Originally created 01/22/06

'Understudy' is soaking it up in the Steel City



Arnold Harrison picked up something at the grocery store last Sunday that surprised him.

Cruising the aisles for a few items to take back to his apartment and settle in to watch the AFC divisional playoff game, Harrison heard something unusual on the intercom.

The elevator music that familiarly accompanies shoppers suddenly went quiet. In its place blared the pregame commentary from Pittsburgh Steelers radio.

"I never heard that before," said Harrison, the former Josey High and Georgia linebacker now on the Steelers' practice squad.

After five years in Athens, Ga., Harrison thought he understood the depths of passion a community has for its football.

Then he moved to Pittsburgh 17 weeks ago.

You can't get a true taste of what a football franchise means to its fans until you remove yourself just a step back and see it from the other side. As a member of the practice squad, Harrison is that far removed.

He attends every practice, every meeting and every workout. He has a locker just like every other Steeler. He makes a sizable paycheck for a 23-year-old graduate in economics.

The only thing Harrison doesn't have is a game-day place on the active roster.

"I do everything all the way down to Saturday, and they go to work on Sunday," Harrison said. "It's been a great experience."

Harrison likens it to his red-shirt freshman season at Georgia, when he got to spend a year getting acclimated to college life and the football program before finally beginning his eligibility. Of course not every NFL practice squad player ever makes it on the active roster, but Harrison is optimistic.

"In my case, this is a developmental thing," he said. "There's a great possibility that I'll be signed up next year."

After missing most of the second half of his senior season at Georgia with a shoulder injury, Harrison lacked the credentials to get drafted. So he signed with the Steelers as a free agent.

He was comfortable in Pittsburgh from the start, with a locker right next to former Bulldogs receivers Hines Ward and Fred Gibson, a draft pick

subsequently cut.

Harrison was also cut before the final preseason game, but picked back up and assigned to the practice squad the first week of the regular season. He's been living and learning in Pittsburgh since.

"It's just a blessing to be part of the NFL," he said.

"To be on a team with the caliber of linebackers we have here, like Joey Porter and James Farrior, it was an uphill battle. I'm an understudy and watch them every day."

He has plenty of company to keep him from getting homesick. Running back Verron Haynes was a teammate at Georgia, and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt - formerly of Richmond Academy and Georgia Tech - talks with him every day about their hometown ties.

"We joke all the time about who's school is better - ARC or Josey," Harrison said. "We never get into the Tech-Georgia argument."

The only thing unusual about Harrison's current life are the game days. He usually goes to the home games and stands on the sidelines. He went to the wild card game in Cincinnati with his family from Augusta and watched from the stands. After the game, he hung out with former Georgia teammate Odell Thurman, now a star with the Bengals.

Last week, however, he stayed in Pittsburgh while the Steelers traveled to Indianapolis and posted a breathtaking upset of the AFC favorite. In a game with so many twists and turns that it was exhausting for any outsider to watch, Harrison sat in his apartment yelling at the TV while talking to his father on the phone back in Augusta.

How was he handling that drama?

"You chalk it up to the football gods," he said of all the bizarre moments that nearly cost the Steelers a trip to today's AFC Championship game at Denver. "The game is like life. Everything is going your way and then ... bam! ... but you've got to finish the drill."

Harrison watches games with a trained eye, knowing what the Steelers have planned and anticipating how they'll handle whatever the opposition throws at them.

But when Jerome Bettis fumbled at the goal line and Colts cornerback Nick Harper recovered and ran up the open field for what could have been a game-winning touchdown, Harrison never could have predicted what he saw next - quarterback Ben Roethlisberger making a shoestring tackle to save the Steelers.

"It was a beautiful thing to see him get them down," Harrison said. "A quarterback and cornerback in the open field ... think about the odds. It's hard to tackle an 8-year-old in that much room."

The former Josey star will maintain his unique vantage point on his sofa for the AFC title game against the Broncos. If the Steelers win, however, Harrison expects to be going to Super Bowl XL in Detroit just like everybody else on the team. He'll practice and soak it all up as an inside-outsider.

Win there, however, and even the practice squad shares in the bling.

"I know he'll be getting a ring," said his father, Arnold Harrison Sr.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.