Originally created 02/05/06

Steeler Surprise



The wake-up call wasn't exactly rude. More like hurtful.

Arnold Harrison Jr. answered his phone at 7 a.m. on Jan. 24 to hear his mother accuse him of holding out on her.

"Why wouldn't you tell me something like that?" Amy Harrison chided her son.

What she was talking about, Mr. Harrison had no idea. How would his mother know before he did that he was activated to the Pittsburgh Steelers' 53-man roster just 12 days before Super Bowl XL?

"I'll call you back," he said.

Sure enough, his mother knew best. The message his parents had received from an Augusta radio personality was correct. The NFL rookie from T.W. Josey High School and the University of Georgia would be making his professional debut on the biggest stage in sports - replacing injured linebacker Andre Frazier.

"We knew it before he did," Arnold Harrison Sr. said of his son's timely promotion. "Is that something? First game ... is the Super Bowl. That may be a first."

It isn't a first, but it's pretty close.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only two players in NFL history have made their first professional appearance in the Super Bowl - though they don't know for sure whether it was the first time they'd ever been on the active roster.

Defensive back Henry Stuckey sips champagne every year as the last edition to the Miami Dolphins roster before they capped a perfect 1972 season at Super Bowl VII.

Reserve tight end Paul Green had plenty of garbage time to make his debut off the bench as his Denver Broncos were routed by the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIV.

If Mr. Harrison makes it into the game on special teams or defense, he'll be No. 3.

"He's startin' at the top," his father said. "Where do you go from there?"

After not being drafted and spending the entire season as a free agent on the Steelers practice squad, Mr. Harrison could hardly believe his luck.

Some of the game's greatest players never get to the Super Bowl. Rushing giants Barry Sanders and O.J. Simpson never made it. Not a single member of the Manning quarterback clan has yet to arrive in the ultimate sports spotlight.

Even Georgia's finest football product - Herschel Walker - can't say he played in the Super Bowl.

Now here's unheralded Arnold Harrison Jr. getting there. He's just the fourth player from the Augusta-Richmond County school system to be able to play for a Super Bowl ring, joining Laney's Emerson Boozer (1969 with the Jets) and fellow Josey alums Jimmie Johnson (1992 with the Redskins) and Deon Grant (2004 with the Panthers).

"What's the odds of a guy from Augusta, Ga., being in the Super Bowl?" he said.

"I think it kind of parallels his career even at Georgia," said Brian VanGorder, his former Bulldogs defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. "He grew in leaps and bounds as a human being and young man. I had doubts that he would ever even play at Georgia on a consistent basis when he was young, but he continued to mature. The next thing I know he's in his junior year and starting and one of our dependable guys. It was really an impressive transformation."

Mr. VanGorder, now the head coach at Georgia Southern University, said Mr. Harrison's style is never about proving people wrong.

"It was more a perseverance-type attitude - I'll get through this; I'll overcome this; I'll become this," Mr. VanGorder said.

Tebow Tolbert, a longtime athletics department figure and coach at Josey, has known Arnold Harrison "since he was knee-high to where he is now" and never doubted he would accomplish something special.

"He's always believed in himself," Mr. Tolbert said.

"He's getting his due because he worked hard," said his dad, Arnold Sr. "He's had one of those careers up and down with injuries. He was due a break."

Mr. Harrison himself believes he got this chance because he dedicated himself to the Steelers practice squad and making himself better every day.

"The reason I got this shot is I took it serious," he said.

News of Mr. Harrison's unique promotion spread much quicker than the announcement that he got engaged over the holidays to Christi Thomas, a former UGA women's basketball player who is now a rookie with the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks.

Georgia head coach Mark Richt found out while he was walking on a treadmill and saw the news running across the ticker on ESPN and everybody started celebrating.

"I think it's fantastic," Mr. Richt said. "This'll be his first experience, right? He'll probably be running down the field on that opening kickoff one way or another. He was always an outstanding special teamer and I'm sure that's part of the reason why he made the club."

Mr. Tolbert got the word straight from Mr. Harrison himself.

"I thought he was pulling my leg at first," Mr. Tolbert said. "He said. 'Tebow, I'm not playing with you. Honest. I'm there.'"

Mr. Harrison's parents and older sister, Arnee, left Wednesday to drive to Detroit, leaving plenty of time to make it there by today in case of bad weather. They planned to do the usual activities set up for the families of players and hoped to join him for church services this morning. They will of course be seated at Ford Field for tonight's globally televised kickoff.

But most of all, they just wanted to be there with their son at this defining moment.

"I'm the proudest dad on the planet," Mr. Harrison Sr. said. "I just want to see him and touch him."

The Steelers didn't head to Detroit until Monday, and the next morning Mr. Harrison got the full taste of just how enormously hyped the Super Bowl can be. The full-team media day in the stadium ranges from the ridiculous to the sublime, and Mr. Harrison got more than his share of attention for a guy who a week earlier was on the practice squad. Reporters from Hawaii to New York to BET television were asking him for his story.

"It's something pretty unusual," he said.

Mr. Harrison has gotten some ribbing from teammates about cherry-picking a place in the Super Bowl off all their hard work, but he says they are all happy for him and consider him just as big a part of the team.

"Just as much work as they do to get the job done, I have, too," he said. "I was here when we didn't have a chance, losing all those games in the middle of the season, and I was here when we won the last seven in a row. I've been here through thick and thin."

Mr. Harrison might be a little too rusty to have much expected of him against the Seattle Seahawks. His last full-game action came 13 months ago in the University of Georgia's Outback Bowl win over Wisconsin. He played in three pre-season games before being cut by the Steelers and later picked up and placed on the nine-man practice squad..

"The game is the most important thing," he said of his focus all week. "If you lose the game it's all for naught."

His friends and family don't feel that way.

"If he brings that ring home, that will be the icing on the cake," said his father. "We've been with Arnold and supported him through high school and college and knew the work he's put into it. It overwhelms me with joy to see what he's accomplished."

Just being there sends message enough.

"It just gives everybody hope of succeeding if they just don't quit," Mr. Richt said. "It's fun to see one of the good guys do well."

Said Mr. Tolbert: "He gonna mean a lot to this community before it's over with. We need to see somebody that's doing well and making progress and all they got to do is stay focused and work hard."

Even Mr. Harrison himself can't let what happens on the field tonight overshadow what it took just to get there.

"It's not just one game," he said. "It's about a lifetime of hard work for people. I can always say that I was the best in the world at some time. Nobody can take that away."

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

Arnold Harrison's Journey from augusta to Detroit

1996-99: High School T.W. Josey

- Georgia Sports Writers Association AAA All-State Honorable Mention

- First team all-area selection in 1999 by The Augusta Chronicle

- 1998 and '99 Best Defensive Player at Josey

- Four-year letterman, three-year starter

- Made 77 tackles, 12 sacks and three fumble recoveries as a senior



2000-04: College University of Georgia

- 2002: Earned Biggest Defensive Surprise of the Spring award; received J.E. and W.S. Hickey Endowed Football Scholarship

- 2003: Played in all 14 games with 10 starts; made eight tackles in the SEC Championship Game vs. LSU

- 2004: Named to pre-season All-SEC third team by the SEC coaches; appeared in nine games, making six starts; played in the East-West Shrine post-season all-star game 2005-06: NFLPittsburgh Steelers

- Undrafted rookie was signed as free agent by Pittsburgh

- Spent season as member of practice squad

- Signed by Steelers for Super Bowl to replace Andre Frazier, who broke his right ankle in AFC championship game