FOXBOROUGH -- The play was one of the worst of the game for the Patriots' starting defense, but it turned out to be the most important for safety Rodney Harrison.
Early in the second quarter of a 41-0 exhibition victory over the Redskins Saturday night, Harrison inched up to the line of scrimmage. It was third and 1, and the Patriots were anticipating a run.
They got it, and Harrison charged into the gap between Redskins tight end Christian Fauria and left tackle Chris Samuels. It was the area in which running back Ladell Betts was surging ahead, following a thunderous lead block from fullback Mike Sellers.
Harrison was preparing to make the play when a blocker fell toward his feet. Another blocker was making contact with his shoulder pads, and Harrison fell with a thud.
The play went for a 10-yard gain, and Harrison didn't make the tackle. But all that was secondary to Harrison getting up off the Gillette Stadium field, heading back to the huddle, and lining up to do it all over again.
``I was high-lowed, and I rolled over on the right knee, which bent the [injured] left knee," said Harrison. ``Once I got over that, I said, `Maybe it's all right.' "
It was the type of hit that players coming back from serious injuries anticipate. It's not just the first contact, but the feeling that the injured area is somewhat vulnerable.
``That was one moment where I felt like `this was a good test,' " Harrison said.
In all, Harrison played about 15 snaps and didn't record a tackle. He hopes to take more snaps in the preseason finale against the Giants Thursday, and said he should be ready for the season opener Sept. 10 against the Bills.
Returning to the field was emotional for the 33-year-old Harrison, who was motivated by media reports that questioned whether he'd ever play again.
``It was unbelievable," he said of receiving a rousing ovation after being introduced. ``Just so many months of hearing people doubt you, saying it can't be done, you're too old, no way in the world can you come back; just to be able to get back out there and have the fans and people embrace you the way they've done, it was just amazing to me.
``It was just a good, warm feeling. When I went out on the field, I felt at peace. I felt really good. I felt calm, like I was supposed to be here. Nine months removed from surgery -- that's pretty doggone good."
When it came to the football, Harrison said, ``It was a little different being back out there after missing 11 months," but he started feeling comfortable and ``almost like normal" after the third or fourth play.
``It wasn't as natural," he said. ``I didn't even expect it to be natural, it's always going to be a progression. I haven't done anything for 11 months. I had to learn how to walk again, to jog again, to run again. It wasn't easy.
``So now it's just day to day, learning, relearning, and getting those basic instincts because that's how I am -- I play off a lot of instincts and I can see things a lot of times before it happens.
``I'm not at that point right now. You put that on top of the point that I'm trying to learn a new defense [under first-year coordinator Dean Pees] and trying to get all the calls down, so of course I'm going to be a little slower.
``Eventually I'll be able to go out there and just play football. From a mental standpoint, I feel like I'm comfortable. Physically, I feel good. It's going out there just gaining more confidence week by week."
Harrison was back in the weight room Sunday morning, a reflection on how well the knee responded to game contact. He's actually doing more in the weight room than he has in some time, such as lunges and squats, and credits being able to rest his body over the last year for part of the improvement.
Playing alongside his good friend Junior Seau for the first time since 2002 made Harrison's return extra special.
``It was crazy. I'm watching Junior and I'm like, `This guy looks like he's 28, 29 years old,' " Harrison said of the 37-year-old Seau, with whom he also played in San Diego. ``He's running around, he's happy, he's excited. That's what football should be about. It shouldn't be about all the politics and everything, it should be about guys wanting to play and guys out there flying around. What a guy he is. Just to be out there around him, it was awesome."
Harrison said it's all starting to come together, both for himself and the defense.
``The only person we're missing now," he said, ``is [Tedy] Bruschi."
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