In a sadly appropriate sort of way, you had to figure this was the way it would end: with the aging and suddenly damaged football warrior being hauled off the field on a cart, a stoic look on his face but a hint of a tear in his eye, waving to a cheering crowd well aware that this is likely a mutual farewell.
If Monday night brought the end for Rodney Harrison, it sure made for a hell of a famous final scene. What, you thought he’d go willingly?
Heaven knows we’ve seen enough Patriot limbs twisted and mangled in high definition this year. So it was immediately apparent that Harrison’s injury, suffered when his left foot remained awkwardly planted in the turf while he was pursuing Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler three quarters of the way through the Patriots’ 41-7 victory, was as serious as it was gruesome.
The predictable confirmation came Tuesday (though not straight from the Patriots): Torn right quadriceps. Season over. Career very likely over. Ugh. Talk about your hard hits.
The loss of Harrison might not be the most devastating blow to clobber the Patriots this season — that particular injury, as we suspect you might recall, happened 7:37 into the new season — but he is, in a sense, the quarterback of the defense. It’s always a bummer to lose a player so popular and perhaps even iconic.
A lasting symbol of the fearsome championship defenses of 2003 and ’04, Harrison feels like a Patriots lifer — quick, can you picture anyone else wearing No. 37? He’s so identified with the franchise’s unprecedented era of success that it’s easy to forget he actually spent the first nine years of his career as a San Diego Charger and wasn’t around for the Patriots’ first Super Bowl victory in 2002. (So, uh, any regrets, Mr. Milloy?)
Harrison actually arrived in New England as a free agent before the 2003 season, when Bill Belichick quickly snapped him up after Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer unceremoniously discarded him, proclaiming that injuries had robbed him of his usefulness. Only now, five seasons later, his assessment was finally beginning to make some sense.
Harrison is 35 now, ancient for a safety. His various injuries in recent years — a blown-out knee in ’05, a broken scapula and a sprained medial collateral ligament in ’06 — have gradually sapped him of his speed and effectiveness.
This year, it wasn’t uncommon to see Harrison arrive on the scene a split second after a running back turned the corner for a big gainer; his mind might have been a step ahead, but his fast thinking didn’t always make up for the steps his legs had lost over time. Should the Patriots choose to replace him with veteran free agent John
Lynch, that probably wouldn’t be a significant drop-off. Strictly in terms of performance, he’s not irreplaceable.
But the wisdom and knowledge he has gained in the 15 NFL seasons since the Chargers swiped him in the fifth round out of Western Illinois in 1994? That simply cannot be replaced, even by a player of Lynch’s savvy and accomplishment. Harrison’s impact on his fellow Patriots defensive backs is intangible and immeasurable, yet so obvious that even Tony Kornheiser might pick up on it.
In 2003 and ’04, Eugene Wilson looked like a future All-Pro playing alongside Harrison at safety. But when Harrison was injured and Wilson’s responsibilities increased, he was exposed as just another guy (though, to be fair, injuries also robbed him of some of his early promise). This season, Brandon Meriweather, the first-round pick in ’07 who endured an erratic rookie season, has made encouraging progress. It remains to be seen how much of that was due to Harrison’s on-field tutelage.
Of course, some around the league might snicker at the concept of Harrison as some sort of sage elder, and they’re surely enjoying a delicious helping of schadenfreude regarding his misfortune this week. Harrison has long toed the blurry line between hard hitter and cheap-shot artist, and his peers — especially those ever-so-delicate wide receivers — often gripe that he blatantly and dangerously steps over it. His obvious contradictions have long made him one of the more compelling, and controversial, characters in the NFL.
His fellow players voted him the league’s dirtiest player in 2004 and ’06, and coaches bestowed him with the dubious honor in an ESPN poll this season. He is the NFL’s all-time leader in personal-foul penalties, and he’s been hit with more than $200,000 in fines in his career. There’s a decent chance he’d give your mom a forearm shiver should she have the nerve to run a crossing route near his territory.
Yet those who know him swear by his character. Harrison is a genuinely warm, thoughtful, and grounded man whose first priorities are family and faith. In the boys-being-repulsive-boys, eternal-adolescence atmosphere of a typical NFL locker room, Harrison has always stood out as a fully formed adult.
Still, it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to suggest he’s misunderstood, because his on-field reputation is completely self-inflicted, and he made his peace with public perception long ago. But it has cost him accolades and recognition he deserves. Despite being the only player in the history of the NFL with more than 30 sacks and 30 interceptions, he’s made just two Pro Bowls — an honor, not coincidentally, in which his peers have a significant say.
If there is any justice — and frankly, judging by the events of this Patriots season, we’re skeptical such a concept exists when it comes to the NFL — Harrison will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame someday.
Yes, the ending to his career, if indeed this is it, was perfectly appropriate. But the player and the man deserve a legacy that lasts much longer than a quick and agonizing ride on a cart.
OT columnist Chad Finn is a sports reporter for Boston.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org