FOXBOROUGH -- Rodney Harrison's next hurdle to clear is what has helped define him as a player over his 12-year career: bone-rattling, pad-crunching, no-holds-barred contact.
Prior to yesterday's practice, the Patriots safety had yet to take part in game-like contact drills that include tackling. Harrison initially told reporters yesterday that he had absorbed his first full-bore contact before recanting.
Until Harrison takes that step, his availability for the season opener Sept. 10 against the Bills remains a question mark.
``The contact is going to happen, and I can't worry about what's going to happen from that," said Harrison, who participated in yesterday's full-pads afternoon practice, although it wasn't clear whether he was part of contact drills. ``The doctor said I'm doing well. We'll just see what happens from there. I'm not going to make any promises, I'm just going to go out there and play hard when I get my opportunity."
Harrison's return to the practice field came after he missed the team's final three workouts leading up to last Saturday's exhibition game against the Cardinals. As he has since his first practice Aug. 7, he wore a brace over his left knee. Yesterday was his fifth overall practice.
``I'm just trying to put three to four practices back to back to back," Harrison said before the workout. ``If I'm able to play in a game, then we'll see what happens. For now, I'm not even concerned."
With Harrison's situation a bit uncertain, the Patriots opened training camp with eight-year veteran Artrell Hawkins and second-year player James Sanders as their top safeties. Eugene Wilson, who started all 18 games at safety in 2005, got in his initial work at cornerback.
But in the game against the Cardinals there was a shift at safety, with Wilson moving back to pair with Hawkins. That left Sanders as the third option.
Asked to describe his physical progress yesterday, Harrison simply said that he's ``coming along." He added that he currently had two goals: ``to practice and to make [the media] wonder what day I'll return."
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said gauging a player's return to action can be tricky.
``You have to do it at the pace that physically the players are ready to work at," he said. ``Whether it's Tedy Bruschi [last] October, or whether it was Harrison two weeks ago, or whether it was [Daniel] Graham the first day of training camp. When those players are ready is not something that we really have control over. It's the natural healing process. I don't think you want to put them back out there early; that usually causes more problems than it solves."
Harrison, 33, doesn't think conditioning will be a problem, although there's a difference between being fit and being in shape to play in a game.
``I've been conditioning all along, for six months," he said. ``For football shape, you have to be able to go out and play, and that's the emphasis here for the next two to three weeks, because we play Buffalo in 2 1/2 weeks. That's definitely an issue, definitely a concern, but for me, I feel like when it's time for me to go, I'll be in good shape."
While Harrison was more guarded while speaking about his physical condition, he opened up when speaking about his close friend and newest teammate, linebacker Junior Seau. Harrison said players like Seau and Bruschi have helped him elevate his level of play because of their leadership.
Harrison said he saw Seau ``being the first one in the weight room at 5:30, 5:45 in the morning, staying late, and playing with more pain than humanly possible" when the two were teammates in San Diego from 1994-2002. He saw a similar approach with Bruschi in New England, which he said hit home because ``that's what leaders should do, lead by example, not by mouth."
When Seau signed his contract late last week, he joked that Harrison would be compensated with a finder's fee. Harrison confirmed that he put in a good word for Seau.
``I know what Junior brings to the table, I know he's a leader, I know that he's an energetic guy," Harrison said. ``He's a very unselfish player and I know he can still play and make plays."
Harrison compared Seau's signing to his own, in 2003.
``[The Patriots] do a wonderful job of getting guys that most people really don't want, those who people don't think can play, like myself," he said. ``They got me and all [the media] was saying, `Why would they go get Rodney? He's all washed up.' "
Harrison believes New England is an ideal location for the 37-year-old Seau, who practiced for the first time yesterday and was working alongside Mike Vrabel at inside linebacker in individual drills.
``He's in a situation where you have a team that is going to be competitive year in and year out, with an opportunity to play in the playoffs," said Harrison. ``And I think you're here with a coach who understands veteran players and knows how to get the best out of his veteran players and how to utilize them."
Harrison said that when he was part of back-to-back Super Bowl-winning teams with the Patriots, he thought, ``I wish my man Seau was here to really experience it."
Now they're teammates again, Seau attempting to come back after having his last two seasons cut short by injury, and Harrison on the mend after tearing three ligaments in his knee.
Harrison said ``positive steps" have been taken. Next up is absorbing game-like contact.