For six years, Rodney Harrison was the heart and soul of the New England Patriots’ defensive backfield. An emotional, hard-hitting safety capable of playing multiple positions in the secondary, Harrison helped the Patriots win two Super Bowls — ans throughout his tenure with the team, established himself as a prototypical member of the early dynasty Patriots: the six-time captain was a no-nonsense, blue-collar defender.
Yesterday, Harrison added another accolade to his already impressive résumé: the fans voted him to the Patriots Hall of Fame as the 29th overall inductee. Shortly after the announcement was made official, Harrison went on a conference call with the New Engalnd media to talk about the experience and also reflect back upon his Patriots career, which spanned from his signing as a free agent in 2003 until his retirement following the 2008 season.
“I just wanted to come in and be able to show what kind of football player I was without any reputation,” said Harrison about originally coming to New England. “Coach [Bill] Belichick gave me a clean slate and that’s what I wanted. I wanted just to show the East Coast what Rodney Harrison was about and what I could bring and that’s why I came in with such a level of intensity, because that’s what football is, that’s the way I played, that was my approach.”
Harrison originally started his career with the then-San Diego Chargers in 1994, when he was selected in the fifth round of the draft. He quickly started developing the ‘reputation’ he was talking about: a hard-hitting defender and, at least early in his career, special teamer that crossed the line into what the NFL deemed to be illegal on a regular basis. This, in turn, made Harrison a fixture on various ‘dirtiest player’ lists over the years.
Coming to New England, however, Harrison had his mind set on one thing above them all: the Super Bowl. “Instead of me focusing on getting myself acclimated and learning the system, I was thinking about Super Bowls before any of that stuff. It was good. Ty [Law] and all the guys welcomed me in,” said Harrison. “When you have guys like him and Willie McGinest and Tom Brady and those guys, it pushes you. It holds you accountable and it pushes you, and that’s what we did: we pushed one another.”
As a result of this, Harrison earned two All-Pro designations and played a key role on some of the best teams ever assembled: he started on the teams that won Super Bowls 38 and 39, and also was a core member of the Patriots’ legendary 16-0 squad in 2007 — a team that smothered its opponents in all three phases, befor ultimately falling just short in the title game. Nevertheless, Harrison’s successes with the Patriots far outweigh his few failures.
One reason for that was his usage, as the 46-year-old pointed out yesterday. “I think Coach Belichick was the first coach to really utilize me the way I’ve always wanted to be utilized. I played some strong safety and free safety in San Diego but he gave me a chance to play linebacker, he put me at nickelback, dimeback, I played strong safety, I played free and I also played some corner,” Harrison said. “He wanted me to do more and I wanted to do more. He challenged me and he pushed me to do more and learn more and it was great.”
“That’s what the Patriots are about,” continued Harrison. “They’re about getting guys that are passionate, that are smart, that are team-only guys, that can play multiple positions and that’s what Coach Belichick builds and that’s why when one guy goes down, we can get another guy to step up. Whether it’s Tom Brady, Rodney Harrison, Richard Seymour, we always have some other guy waiting in the wings that’s prepared and that’s the thing Coach Belichick brought and it was pretty special.”
In general, Harrison spoke highly of Bill Belichick and the culture the future first-ballot Hall of Famer built since taking over in New England in 2000. “When I came over here to the Patriots, the thing that I loved about Coach Belichick was we had purpose,” he said. “Everything that we were doing, it had a purpose. It was just really good to get around a bunch of other people that really loved football. Not just on defense — a lot of times what I had in San Diego — but guys that loved football.”
“Coach Belichick wasn’t about favoritism or anything like that. He was about you coming in, doing what you have to do, being a pro and earning your keep and that’s what I loved about him. He opened up, he gave me an opportunity and he didn’t have any preconceived notions of me. He gave me an opportunity and that’s all I ever wanted,” said Harrison — one of the best free agency additions of the Brady/Belichick era.
Harrison also opened up about coming to the Patriots and the path his career took because of his decision to join the club. “I came in and ruffled a few feathers and that was always a great moment for me because I went into unfamiliar territory. Denver wanted me and they were offering a lot more money and I just decided once I met with Scott Pioli and Coach Belichick, I knew the Patriots were the answer,” Harrison said. “I knew I did the right thing when I decided to come to New England.”
Sixteen years after the decision was made, Harrison now enters the hallowed halls of Patriots football. “I’m just really excited,” he said immediately after the announcement was made yesterday. “Coming from being a little kid in Markham, Illinois when people your whole life have told you, ‘You can’t, you’re too small, you’re too skinny, you’re not fast enough, you’re not tall enough, you don’t go to Ohio State, you don’t go to Michigan, you go to Western Illinois.’”
“I’ve heard that my entire career and to continue to fight and claw, I just want to be able to use my example to young kids and people that struggle with their confidence, to encourage them,” continued Harrison. “You’ve just got to keep working, you’ve got to continue to believe in yourself, continue to fight and claw for everything that you get and you never can become complacent. And that’s the example that I try to set for my kids and kids in the community and that’s important to me, that’s what I stand for.”