|Patriot Rodney Harrison got a close look at David Tyree's gamechanging Super Bowl grab but doesn't see it in his nightmares. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)|
The remarkable on-the-helmet, falling-down catch has been replayed over and over since Super Bowl XLII, but not in the mind of the player closest to defending it.
It's not that Patriots safety Rodney Harrison is in denial or anything of the sort. He hasn't forgotten David Tyree's improbable 32-yard reception, or Eli Manning's slippery scramble and high-arcing pass that set up the Giants' winning touchdown. He's just put it in a place he believes it belongs.
Almost four months to the day from one of the more painful defeats in his NFL career, Harrison simply calls the key play inexplicable.
"Not in a million years does he make that catch again," said Harrison. "I don't have any regrets on it. I saw the ball, went up for it, and did my best to grab it out. It goes on his head, so what can you say?
"I think you have to understand that certain things happen that you just can't explain."
Surely, Harrison gave himself some brief time to wonder what could have been different. He hadn't studied much of Tyree-the-receiver prior to the Super Bowl, only Tyree-the-special-teamer, which contributed to his feeling that it was a one-in-a-million grab. If it were a top-tier pass-catcher such as Plaxico Burress on the receiving end, maybe his view would be different.
To some in Harrison's situation, the stinging result could have been one of their last tastes of professional football. Now 35 years old, he acknowledges he's "truly at the latter stages of a career in football".
But in this case, it is little surprise to learn that Harrison has harbored no thoughts of hanging up his helmet this year. If anything, the master of manufacturing motivation has turned Tyree's catch, and the Super Bowl loss, into the type of fuel that has helped fill his tank in an impressive 14-year NFL career, the first nine years spent in San Diego, the last five in New England.
Harrison's message is that he's hungry as ever.
"I can't really speak for everybody's motivation, but I think any time you deal with a situation where you had an opportunity to win, and you lose, I think it's only natural that it leaves you with a funny taste in your mouth," he said. "I don't know if anyone literally takes it into next season, but we have some very competitive guys on our team."
Such an approach has helped Harrison not just survive, but thrive, over his 193-game career, which includes 180 regular-season contests, 13 playoff tilts, and an impressive 1,238 tackles. In 2007, he became the first NFL player to record both 30 interceptions and 30 sacks in a career.
"Going into my 15th year, I don't feel any different from a mental standpoint as I did in my fourth, fifth, or sixth years," said Harrison, who is scheduled to rejoin his teammates this week at Gillette Stadium for the club's mandatory full-squad minicamp.
"I still feel energetic. I still get butterflies when I walk on the practice field and game field. I still get the excitement about being around my teammates.
"Every year is a year-to-year approach. I've always had the mentality that I'm coming in as a rookie, that I'm going to work like a rookie to get a job, and I have the same mentality to this day."
As for how much longer Harrison will deliver hard hits on the football field before transitioning to another career - perhaps as an official - he's not willing to put a number on it at this time. He enters the final year of his contract in 2008, set to earn $3 million and count $3.7 million against the salary cap.
"It doesn't matter if it's your 15th year or your third year, it could be anyone's last year because we're all one play away from it being over," he said. "So I'm going to enjoy the moment, and embrace the moment, and worry about this year. This year has a whole host of problems and different situations to deal with."
Harrison isn't sure what those problems will be, but he's been around long enough to expect the unexpected. He also seemed to be referring to the media firestorm regarding the Patriots' videotaping procedures as something that the players, who have seldom hesitated in adopting an us-against-the-world mentality, could rally around.
"I can't necessarily pinpoint everything that is going to happen, but there will be the normal criticism, everybody trying to figure out what we're doing and how we're doing it, and criticizing us, building us up to try to break us down," he said.
At safety, Harrison headlines the team's returning personnel, joining fellow starter James Sanders (fourth year) and 2007 first-round draft choice Brandon Meriweather atop the depth chart. Free agent signee Tank Williams (seventh year) also figures to challenge for playing time, and the group will be led by veteran coach Dom Capers, who is in his first Patriots season.
It's somewhat hard for Harrison to grasp that this will be his sixth year in New England. It doesn't seem long ago that he was boarding a plane with his agent, Steve Feldman, for a put-together-at-the-last-moment free-agent visit in March of 2003.
Harrison was coming off a disappointing end to his Charger career, as he played through a serious hamstring injury but seemed to be judged as if he were fully healthy, and the Raiders were primed to sign him. Yet seemingly as Harrison's signature was about to be placed on an Oakland deal, the Patriots called.
Near the end of a frosty New England winter, Harrison arrived on his cross-country flight in shorts and a T-shirt.
"There was a lot of prayer at that time, because I didn't know which way I wanted to go," he recalled. "I came here, and a lot has happened to me since then. I was at the highest points with Super Bowls and the lowest point with a major [left knee] injury I dealt with.
"When I think about that, it's why I try to stay even-keeled, never too high, never too low."