Playing in the NFL is not the recipe for a long and healthy career. Depending on who you talk to, the average footballing lifespan is from 3.5 to six years. Make it to 10 and it is time to break out the confetti and 21-gun salutes. Anything past that deserves serious accolades.
At the age of 38, Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison sticks out like football’s sore thumb, a 6ft, 275lb anomaly who just happens to be the most powerful physical presence left in this year’s playoffs. There is only one non-kicking player older than that, and his name is Tom Brady, but as a quarterback his job is far less punishing than Harrison’s at linebacker.
Linebackers, like running backs, just don’t survive those body-shivering collisions for long. It’s one of the most brutal roles in a sport that revels in violent impacts. Harrison’s longevity is even more remarkable as he also played many early seasons on the Steelers’ kickoff and punt coverage teams, the sporting equivalent of a multi-vehicle pile-up at high speed. His ability to play through pain and keep dishing it out is remarkable.
Does Harrison serve as a lesson for other players? Can anyone play until their late 30s, given the right lifestyle and training. Or is Harrison just a genetic freak?
According to performance and conditioning coach Tom Shaw, who has a center in Orlando, the secret is twofold – dedication, and smarts. Shaw has worked with Harrison in several off-seasons in the Florida heat, along with other long-serving retired Steelers like Ike Taylor and James Farrior, and he has a rare insight into what makes Harrison tick, and how players can thrive past 30.
“James wasn’t supposed to be playing in the NFL,” Shaw observes. “He wasn’t drafted, and he bounced around a lot in his early years, but when he had an opportunity, he wanted to make the most of it, and he understood that from day one. You see some players who make a lot of money and don’t want to get hurt, so they don’t train as hard as they ought to. But that’s not James. He doesn’t ever want to retire, and he dedicates himself totally to that task.”
Harrison did flirt with retirement in 2014, for all of three weeks, before returning to the Pittsburgh fold – a rash of early-season injuries was all it took to see him back. Ever since, he has added another 46 games, 115 tackles and 20 sacks to his team-leading résumé and will play in another Super Bowl should the Steelers beat the New England Patriots on Sunday.
Harrison’s former team-mate Taylor, now an NFL Network pundit, was one of Harrison’s closest confidantes in the locker-room, and has his own take on why the “old man” keeps rolling. Taylor insists: “James Harrison is a very powerful person. He is the youngest of 14 kids, so you can only imagine how many times he got picked on and how he had to fight for things, even down to food on the table. That’s the fire that burns within him.
“That last name means a lot to him, too. The way he carries himself, the way he walks, he’s an old school guy. He always wanted to make his dad proud and he wants to make his family proud. He has two sons now, so he wants to make them proud, too. He just wants to carry on that legacy.
“Many people take things for granted instead of looking at things as an opportunity to get better or try something new. James will never take anything for granted. In football terms, he is also a highly motivated guy. He figured himself out a long time ago. You have to figure your body out in this sport. He gets up every day at 6am and he has six or seven people on his staff just to look after his body. He keeps to a strict diet, he gets massages and all of that stuff. He’s old-school, but he’s smart.”
There have been a handful of games lost to injury, true, but Harrison has never played fewer than 11 in a season and, this year, he missed out on a complete set only because the Steelers’ playoff berth was already secured before the season finale with the Browns. At 38, he has played as many snaps as he did at 28 and his marauding forays into opponents’ backfields have been just as potent, as Kansas City would attest from their divisional round defeat.
To Shaw, it is no surprise. “He is doing all the right things to recover and maintain his body. The Steelers have a really good strength coach in Garrett Giemont, and he really understands veteran players. That’s also an organization that treats its players like family. If they sign you to a four-year contact, that means they want you to play four years, and they look after you accordingly. Players don’t tend to burn out there.”
Taylor agrees, pointing out that Pittsburgh tailors its rest and recuperation programs to individual players, none more so than the veteran linebacker. “The coaching staff do a great job of keeping him well rested, so he can still be James Harrison on the field. Their understanding of how to preserve him for games goes a long way to where he’s at now. He takes a lot of pride in going out on the field and being productive. Is he the James Harrison of old? No. Is he effective? Yes. Is he a starter? Yes.”
Harrison’s near-fanatical devotion to body conditioning is legendary. As Taylor insists, he is the poster child for healthy living, eating mainly organic food, employing his own acupuncturist, masseur and chiropractor, and eschewing nights out with his team-mates.
Doubts have been cast in his direction. He was named in the infamous 2015 Al Jazeera report that accused a number of NFL and MLB players of taking human growth hormone, including Peyton Manning and fellow linebackers Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers. The source of the report later recanted and all the players were exonerated, but that hasn’t stopped the NFL from targeting Harrison for regular drug tests. He estimates he was asked to provide the necessary sample “eight or nine times” in 2016. None of them produced a positive result and, while he has not raised the issue this season, he bitterly resents the association.
His Instagram post in the wake of the ‘not guilty’ verdict insisted: “I have worked for everything I have since day one.” His body, which still boasts a notable six-pack, is testament to his physical condition, and bears none of the bulky signs of drug use. His workout sessions are intense, and younger team-mates like 24-year-old linebacker Ryan Shazier admit they struggle to keep up with his weights routine.
“He’s not very tall,” says Shaw. “But he is thick and strong. Really, really strong. And he’s also quick for a big guy. He just does everything that I tell my clients to do in terms of working on their conditioning. There are a lot of things you can do, like running in sand, which helps your hips and ankles, to build up your strength and stamina, but then you also have to be smart about what you do to recover after games, especially the older players.
“One thing we recommend is air boots, which squeeze the lactic acid out of your feet and lower legs and get it to circulate better. You can use the cryo-chamber, which uses nitrogen to lower the body temperature drastically after a workout. Three minutes in that is the equivalent of any number of ice baths. But then there are the more old-fashioned things like massage. I know James does all of that – and that’s why he’s still out there today.”
Taylor, who chalked up 189 games in his 12 seasons in Pittsburgh, isadamant that some players ‘get it’ early in their careers, and others don’t. “At 22 or 23, you think you can play forever, but you have to understand, what’s my next step from year to year? How can I preserve myself and continue to get better?
“As you get older, your metabolism slows down. As you get older you also find that sleep is really good, and dieting is even better. If you just eat anything, it does nothing for the body. So for the last six years of my career, my dieting was paramount. Sleeping well and eating well were the keys.”
Shaw and Taylor can stress the importance of recovery and conditioning until they are blue in the face, but, ultimately, it is up to each player to take the message on board. The sooner it is, the longer the career players can expect, they both insist.
And, if anyone needs a reminder, they need only watch James Harrison in action on Sunday night.