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JACKIE MACMULLAN

They'll pay if he's not paid respect

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- He could have been the ghost writer for Rodney Dangerfield. He carries a boulder on his shoulder the size of Plymouth Rock. It's simple, really. Rodney Harrison isn't happy unless someone is doubting him, his teammates, or the staff of the New England Patriots. The day he finally earns the respect he craves will be a sad one indeed.

It will ruin all the fun.

"That's the day I should retire," Harrison declared. "I go out and fight for respect every week. I know that one blip, one bad day, and I'll have people start questioning me.

"You are only as good as your last game."

That, obviously, is patently untrue. It's the full body of work that determines your place in football history, and Harrison's resume, while pocked with some violent hits that have cost him in excess of $300,000 in fines, is overflowing with testimonials from his peers regarding his toughness, leadership, and work ethic.

The no-respect mantra is central to Harrison's core, which is why New England's players reacted with disbelief upon learning Philadelphia Eagles receiver Freddie Mitchell had made the unfortunate decision to single out Harrison by baiting him with the challenge of "Harrison, I've got something for you."

"I remember thinking, `Well, that's too bad for you,' " said Patriots tight end Christian Fauria.

The fallout from Mitchell's relatively innocuous comments, which included his admission he didn't know the names or numbers of most of the players in the Patriots' secondary, resulted in a flurry of stories in which Harrison gleefully leveled Mitchell as if he was catching a ball unprotected in the New England secondary. Harrison might still be tossing barbs if coach Bill Belichick hadn't finally asked him to cool it.

No matter. The desired result has been achieved. Harrison has successfully played the role of the injured party (again), and masterfully crawled so far into Mitchell's brain that the kid will be watching his back every step of the way in Super Bowl XXXIX.

"I'm not trying to hurt anyone," Harrison insisted. "Freddie Mitchell shouldn't be scared. If he is, he shouldn't line up on Sunday."

Perhaps it will comfort Mitchell to know Harrison is indiscriminate when it comes to flattening players. He only knows one speed -- full throttle -- and it matters little to him whether the opponent is the Philadelphia Eagles or his own teammates in practice.

In fact, during Harrison's first week in Patriots training camp in 2003, he ended up in a shouting match with quarterback Tom Brady, hit running back Kevin Faulk so hard that Faulk had to be restrained from going after him, and traded punches with the normally congenial Troy Brown.

"I wasn't well liked in training camp," Harrison said. "I had a chip on my shoulder. I was ticked off they released me in San Diego. I went at it with Faulk and Troy Brown. Tom Brady was cussing at me.

"I might have overdone it when I first got there. I was just trying to make a statement. I wanted them to respect me."

It worked. While an incensed Brady screamed at him for cheating in coverages, linebacker Mike Vrabel suppressed an expanding grin behind his helmet.

"I remember thinking, `This is exactly what this team needs,' " Vrabel said. "We were [expletive] poor on defense the year before. I figured, `If I can play like this guy plays, I'll be on the field all the time.' If [my sons] Tyler or Carter play like Rodney, I'll be extremely happy."

It has long been determined that Harrison makes a better teammate than opponent. He has been called a cheap-shot artist and a dirty player, charges that genuinely bother him. Yet there's no denying intimidation is a huge part of his game plan.

"I've had my own personal issues with Rodney," confessed Fauria. "You've got to remember, I used to play against him two times a year. We were not the best of friends at that time.

"Even so, I would vote for him every year when it came time for the Pro Bowl. As much as I hated playing against him, I had too much respect for him to diss him in the Pro Bowl.

"He was the kind of guy who made me study harder and prepare longer. There aren't many guys that play so well that they alter the way you play. Rodney was one of them. Plus, the guy didn't have a kill switch."

Mitchell's ill-timed comments are actually irrelevent when it comes to Sunday's game, even as Harrison dutifully lathered himself into an outraged froth. Harrison, after all, is a two-time Pro Bowl selection who prepares accordingly.

"The truth is you don't have to say anything to Rodney," Faulk explained. "By Sunday, the chip is already there, no matter what."

"I didn't really take what Freddie Mitchell said personally," Harrison said. "But I was very disappointed in the lack of respect he showed our other guys. They help me out every single day. Without them, I can't be Rodney Harrison.

"For [Mitchell] not to know their names or their numbers is kind of stupid. Where's the preparation? What have you been doing? I've read their playbook cover to cover. I know all their names and their numbers."

This is the only way Rodney Harrison knows how to do it. He demands respect, and hopes you don't give it to him, so he can use it against you.

In the summer of 2003, a few weeks after sparring with Brady, Faulk, and Brown, Harrison was called into the Patriots' locker room. He was notified he had just been chosen a defensive captain.

Now that's respect even Rodney Harrison can't deny.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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