FOXBOROUGH -- You weren't sure about him, and that was a first. Rodney Harrison was one of the steely-eyed, redoubtable Patriots veterans who never forgot where he came from. He was a fifth-round pick who delighted in slamming his doubters to the dirt with one of his signature bloodless blows. There were players who have come and gone who concerned you because of their lack of mental concentration or physical commitment, but Harrison was never one of them. He was motivated, focused, prepared, intense, talented. How could anyone question that?
But he was hurt. Again.
And you wondered if -- finally -- his time was up in the National Football League.
Guess what? Rodney Harrison was wondering the same thing.
"Of course I did," Harrison confirmed. "I kept thinking, 'What the heck could happen next?' Just as my knee was getting better, I came back and broke my scapula. That was a freak thing. Then I worked my butt off to get back, and then it was the other knee, which was also a freak thing. I kept saying to myself, 'This is ridiculous.'
"It was incredibly frustrating, disappointing, but I also knew it was part of the game. I wasn't getting hurt because I was out of position or out of shape or unprepared.
"Still, it was a tough question to ask myself: 'How much more can I take?' "
There were warning signs he couldn't shake. In summer 2006, he reported to training camp following his rehab from a wretched knee injury that resulted in the tear of an alphabet of ligaments -- ACL, MCL, PCL -- and decimated his 2005 season. Now he was back, but he labored in some of the preseason workouts, and his electric burst of speed eluded him.
Maybe it was temporary.
Maybe it wasn't.
"There were a couple of times in training camp last year that [tight end] Ben Watson ran past me," Harrison acknowledged. "I was there, but I couldn't get him. So I started questioning myself. I mean, I'm running around out there with this big knee brace on."
He has been around long enough to detect the concern in the faces of his teammates and his coaches. Nobody said anything, because, after all, he was coming off major knee surgery, but they saw what he felt: He wasn't the same.
Harrison battled on. His mobility improved in increments. He started the first seven games last season and recorded 23 tackles and a sack, but then, Nov. 5 against the Colts, he was hauling down receiver Marvin Harrison when he landed awkwardly on his shoulder. The pain was excruciating, and familiar. He had broken his scapula, just as he had done when he played for the Chargers.
Six weeks later, he scratched his way back, but his season was again cut short when a low block by Tennessee's Bobby Wade crumpled his knee on New Year's Eve.
"I was close," Harrison said. "If we had won that game, I would have played in the Super Bowl. But I'll tell you what made me nervous. When we got up, 21-3, I started getting phone calls. About eight different people called me and said, 'Man, we're pumped. We're booking flights. We're getting tickets.'
"I hung up on every one of them. I said, 'It's not over.' Click. 'It's not over.' Click. Because I knew what the Indianapolis Colts were capable of. It's never over with them because they score so quickly.
"I wish I could have played, but I wasn't ready. You can't go 60 percent in a game of that magnitude. You'll get exposed. I wish I was out there. I could have helped, especially with the tight end, Dallas Clark [who ended up with six catches for 137 yards]."
The season ended abruptly, with his teammates cramping in the locker room and Harrison slumping in his living room. Harrison commiserated with Tom Brady and Richard Seymour by cellphone over the stunning 38-34 loss. They asked how he was. He lied, and said he was fine.
But it was a struggle. Harrison kept waiting for his bounce to return, waiting to feel . . . like himself. He contemplated retirement, then pushed that notion away, then contemplated it again.
"I just didn't feel that good in January or February," he said.
Time passed. He dutifully kept up his conditioning program, because that's what he has always done, for all of his football life. In April, he noticed some improvement in his quickness. A month later, he could jump a little higher, move a little faster.
"By May and June, I was playing basketball," Harrison said. "They said I'd never play basketball again, but I was out there running and jumping, stealing balls, blocking shots. I was moving.
"I went to minicamp in May. I had dropped my weight from 220 to around 215-216. I made a couple of plays. People were complimenting me on how I looked. Tom Brady came up to me and said, 'Hey, you've got your speed back.' "
Ben Watson wasn't blowing past him. Nobody was. Harrison met his heir apparent, Brandon Meriweather, drafted in the first round to some day fill his shoes, and he stopped for a moment to admire Meriweather's youthful exuberance, his effortless athleticism.
But only for a moment.
Rodney Harrison is looking forward now, not back. His success at minicamp has convinced him his career is not over.
"What happened at minicamp was very, very, very important," Harrison explained. "It was about mobility, movement. It was a huge step in my progress. They always told me the second year after an ACL is where you see everything take off."
Harrison likes the new additions. He believes Adalius Thomas will be "an instant leader," that Randy Moss will be professional, that young Meriweather will learn a lot from him if he listens closely.
"He's a good kid," Harrison said. "I spent some time with him at minicamp. Every time I looked up, he was there, right on my hip. He told me, 'I'm going to follow you wherever you go.' And he did. I sit down, and there he is, eating lunch with me."
With Asante Samuel's status uncertain in New England, there are obvious questions about this secondary, including the health of a 34-year-old safety who has absorbed some major damage the past two seasons.
"The secondary is the X factor," Harrison agreed. "No question."
He talks with Samuel regularly. He is proud of him, he said, and would love to have him in camp, but he will not impose his will on his young teammate.
"I told him we understood it was a business and we miss him," Harrison said. "I told him I loved him and he has a decision and he should be responsible about making it.
"Then I told him to make sure he keeps his butt in shape."
Harrison can detect a growing dissatisfaction among the fans with Samuel, who made 12 interceptions last season while sporting a tattoo that screeched, "Get Paid."
"Fans look at him as a one-year wonder," Harrison said. "What I see is the real deal. I've watched his progress. Right from the beginning he had great instincts, a good feel for the ball, but he was very immature. Every year he's improved. Then he had his breakout year.
"I'm not trying to say he's Champ Bailey. Champ has done it for many years. Each year, he proves himself again, just like Tom Brady.
"I explained to Asante what people want to see is consistency. That's what he's got to show them now."
The New England Patriots will open training camp today in Foxborough without Samuel, but his mentor, Rodney Harrison, will be prowling the field, ready to stick someone in the dirt.
You think he's done? Go on over there and tell him that.
"I had to come to terms with accepting that I can't do what I used to," Harrison said. "I can't dunk off two legs anymore. But I can still dunk off one leg. I'm no longer 26. I'm 34. Maybe I'm not what I used to be. That's OK. Who is? We all get older.
"I can't jump out of bed and run up and down the field anymore. I need about 40 minutes to warm up my body and prepare myself. If I can't do that, then I can't practice."
The scouting report on Rodney Harrison is not to expect too much. He has played 13 games over the past two seasons, and no one knows the toll that has taken on his body. This tepid forecast neither surprises nor bothers him. In fact, it invigorates him.
"I understand," he said, barely concealing his grin. "I respect that. I'm just a fifth-round draft pick."
Jackie MacMullan can be reached at email@example.com.