Our series on ASN’s 50 greatest NFL championship competitors of the past 50 years continues with No. 13 James Harrison, originally published on Jan. 31.
James Harrison faked a blitz from the right side, then dropped back into pass coverage in the end zone as the ball was snapped. The Pittsburgh Steelers were protecting a three-point lead late in the first half of Super Bowl XLIII, as the Arizona Cardinals had first-and-goal just inside the 2-yard line.
One hundred yards and 18 seconds later, the Steelers had a 10-point cushion as Harrison delivered one of the signature plays in Super Bowl history. His 100-yard interception return, with beaucoup assistance from his mates, represented a huge momentum swing and cemented his status as one of the premier defenders of his era.
After tumbling across the goal line, Harrison laid still for two minutes while the Steelers’ medical staff tended to him and administered oxygen.
“I’ve never been more emotionally drained in my life,” Harrison said in the Times.
As an undrafted free agent out of Kent State, Harrison fashioned a monstrous NFL career: 12 years in the league and counting; two-time Super Bowl champ; four-time All-Pro; five-time Pro Bowler; NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2008.
Remarkable for a player who considered retiring at 26 because he couldn’t break into a regular lineup. But he caught a break when the Steelers signed him as a free agent in 2004 after an offseason injury to linebacker Clark Haggans.
Harrison played in three Super Bowls. He was mostly a special teams player in the Steelers’ Super Bowl XL win against Seattle, making three tackles in the game. He made four tackles, in addition to his game-changing interception return, against the Cardinals. He recorded a sack against Aaron Rodgers, but the Steelers lost to Green Bay 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV.
Harrison is in his third stint with the Steelers. He began his career with them after college, but was mostly on the practice squad before he was released. He then spent nine years with them starting in 2004, but was released in 2012 for salary cap reasons. He played one year with the Cincinnati Bengals and was released. Just weeks after he announced his retirement in September 2014, the Steelers lured him back because of injuries to their defensive corps.
Harrison, 5-11 and 240 pounds, became an elite defender through time and hard work. A walk-on at Kent State, where he was first team All-MAC as a senior, Harrison was the first undrafted player to be named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year.
“I basically wanted to prove them wrong,” he told ESPN’s Elizabeth Merrill. “When somebody tells you you can’t do something, to sit there and eat it and take it as gospel when you believe in your heart that you can … I just can’t see dealing with that and rolling with that.”
Describing the play earlier this year on Steelers Depot, Harrison said, “When he actually went to swipe to hit the ball, he hit my chest and gave me time to cover the ball.”