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NFL suspends Harrison

League says Patriots safety used a performance-enhancing substance

Patriots safety Rodney Harrison is used to delivering crushing blows, but this time he delivered one to his own team.

The NFL announced last night that Harrison has been suspended without pay for the first four games of the season for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances. He will be eligible to return Oct. 2. Harrison confirmed his suspension during a teleconference.

Harrison said he used the substance to help him recover from injuries. According to ESPN.com, the substance that Harrison, who did not field questions, admitted to using was human growth hormone. One benefit of HGH is that it is supposed to promote quicker recovery and healing.

The 34-year-old two-time Pro Bowler has suffered major injuries in each of the last two seasons. In 2005, he tore ligaments in his left knee in the third game, sidelining him for the remainder of the season. He returned last year and played in 10 games, but not in the three playoff games after he sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee in the regular-season finale against Tennessee. Harrison also missed six regular-season games after he fractured his right shoulder blade against Indianapolis.

"I want to make it clear that not once did I ever use steroids," said Harrison. "I did admit to the commissioner that I did in fact use a banned substance. My purpose was never to gain a competitive edge. Rather, my use was solely for accelerating the healing process of injuries I sustained while playing football.

"I haven't made excuses, nor will I make excuses. I made a mistake and I'm very sorry for that. I understand that I'm a role model to high school, to college, to young kids. I don't condone my decision, my behavior. I'm very, very embarrassed by it. I'm disappointed in myself and to any young person, any high schooler, any college athlete, I sent the wrong message with my actions. And I would ask and I would want to be the example for them to never jeopardize what they believe in and never jeopardize their health."

Harrison will miss a quarter of the season: at the New York Jets Sept. 9, vs. San Diego Sept. 16, vs. Buffalo Sept. 23, and at Cincinnati Oct. 1.

"That's the penalty that I have to serve," said Harrison. "I intend to return and do my best to really help this team in any capacity that I can help this team get back to winning a championship."

He apologized to his teammates for being a distraction and asked that they not be bothered with questions about his transgression.

"It's nothing that my teammates were involved in," he said. "I ask at this time for the respect of my teammates not to be violated. This is something that Rodney Harrison did, Rodney Harrison did alone."

Harrison signed with the Patriots as a free agent in 2003 after spending nine seasons in San Diego, earning a reputation as a fearsome and physical force and making two Pro Bowls. He has been part of two Super Bowl championships with the Patriots (2003 and '04) and is the NFL's all-time leader in sacks by a defensive back with 28 1/2. He is also the only player in NFL history to record at least 25 sacks and 30 interceptions (32).

His recent injuries led some to speculate Harrison would retire, but he decided to return for a 14th season. He had showed no lingering effects from his injuries during the preseason, displaying mobility that had been missing last season and playing with his vintage ferocity.

"It's been a tough time for me the last week or two, even before this," said Harrison. "I've apologized to my family, which has supported me so much, and friends. Now I'd like to take this opportunity to apologize to my teammates . . . and I apologize to them for being a distraction because that's the last thing we need going into the regular season. I never intended for that to happen.

"I apologize to the entire New England Patriots organization and the fans who have supported me so faithfully over my past five seasons here. Through Super Bowls, through injuries, through ups and downs, they have supported me. I definitely appreciate that."

All NFL teams must trim rosters to 53 players by today, but the Patriots, who have 76 players, can pare to 54 as the league granted them an exemption for cornerback Asante Samuel through Sept. 10.

There are a number of questions facing the Patriots: Will defensive end Richard Seymour (knee) and tight end David Thomas (broken foot) be healthy enough to start the season on the active roster instead of the physically unable to perform list? Even with Samuel's return, do the Patriots have enough depth at cornerback after season-ending injuries to Chad Scott and Mike Richardson? Will the team keep four quarterbacks, with veteran Vinny Testaverde and rookie Matt Gutierrez on the roster?

"There are a number of factors involved, not only just roster decisions, but practice squad spots, some of the physical condition of our players, and so forth," said coach Bill Belichick.

More than football may have been involved in the Patriots' somewhat surprising decision to cut ties with punter Danny Baugher and sign veteran Chris Hanson. Baugher, who in three exhibition games had punted nine times for a gross average of 44.8 yards and net of 39.0, was recently charged with assault by the Plymouth County District Attorney's Office.

The 23-year-old Baugher appeared to have the inside track on the job after the team released veteran Josh Miller and followed by releasing Tom Malone, who like Baugher spent last season on the practice squad and was sent to NFL Europa this spring for seasoning. The Patriots don't appear to be done shopping for punters, as they brought in four yesterday for tryouts - Sean Douglas, Ken Parrish, Sam Paulescu, and Paul Ernster, who punted for the Denver Broncos last year and had a 41.7-yard average. The Patriots also worked out running back Derrick Wimbush and tight end Jason Rader.

Many of the Patriots used yesterday's day off to attend the third annual Matt Light Celebrity Shoot-Out. The event, which was held in Mapleville, R.I., benefits the Light Foundation, founded in 2001 by Light and his family . . . The Patriots notched eight sacks Thursday night, led by three from Le Kevin Smith and two from Santonio Thomas, but Belichick said sacks can be deceiving as they don't always indicate great pass-rushing efforts by the individuals who record them. Sometimes they're more the result of team defense . . . The players are off today.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com; Mike Reiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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