A former Pittsburgh sports star is returning to town as part of a visiting team this weekend, and the reception he gets from the home fans could be appreciative for his accomplishments – or bitter because of how it all ended.
No, I’m not referring to Jaromir Jagr, who will skate in his latest “potential last game in Pittsburgh” Friday night at Consol Energy Center as a member of the New Jersey Devils. I’m talking about Cincinnati Bengals linebacker James Harrison, who plays his first away game at Heinz Field on Sunday evening.
While Harrison and the Bengals will be trying to clinch their second AFC North title in five seasons, the drama could be increased if the man who went to five Pro Bowls as a dominant pass rusher for the Steelers gets the cold shoulder on an already-frigid night. Harrison, 35, compiled 64 sacks in nine full seasons with Pittsburgh, highlighted by his 16-sack 2008 that earned him AFC defensive player of the year honors and his second Super Bowl title.
But injuries and age reduced the former Kent State star’s effectiveness, and Harrison and the Steelers couldn’t agree on a reduced salary last spring. He signed with the Bengals soon after and has played every game for Cincinnati, accumulating 27 tackles, two sacks and an interception.
Further adding to the uncertainty about his reception Sunday night: his issues with domestic abuse and his abrasive personality. Always testy with the media, especially in the time surrounding his 2008 arrest for assaulting his girlfriend in a dispute over their son’s baptism, Harrison didn’t do himself any favors with the way he comported himself in public.
As Ben Roethlisberger and countless other athletes can attest, fans can be remarkably forgiving of off-field troubles if said player continues to perform well, and Harrison did just that until last year. Because of his years of outstanding, hard-hitting defense, it’s a safe bet Harrison will get an ovation on the crowd’s first opportunity to do so.
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and safety Ryan Clark left no doubt they would welcome Harrison warmly while talking to ESPN.com reporter Scott Brown. Both acknowledged the mixed feelings they had about facing him, but spoke of the respect they had for the way he approached his job.
I’d expect Steelers fans to respond the same way, at least until Harrison makes a play against the home team.