Rodney Harrison, who announced his retirement from professional football on Wednesday morning, will be remembered as having a unique place in New England’s football legacy. In many ways, you could make the argument that he was the final element that turned them from a very good football team into a dynasty.
He arrived on the heels of the 2002 season, a mostly mediocre affair that was dominated by Super Bowl hangover. The Patriots, by their own admission, had gotten away from the things that had made them great the previous season, and needed a jump-start to get them back on the right track. Harrison, a free-agent signee from the Chargers with something to prove, provided that jolt. He delivered a Red Bull-style dose of energy every day, bringing a daily infusion of intensity and passion to a New England team that took home back-to-back titles with wins in Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX.
In the end, Harrison’s worth can be seen in a piece of footage from NFL Films, who caught an embrace between New England coach Bill Belichick and Harrison after the Patriots beat the Colts in the 2003 AFC Championship Game, 24-14: “Am I glad we got you,” Belichick tells Harrison with a smile. (Fast forward to about the 6:30 mark of this clip for the full exchange.)
In his six-year career, he showed a knack for coming up big in big games, and so when you’re putting together a list of Harrison’s greatest hits, you have to include several of those performances. But it just wasn’t the big events where Harrison made an impact -- here are our choices for the Top 5 Rodney moments from his career in New England.
The first week of training camp, 2003. Harrison started lighting up guys the first week. He argued with Tom Brady -- the quarterback accused him of cheating coverages. He traded punches with Troy Brown, a player so mild-mannered he wouldn’t say you-know-what if he had a mouthful. And he so infuriated Kevin Faulk, the running back had to be restrained from attacking the new guy.
“I wasn’t well liked in training camp,” Harrison later confessed with a sheepish grin.
But he was soon voted a defensive captain, and when New England cut Lawyer Milloy loose in the days before the season-opener, the secondary became his. But he never dialed back that level of intensity. It didn’t matter if it was the first week of training camp or the day before the Super Bowl. He understood the old Vince Lombardi maxim: Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.
“Rodney is the best practice player I have seen in 35 years in the NFL, which is a testament to his exceptional passion for the game and his desire to sustain and improve his level of play,” Belichick said in a statement issued by the team Wednesday. “Regardless of his status on the team and in the league, Rodney’s approach to preparation spoke volumes about his devotion to the team and his ability to raise every player’s game.”
Super Bowl XXXVIII vs. Carolina. Harrison led the Patriots with nine tackles and a sack in a 32-29 win over the Carolina Panthers, even though he broke his arm late in the game when he corralled a Carolina receiver and sent him flying out of bounds. His arm x-rayed and in a sling, he snuck back onto the field and stood on the sidelines for the final frantic minute. Fellow DB Ty Law noticed that Harrison was nervous as the Patriots drove down the field in the final minute of the game.
“Rodney, we’re not going to lose this game,” Law told Harrison. “You know why? Because we have Tom Brady.”
“It was like a thousand pounds of brick being taken off my chest,” Harrison later recalled when recounting the conversation.
The lasting image from that contest remains footage of Harrison on the sidelines with his right arm in a sling and the left extended in a victory salute, confetti falling gently around him as a tear rolls down his cheek. It was the end of a long journey for the veteran safety, who finally won a Super Bowl in his 10th season in the league.
“It’s a very emotional thing for me to put into words to have the opportunity to be sitting here right now,” said Harrison with teary red eyes after the game.
2004 AFC Divisional Playoff Game vs. Indianapolis. When it comes to measuring Harrison’s postseason efforts against the Colts, it’s a coin toss really, between the 2003 AFC Championship Game and the 2004 AFC Divisional Playoffs. And while his performance in the 2003 conference championship is probably statistically better (one interception and one forced fumble), the absolutely smothering performance he and the rest of the New England defense displayed a year later in the divisional playoffs against Indy was far more impressive.
The Indianapolis offense appeared to be an unstoppable force -- Indianapolis kicker Mike Vanderjagt suggested that the Patriots were “ripe for the picking,” which drew the ire of Harrison. “He should focus on making the field goals, not worried about what we’re doing over here, OK,” Harrison said. “I mean, he has to be a jerk. Vanderjerk.”
Harrison intercepted Peyton Manning late in the game to remove the last chance Indianapolis had of scoring a touchdown. New England walked away with a 20-3 victory. (It wasn’t that close -- check out the highlights here.) As the Colts’ quarterback left the field, the Gillette Stadium crowd taunted him with cries of “Cut that meat! Cut that meat!” -- a reference to his MasterCard commercial.
Afterward, Harrison reveled in the triumph, calling out the disbelievers who didn’t think the New England secondary could stop Manning with Law sidelined.
“All you could hear was ‘Ty Law’ the whole week,” Harrison said after the win. “We won a lot of games without Ty Law. Ty Law wasn't even in the equation the last 10, 11, 12 weeks. Asante Samuel and Randall Gay really took it personally.
“I've been back there. I've been back there all season with these guys. We’ve had to struggle at times and really maneuver and try to manipulate the system a little bit because it's been tough with so many different guys back there. But time and time again, these guys gained confidence. When they start gaining confidence, you never know what may happen.”
2004 AFC Championship vs. Pittsburgh. The press box at Heinz Field was shaking, rocking back and forth with the energy of frenzied Pittsburgh fans. The Steelers were moving the football, coasting into New England territory and looking to cut into the Patriots’ 14-point lead at the end of the first half. Pittsburgh was at the New England 19, sitting on a second and six.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dropped back and spotted Jerame Tuman in the right flat, and floated it out there. Whoops.
“He had happy feet and wants to run to throw and sometimes he just lobs it up,” Harrison said. “We knew we could make some plays on the ball against him.”
Harrison jumped the route and returned the interception 87 yards for the touchdown, stretching the Patriots’ halftime lead to 21-3 and effectively ending the game. To add insult to injury, Harrison directed linebacker Mike Vrabel -- as a blocker -- to flatten Roethlisberger on his way to the house.
The press box didn’t shake much after that.
Super Bowl XXXIX vs. Philadelphia. Every great tale needs comic relief, and Freddie Mitchell is the punchline for this story. The Eagles’ receiver notoriously called out Harrison in the days before the Super Bowl. Whoops.
“Harrison, I’ve got something for you,” Mitchell said, who added he didn’t know the names of the players in the New England secondary.
Harrison picked off one Donovan McNabb pass early in the game, and, with nine seconds left, intercepted McNabb again to seal the 24-21 win and give the Patriots their third Super Bowl title in four seasons. Again, Harrison’s exuberance provided one of the lasting images of the game -- his post-pick arm-flapping routine made the cover of Sports Illustrated the following week.
He ended up with seven tackles, a sack, and two interceptions -- in the end, he caught one more pass than Mitchell. After the game, the Philadelphia receiver was rightfully pan-fried in the press: Belichick said “all he does is talk. He's terrible, and you can print that. I was happy when he was in the game.”
“Freddie, he probably bit off a little more than he could chew,” said Harrison after the game. “I’ll bet he knows our numbers now.”