Guys who cracked the code in Boston sports: Rodney Harrison

Jim Hackett
March 14, 2019 - 7:15 am

(Fourth in a series on athletes who have figured out how to thrive amidst the pressures of Boston.)

Part 1: Kevin Garnett

Part 2: Chris Sale

Part 3: Jonny Gomes

In March 2003 the Patriots landed Rodney Harrison after the hard-hitting, All-Pro safety was foolishly released by the San Diego Chargers. Just months later he was named a defensive captain before the season even began. During this dynastic championship era now spanning nearly two decades, Harrison is one of the few Patriots offseason acquisitions where you knew without a shred of doubt that it was going to work. He was a perfect fit for a team about to hit new and unthinkable heights.

Around here hard-hitting tough guys are always welcome. Tim Fox made an impact straight out of the draft crushing opponents that crossed his path. He was feared from the mid-70's well into the mid-80's. Lawyer Milloy helped anchor and lead the Patriots first Super Bowl championship. He hit hard and had attitude both on and off the field, he was beloved and respected. Yet from the moment Harrison arrived from San Diego it was different. Everything elevated. Credibility, cache, and expectation were all equally high and you just knew he wouldn’t fail you. Harrison meant business and his impact was immediate. All Pats fans had to do was wait for the first game. 

Harrison was legit. A badass and still is when you hear him talk.

When I think of Harrison one word comes to mind: attitude. Attitude is a funny thing, particularly when diagnosing how people feel about pro athletes, celebrities or people in the public eye. It can be a great thing like being known as someone with a positive attitude. See yesterday’s column on Jonny Gomes and how infectious a positive attitude can be. It can also be a horribly destructive thing too. A bad attitude, or worse a negative attitude, can kill a team, clubhouse, business or organization as a whole. (See pretty much every column I’ve ever written about David Price or Kyrie Irving). Very often it literally takes just one in either direction to impact a group, good or bad. 

With Harrison, I’d describe his attitude as commanding. He commanded respect on the field and he got it. He commanded respect from his teammates and he got it. Opponents respected him (just ask Peyton Manning whom Harrison made a living out of making second best). Whether or not he intentionally commanded it from the fans or the media, he got that too and it was instantaneous. There was never any BS with Harrison, he was all business. 

I attended some training camp open practices during that 2003 offseason and remember feeling like the Patriots took a level jump. The arrival of Harrison legitimized the Patriots for me. That may sound odd knowing that the Pats had won their first Super Bowl just two seasons earlier, but don’t forget these were early days in the dynastic Brady/Belichick era and they were coming off a down 9-7 season. When the calendar turned to March 2003 and Rodney Harrison arrived, things changed instantly. When he laid a spine-crushing hit on an unsuspecting receiver during that summer practice session, a friend of mine turned to me and said: "I’m psyched we have Harrison." Amen brother.

Unlike many of Boston’s favorite pro athletes, Harrison was somewhat aloof and a little distant but it mattered not. Whether or not you could connect with his public personality was irrelevant because you wanted him here, was glad he was here and loved watching him play. I always enjoyed listening to him even though he always looked like he’d rather be hitting somebody when the microphones were in his face. After a game he always laid it out straight win or lose. In the days before a game, the expression of focus was all over his face. Maybe it was the fact that he looked like he wanted hit somebody that was appealing, either way, it worked. He definitely had some Joe Friday in him. "Just the facts ma'am."

The best measuring stick to know that somebody has cracked the code is when you are bummed out when it’s over. That said, it’s been over 10 years since Harrison retired and I wish he was still playing. That says a lot as the Patriots have had some terrific safeties since. That’s how great he was and if there’s any justice in football his next stop will be in Canton, Ohio. 

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