FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (Sept. 7, 2006) -- A smile has replaced the tears on Rodney Harrison's face.
His badly damaged knee is strong again, the drive that made him an intimidating hitter never left and the return to football some doubted would happen is just days away.
Bring on the Bills.
"I don't feel any restrictions" for Sunday's opener against Buffalo, the New England Patriots strong safety said. "I don't see myself being limited in any capacity. I just feel like when I go out there I'm going to be ready to play."
Harrison, known for his intimidating hits, couldn't even stand up the last time he played in an NFL game. He tore three ligaments in his left knee in the first quarter last Sept. 25 at Pittsburgh and knew right away his season was over. He missed the last 13 regular-season games and two playoff contests.
Free safety Eugene Wilson saw Harrison at halftime of the Steelers game.
"He had tears in his eyes because he loves the game so much," Wilson said, "and to go down and know that you might not be able to play, it hurts."
Harrison was driven off the field on a cart. After the game, a cart took him to the team bus. All that hard work in the offseason after the Patriots second straight Super Bowl win meant little. Frustration set in and the sparkplug of the Patriots defense couldn't take it out on opponents.
"I knew I was done for the season because I heard something pop," he said. "You have to go through trials and tribulations to make you gain perspective in life as well as in your work and it just makes you appreciate it that much more and I'm not taking it for granted."
The 33-year-old worked hard on his rehabilitation. He wasn't ready to practice when training camp began July 28 but worked his way back to the point where he's played multiple roles in workouts -- starting safety, special teams, mimicking an opponent's defense to help the offense prepare.
He was motivated by those who doubted his ability to come back and felt less swelling and pain in his knee than he had expected.
Now he has a new teammate who helped him develop that determination and skill when they played together for San Diego for nine years. Linebacker Junior Seau, who was in his fifth year with the Chargers when Harrison was a rookie, signed with the Patriots Aug. 18, four days after announcing his retirement following three seasons with Miami.
"A lot of times he would come up to me and tell me that he was proud of me and the way I've worked and the way in which he's seen me grow" in San Diego, Harrison said. "I was very, very immature as a rookie but there was a difference between my rookie year and my fourth and fifth year when I really started understanding and appreciating the opportunity that I had."
Harrison played a big role in Seau's decision to join the Patriots. The two talked and Seau was comfortable with the atmosphere and mood around the team.
Now Seau gets to see at close range just how far Harrison has come less than a year after being hurt.
"It's amazing," Seau said. "It just doesn't happen every day and it takes a special person to do that and Rodney is definitely a special person."
Harrison had started all 41 games the Patriots played in his three seasons with them before being sidelined. He was their leading tackler in his first two seasons, two of the happiest of his career. The Patriots won the Super Bowl both times after he had been in just four playoff games in his nine seasons with San Diego.
"I've enjoyed football these last three or four years more than I've ever enjoyed football," he said. "It's really a joy and a treat to be back in the locker room hanging out with the guys and joking with them."
It sure beats crying over an injured knee and hearing talk that his career might be over.
"No one thought I would ever play football again and for me to come back and play has just been a true blessing," Harrison said. "Just to have the opportunity to get back on the field is just incredible. It's just amazing. I'm excited about it, but once you get over that initial feeling then it's just football."