Dave Mattio has known Rodney Harrison for a long time, going back more than 15 years to when Harrison, then a sophomore at Marian Catholic High School in suburban Chicago, was called up late in the season to play for the varsity. "I don't know if you'd ever find a kid with more competitiveness," Mattio, the football coach at Marian for nearly 30 years, mused recently as Harrison and the Patriots prepared to face the Eagles in New England's second Super Bowl in as many years. "You take that overall competitiveness, and his unbelievable urge to excel . . . I mean, people in our league still talk about what a physical player he was, and how he'd take on bigger players and, no matter what the matchup, come out on top."
Sound like the guy who wears that No. 37 jersey in the New England secondary? A 1991 graduate of Marian, located in Chicago Heights, some 20 miles south of downtown Chicago, Harrison today is the same looking-for-confrontation-in-all-the-right-places defender he was in high school.
"Where did he play? Anywhere he wanted," said Mattio, who has moved two other NFLers, ex-Bills linebacker John Holecek and Colts safety Mike Prior, through the Marian program. "First time I saw him, he was 145 pounds, but he played in that secondary like a linebacker. His senior year, he was mostly a free safety, but on special teams he returned punts and kickoffs, and he kicked for us, too -- punts, place kicks, and kickoffs. If he hadn't been the glue of our defense, heck, he could have been a running back or the quarterback."
Even with no game to play last week, Harrison remained in the center of the action, exactly where the veteran safety is not only most comfortable, but where he seems to interject himself even if the play isn't within his area code. Eagles wide receiver Freddie Mitchell, a man who must dream about wearing a jersey with "He Hate Me" across the back, in an ESPN interview aired Thursday flippantly said, "I got something for you Harrison when I meet you, too."
Mitchell, in making himself Harrison's living, breathing bull's-eye for Sunday, offered an irreverent review of New England's somewhat unknown secondary during the interview. Other than Harrison, whom he first identified as No. 37, he only referred to the other Patriots defenders by their jersey numbers.
Mattio, upon hearing Mitchell's comments about his former Marian star for the first time late Friday afternoon, laughed out loud. It was the chuckle of an experienced coach, as if he were standing on the sideline for the first day of varsity practice, with the seniors looking upon the freshman wannabes as if they were fresh-splintered kindling.
"Oh, boy," said Mattio. "He's only saying that, of course, because he doesn't think his routes will run him by Rodney. Wow. Freddie Mitchell doesn't have the courage to come down the middle. That's why he's saying that."
A real force Harrison, who turned 32 last month, has defined himself as the feared, intimidating force of the New England secondary in his two years with the team. A nasty and punishing hitter, his edgy style has cost him some $300,000 in fines over 11 NFL seasons, which makes him somewhat of a curious fit in a town that still remembers the moment Darryl Stingley's career ended on a paralyzing smackdown by Jack "They Call Me Assassin" Tatum.
Harrison isn't Tatum, but his game is similarly built around fierce, aggressive contact that makes opposition receivers wince and flinch and otherwise try to make his patch of the field their road not taken. In a city that nearly 30 years ago reviled Tatum's tactics, who would have figured that the modern version of the Raiders' menace would be so embraced. Love him if he's on your team. Hate him if he suits up in other colors.
The rare moments the last two years when Harrison hasn't been back there, the New England secondary has crumpled like a fleet of Corvairs. Never was that more obvious than the waning moments of last year's Super Bowl when Harrison exited with a broken arm. Absent its minister of pain, the secondary turned into a gridiron Grand Canyon, leading, in part, to three Carolina touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
When the Patriots returned home, 32-29 victors, Harrison went to the hospital for surgery while his teammates went downtown for a victory parade.
"Thanks for reminding me," Harrison said Friday. "I was in the hospital, drugged up and in pain, watching my guys."
Clearly, it wasn't where Harrison wanted to be at the time. But a year later, he didn't sound like he was harboring any regret.
"Hey, it's part of paying the price," he said. "It's fruits of labor -- you get a ring, and that's what it's all about."
Every player who signs up for duty in the secondary knows that getting burned is the unstated occupational hazard. The day comes, and usually it comes early, when a receiver scoots by, makes a catch, and races for a touchdown. No one back there is perfect against the run either, although Harrison has hit just about 1.000 these last two years against the run and pass. In many ways, although no one immediately recognized it at the time, he was the reason it was so easy, or routine, for the Patriots to dismiss Lawyer Milloy before the start of the 2003 season.
Consider, in Harrison's two years as the captain of the New England secondary, he has led the club in tackles in both the regular season and the playoffs. Headed into Sunday, he has made 323 tackles, 238 of them solo, in his 37 games as a Patriot. Twenty-three of those tackles, including 19 solo, have come in the two playoff games this month.
Asked Friday if, in his entire career, he ever left the field feeling an opponent had gotten the better of him physically, Harrison initially offered little more than a firm, steely "No".
Prodded a bit more on the subject, he added, "We all get beat. That's not important. What's important is how you respond, how you come back. The idea is to come back stronger and harder."
A mother's sacrifice Born in Markham, Ill., not far from where he attended high school, Rodney was the youngest of Barbara Harrison's three children. Barbara and her husband divorced when Rodney was still an infant, leaving little extra money for the luxuries in life. In a number of accounts about his upbringing, Harrison has told the story of how his mother gave up her last $40 -- money she had targeted to pay the electric bill -- so he could join a health club at age 16, allowing him to build muscle to play on the Marian High football team.
Friday, amid all the clatter about what Mitchell had waiting for him at the Super Bowl, Harrison again recalled his mother's devotion and hard work.
"My mom sacrificed a lot, worked two jobs," said Harrison, who a couple of years ago bought two barber shops in Chicago, named Sportin' Life and Sportin' Life II, for his mother to manage. "So if you think I'm taking this for granted, you're crazy."
It was soon after Harrison's mother put up the $40 that Mattio welcomed Harrison onto the Spartans' varsity squad.
"It was great watching how he and John Holecek pushed each other," recalled Mattio. "You'd see them out there on the field, trying to outdo each other. The second one got the slightest bit ahead, the other would try to be better. The thing about Rodney, and this isn't an old coach blowing smoke here, but you could count on him, virtually every game, coming up with one, two, or three plays that impacted the momentum -- they were game-changing plays. The other side always had to worry about who he was going to knock out next. I watch him now, and that hasn't changed one bit. I commend him for his consistency."
A couple of years ago, according to Mattio, Marian decided to retire the numbers of Holecek, Prior, and Harrison. Unfortunately, he said, the ceremony had to go on without Harrison, because the former Spartan free safety had other commitments.
"He promised me he'd be back in the building one day and we'd do it right," said Mattio, recalling that Harrison wore No. 3 his senior season. "We've got this jersey, and a big ol' picture of him waiting here to go up. We could have done all three the same night, I guess, but it seemed like it would be disrespectful to do it without him being here. Rodney, we're waitin' on you."
At the moment, Harrison is waiting for Sunday, and no doubt looking to send up an Eagles jersey or two, including the No. 84 of Freddie Mitchell.