) and help the Golden Flash finish with its first winning season in 14 years. Says Pees, who gives Harrison much of the credit for reviving the Kent State program, "When he buys in, the sky's the limit."
Still, Harrison found few takers as an NFL prospect in 2002. Most scouts had written him off as too short to play outside linebacker. The Steelers took a flier on him and signed him as a free agent. But Harrison's struggles to learn LeBeau's complex 3-4 scheme led Pittsburgh to cut him three times in 13 months. The Ravens picked him up in February 2004 and allocated him that spring to the NFL Europe's Rhein Fire—a two-month stint that Harrison says he "hated everything about except for the football." He mostly confined himself to the team hotel, where he spent his free time hanging out with allocated Ravens tight end Daniel Wilcox, downloading music.