Rodney Harrison always made an impression. But will he ever make one on the Hall-of-Fame selection committee?
Harrison was one of the most controversial and productive safeties of his time. He was the first player to post 30 interceptions and 30 sacks and has only been joined in that category by Ravens’ linebacker Ray Lewis.
When he retired in 2009 after 15 NFL seasons at strong safety, Harrison had 34 interceptions, 30.5 sacks, 15 forced fumbles, nine fumble recoveries, two Super Bowl championships, four Super Bowl appearances, two All-Pro selections and two Pro Bowl selections. He might have had more Pro Bowl nominations had he not also paid over $200,000 in fines and three separate times been named the NFL’s dirtiest player in polls of player and coaches conducted by Sports Illustrated.
Players as hard-nosed as Harrison do not win popularity contests. What they win are games and grudging respect. What they win from a coach like Bill Belichick, for whom Harrison played the final six seasons of his career, is more. It’s the kind of respect one would expect Hall of Famers to garner.
"In the biggest games, in any situation and on a weekly basis, his production was phenomenal," Belichick said upon Harrison’s retirement in 2009. "Rodney embodies all the attributes coaches seek and appreciate: toughness, competitiveness, leadership, selflessness, hard work, intensity, professionalism -- and coming from Rodney, they are contagious."
Harrison has one other pair of awards that would seem to clarify who he was during his 15-year NFL career. He was named to the 50th anniversary teams of both the San Diego Chargers and the New England Patriots. In other words, in the opinion of those who knew him best as an impact player, Harrison was judged to be among the top to play for those two teams.
What else needs to be said?
Well, one thing. What must be said is some kind of explanation for all those fines and his well-earned reputation for playing on the edge ... and sometimes going over it. In Harrison’s opinion, what he did was play the game the way it was meant to be played.
"People have called me a dirty player. I'm a very passionate player," Harrison said. "I also understand that this is not volleyball. This is a very violent, physical game, and if you hit someone in the mouth, you're not going to be their friend. That's what the game of football is. When I played, I didn’t have many friends."
Except on the teams whose colors he wore. Such was the measure of Harrison’s ability to quickly win the respect of his teammates that he was elected captain of the Patriots his first season in New England. That year the Patriots won the first of back-to-back Super Bowls, and Harrison was a key factor in one of the league’s most dominant defenses.
Another hallmark of Hall of Famers is that they played their best in the biggest games. Certainly that is true of Harrison. In nine playoff games with the Patriots, including three Super Bowls, he had seven interceptions and had two sacks.
He had a key interception setting up a touchdown in a divisional playoff win over the Titans. The next week he had an interception and forced fumble against Peyton Manning’s Colts. A year later, he had another interception against Manning in the playoffs, and, a week later, in the AFC championship game, returned an interception of Ben Roethlisberger 87 yards for a touchdown.
Despite missing a quarter due to injury in Super Bowl XXXIX, he had seven tackles, a sack and two interceptions, the final one coming with 10 seconds to play in New England’s 24-21 victory. If Hall of Famers are defined by how they played in the biggest games, it seems difficult to imagine making a case that would exclude Harrison.
But his reputation for dirty play that included a one-game suspension costing him a $111,764 game check for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Jerry Rice hurts him. So does the fact that he was only twice a Pro Bowler (maybe those fines had something to do with the voting?). And then there's a four-game suspension in 2007 after he admitted he purchased and used HGH to rehabilitate several injuries. Although Harrison is unapologetic about the hard-nosed style with which he approached the game, he admits using performance-enhancing drugs late in his career was a mistake.
It is one he greatly regrets.
"I had so much pride about trying to do things right," he once said. "I made such a huge mistake in that situation and disappointed so many people -- more importantly, myself. It makes you realize that you're human."
Rodney Harrison was both human and a human cannon ball on the football field. His numbers show how impactful he was. So does his jewelry collection of four AFC championship rings and two Super Bowl rings. Added all up, is it enough to one day get him into Canton despite having played a position – safety – that has long been ignored by Hall-of-Fame voters?
That is difficult to say. But if you ask the men he played with, you can be sure of one thing: They never regretted having him on their side.