He went to five Pro Bowls, recorded 84.5 regular-season sacks, forced 34 fumbles, was named a first-team All-Pro twice, won a Defensive Player of the Year award and won two Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
One thing Harrison didn’t do much of is score. In fact, he carried the ball into the opposing end zone only twice in his 215 career regular-season and playoff games.
Editor’s note: This is the third installment in B/R’s “Where Are They Now?” series, which profiles some former NFL postseason greats, their historic moments and what they’re doing now.
Part 1: Freddie Mitchell
Part 2: Willie Roaf
Part 3: James Harrison
Part 4: Jacoby Jones (1/31)
Part 5: Tracy Porter (2/1)
Part 6: Coming soon
One of those two touchdowns remains the longest play from scrimmage in Super Bowl history.
Said play—a jaw-dropping 100-yard interception return as the first half expired in Super Bowl XLIII—might have been the difference between a Steelers victory and a Steelers loss. After all, Pittsburgh beat the Arizona Cardinals by only four points that night at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, and Harrison’s pick-six likely represented at least a 10-point swing.
Friday, Feb. 1, will mark the 10-year anniversary of Harrison’s signature moment, but the now-retired 40-year-old can recall the details like it happened yesterday. In a recent conversation with Bleacher Report, he did so while noting none of it would have happened had he not decided to freelance.
“The defensive call was an all-out blitz,” he remembered. “So we were supposed to blitz, but that whole night we were getting there just a step too late. We’d get there, [Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner would] throw, and somebody would hit him. So I’m like, ‘I’m gonna take a gamble and play for the quick slant in,’ and it worked. I dropped back, and I’m looking at him, and I think he’s looking at me. And I see his arm go up, and I’m like, ‘Oh, he’s about to throw it.’ And he throws the ball, and I’m like, ‘I can’t believe he just threw the ball.’ I catch it, and the rest is history.”
Specifically, 15.2 seconds of history.
That’s how long it took Harrison to rumble, stumble and do everything in his power not to fumble en route to the opposite end zone. And because the snap came with 18 seconds remaining, that left no margin for error. Had Harrison not made it to the end zone, the Steelers would have had to settle for a field-goal attempt.
Prior to the pick, it looked like the Cardinals, who trailed 10-0 earlier in the second quarter, were bound to steal both the lead and the momentum just before halftime. Down 10-7 following an interception of their own, Warner had moved them 33 yards to the Pittsburgh 1-yard line in the waning seconds of the half.
Warner had been sacked only once despite facing near-constant pressure. He had been getting rid of the ball quickly on a lot of short passes, so—despite the call for a blitz—Harrison decided it was time to drop back into coverage.
Screenshot from NBC broadcast
“I had a lot of things going on in my head at the time,” he said. “When I initially caught the ball, I just thought, ‘It’s over with, I’m gone.’ There was nothing in front of me. And then I’m over there hand-fighting with [teammate] Deshea [Townsend], it seemed like forever. I was trying to tell him, ‘I’m not giving you the ball—just go block somebody!'”
Michael Zagaris/Getty Images
Townsend understandably figured he would be a better candidate to attempt the daunting 100-yard dash, since he was about 50 pounds lighter and certainly faster. But he eventually relented and ran ahead to block.
Delayed by his brief interaction with Townsend, Harrison was less confident about his chances of making it to the end zone.
“Then I looked up,” he recalled, “and I’m like, ‘Dude, where did all these red jerseys come from? I’m not going to make it.'”
Screenshot from NBC broadcast
Soon after that, he was sandwiched on the right sideline by Warner and Cardinals tight end Leonard Pope, but he somehow managed to evade them and was free again.
Screenshot from NBC broadcast
“Then I look off to my left,” he said, “and there’s some damn running back there. I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m not about to make it.'”
The running back in question was Tim Hightower, and at this point, only fellow Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley stood between the two players.
Screenshot from NBC broadcast
Woodley made a hell of a block, and when Harrison jumped over his teammate, he looked to have a clear path to the end zone.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Still, he was a big guy with smaller and faster guys chasing him down. He was running on fumes, and just when it occurred to him that the clock might be on the verge of zeros, he noticed someone else was suddenly in pursuit.
“There’s like a lineman coming out of nowhere,” he remembered. “I’m like, ‘This dude is running hard as hell and he might catch me, but I gotta make it.’ So I ended up getting past him—I believe he dove at my feet.”
That was Mike Gandy, Arizona’s 310-pound left tackle.
Al Bello/Getty Images
And while Harrison did indeed get past Gandy following that dive, the tackle attempt allowed Cards wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald to close in.
“Out of nowhere, Fitzgerald comes and he goes to slap at the ball, but he misses,” Harrison remembered. “And when he misses, he hits my chest, and it gives me enough time to cover up the ball. I never saw him coming. If he had good aim and hit the ball, it would have just popped out of my arms.”
John Bazemore/Associated Press
Fitzgerald and Arizona receiver Steve Breaston essentially tackled Harrison into the front right corner of the end zone. Had Breaston’s hit come one yard earlier, Harrison would have been down inside the 1-yard line with two seconds on the clock. But instead, after landing on Fitzgerald and tumbling, he cleared the goal line with his head by about a 12-inch margin.
Al Bello/Getty Images
Out of gas, Harrison laid spread-eagle on the edge of the end zone while catching his breath, unaware that a penalty flag had been thrown more than 90 yards downfield. A trainer reached him and checked to make sure he was OK as referee Terry McAulay announced the penalty was against Arizona and would be declined.
Harrison eventually rose to his feet, still huffing and puffing and likely thankful that he wouldn’t have to take the field again until Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were through with their extended halftime show. He spent the majority of an ensuing three-minute review wearing an oxygen mask.
A few hours later, the Steelers beat the Cardinals to become Super Bowl champions. And although Harrison played nine more NFL seasons, he never won another Super Bowl.
He and the Steelers made it back two years later, and he had a sack and three quarterback hits against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers that night in Dallas. However, Pittsburgh fell short, 31-25, in an experience Harrison said was as painful as winning was joyful.
“It’s a deep, dark depression,” he said. “You don’t even want to look at sports. You don’t want to turn on the TV for fear of [seeing it]. Because you don’t want to relive any of it.”
He spent two more seasons in Pittsburgh following the Super Bowl loss to Green Bay, joined the Bengals after becoming a cap casualty in 2013, rejoined the Steelers in more of a part-time role in 2014 and controversially jumped to the rival Patriots after the Steelers released him in December 2017.
After starting for the Patriots in their Super Bowl LII loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, Harrison decided it was time, at the age of 39, to devote himself to his family. His oldest son, 12-year-old James III, started playing contact football in the fall, and 10-year-old Henry isn’t far off. He reveled in watching James III’s team win a championship this past year, noting that he wouldn’t have had that chance if he was still grinding in the NFL.
But that doesn’t mean Harrison is necessarily done with football. A glance at his Instagram feed confirms he’s still in impeccable shape, in part because he’s developing a fitness app that will offer four- and six-day programs featuring his large repertoire of exercises. He also wants to keep up with his kids.
“I gotta be able to do the things that the average person does,” said Harrison, who trains religiously at his home base in Arizona, “especially with me having young boys. They’re going to want to go outside and play and do things, and I gotta still be able to move a little bit.”
And if the NFL comes knocking?
“I would say not likely,” he said. “But I never for sure 100 percent won’t be playing again. I dunno, it depends. If the right situation comes along, you may see me on the field for a short period of time. And maybe coaching or something like that. Who knows.”
If he were to come back for a curtain call, it’d be nice for that to take place in Pittsburgh. But although he spent all but 20 of his 215 career games in a Steelers uniform, his relationship with the team and its fans is complicated at the moment.
And while Harrison received a loud ovation when he returned to Heinz Field in December for a ceremony commemorating the 10-year anniversary of that Super Bowl XLIII victory, he has no plans to apologize for making a business decision after the team made one of its own.
“It may be that some fans are upset,” he said, “but for the most part, I hold no ill will toward the organization. They did what they thought was the right thing to do, and at the end of the day, it’s business. You’ve gotta be able to be comfortable with business decisions.”
For now, Harrison is keeping busy not just with his boys and his training app, but also with his clothing line, with the supplements company that he co-owns, with occasional commentary for Fox Sports and with a part-time acting career (he’ll appear in an episode of the CBS drama S.W.A.T. on Feb. 7).
100 yards and 18 seconds that won’t go away
Days after his 100-yard return and his team’s Super Bowl XLIII victory, Harrison was portrayed by Saturday Night Live‘s Kenan Thompson in a Weekend Update sketch, with Thompson depicting Harrison as still being out of breath.
In that scene, host Seth Meyers asks Thompson to “talk us through the play.”
“Talk you through it?” Thompson says while gasping for air. “Can’t you just show the tape?”
When asked what he was thinking during the play, Thompson’s Harrison character said that he was “mostly thinking, ‘Oh God, no. Somebody tackle me. I mean, end this. How far can 100 yards be? My lungs! Oh God, my lungs,'” before reaching for an oxygen mask below the desk.
But the real Harrison seems to have a perfect recollection of the entire play. He wasn’t watching it when he relived it with us, but he didn’t miss a detail.
It helps that the play is remembered fondly and routinely praised in the media. Looking back recently, NFL Network named it one of the 10 most iconic touchdowns in Super Bowl history. In 2016, Alex Marvez of Fox Sports listed it as the third-greatest moment in Super Bowl history. In 2011, ESPN.com’s Greg Garber said it might have been “the greatest play in league history.”
Harrison is reminded of those details frequently.
“For every Steelers fan, that’s the first thing they bring up if they run into me,” he said.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.