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Safety patrol: Harrison tries out officiating job

A wideout floats across the middle looking to make a catch but gets wiped out by a spectacular hit from a defensive back.

For as long as he can remember, Rodney Harrison most often has been in one of two positions for such occurrences: celebrating as the hitter, or celebrating as the teammate of the hitter.

That's what big-time NFL safeties do.

Yesterday, however, Harrison was involved in such a play and celebration would have been inappropriate.

Harrison wasn't sporting the Patriots' home blue or road white, and neither he nor a teammate delivered the bone-jarring hit. Instead, Harrison's job as a stripe-wearing back judge at an NFL Europe scrimmage in Tampa was to determine whether the hit was legal.

Rodney Harrison -- one of the most heavily fined players in the game thanks to his aggressive meetings with pass catchers -- passing judgment on defensive players' hits? (That sound you hear is the collective shriek of NFL receivers.)

Think what you want, but throwing flags is what Harrison says he plans to do after his playing days are over, though the move from player to official could take some getting used to for all concerned, especially the 11-year pro.

"It is kind of one of those things where, once you actually get on the field, you'll know if you want to do it, and I know that this is definitely something that I would want to pursue," Harrison said on a conference call from Florida. "I saw one guy get annihilated and I almost jumped through the sky. I was pumped up. I was yelling and screaming and I was like, `Man, what are you doing? Are you officiating or are you a fan?' "

Most of all he's a player, and that is something he'll have to overcome if he wants to be a top official, the way Steve Freeman did.

Freeman, a safety, was a fifth-round draft pick of the Patriots in 1975, but he lasted only a few weeks with the squad before getting cut. He lasted much longer with the Buffalo Bills, playing a then team-record 178 games in the next 12 years before finishing his career with Minnesota.

Not long after hanging up his cleats, he was back in the secondary, this time as a back judge. And he started at the bottom: four years doing junior high and high school games in Oxford, Miss., followed by a six-year stint in the Southeastern Conference. Freeman has been in the NFL since 2001, and has done well enough to be part of the crew that worked the NFC Championship game in January.

"After all those years playing, it's the only way you can get back on an NFL field," Freeman said. "You can't get on the field as a coach or a broadcaster. As an official, you're right where you feel you belong."

As a player-turned-official, Freeman understands Harrison's celebration after witnessing a play that excited him. In some ways, Freeman says, Harrison always will see the game as a player.

"I'll come home from a game and from what I could see, I'll tell my wife, `I could have had four interceptions today,' " Freeman said. "I joke with people that I'm 51 and I might make a comeback next year."

Just as spending a couple hundred bucks on a No. 37 Patriots jersey won't make you one of the most feared defenders in the NFL, donning stripes and sticking a whistle in your mouth won't make you an NFL-caliber official. That is why Harrison is in Tampa with 27 other current and former players, as part of the NFL and the Players Association's internship program.

Twenty-two of the participants are aspiring coaches, one is working in front office operations, while Harrison is among five players going through the officials tutoring in a three-day stint at the camp. The group of whistle-blowers includes former Green Bay Packers and Patriots offensive lineman Grey Ruegamer, all 6 feet 4 inches and 305 pounds of him.

Obviously, being a former player isn't a prerequisite to becoming a solid official, nor does it guarantee a job.

"Oh no, playing 13 years in the NFL doesn't make one a good official," Freeman said. "It helps me do some preventative officiating, in telling guys what they can and can't do, and once you've played the game, you're not going to be intimidated about being in front of however many thousands of screaming fans on the biggest stage.

"But you have to show your peers that you know the rules and can handle yourself as an official. Having been a player has little to do with that."

Getting to that level takes time, time Harrison is willing to invest.

"I came in the league as a fifth-rounder and I had to work my way up to where I'm at now," Harrison said. "Anything worth having is worth working for.

"I don't mind coming from the bottom. Whatever I have to do. I'm used to coming from the bottom. I'm like a bottom-feeder. Eventually I will get better. If I am spending 10 or 12 hours a day on the football field and in the classroom, I know I can spend that kind of time to learn this."

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