FOXBORO -- Rodney Harrison might have been your favorite player. Or he might have been a pain in your favorite player's ass.
Tom Brady. Troy Brown. Kevin Faulk. The list of Patriots all-timers Harrison harassed during his run in New England is long, but on Monday he'll be recognized as an all-timer himself. He's this year's inductee for the Patriots Hall of Fame.
Harrison will be honored, fittingly, as the current iteration of Bill Belichick's club wraps up its first few days of training camp. It was around this time back in 2003 when Harrison first let everyone know what he was all about: He wanted to win; he wanted to practice hard; he was not there to make friends.
Yet there he'll be, not far from where he threw his weight around on the practice fields, surrounded by friends 16 years later. Some of those friends were players he hammered in camp when that was something you . . . just . . . didn't . . . do.
"Rodney being Rodney," Faulk said.
But they will be there all the same, celebrating the man who might have a case as the best practice player in franchise history.
"BEST PRACTICE PLAYER I HAVE SEEN"
When Harrison retired in 2009, he was the best from Monday-through-Saturday player Belichick had ever watched. That, of course, helped make Harrison great on the days when it mattered. But more than that, it helped make Belichick's team better.
"Rodney Harrison is one of the best players I have ever coached," Belichick said at the time. "In the biggest games, in any situation and on a weekly basis, his production was phenomenal. Rodney is the best practice player I have seen in 35 years in the NFL, which is a testament to his exceptional passion for the game and his desire to sustain and improve his level of play.
"Regardless of his status on the team and in the league, Rodney's approach to preparation spoke volumes about his devotion to the team and his ability to raise every player's game."
To understand why Harrison's practice habits were so vital to the franchise's success, to fully appreciate the madness that was his first few days of training camp in Foxboro, you have to understand where Harrison came from.
A two-time Pro Bowler with the Chargers, Harrison was dogged by a reputation as a dirty player. He'd been fined multiple times and lost thousands because of hits he delivered. Bothered by an injury in 2002, Harrison was released and became a free agent.
"I wanted a chance," Harrison said last week. "I wanted a fair chance. I just wanted [Belichick] to be objective and give me an opportunity, and to put me in a position to do what I do best. That's cover. That's hit people. That's make tackles. That's be a great teammate and do all the things I needed to do to help this team win.
"That's all I wanted. I just wanted to be part of a team. That's all I wanted. I didn't want to be the star. I just wanted to be part of a team."
Scorned, hungry, having felt disrespected by the Chargers, Harrison was ready for a fresh start with Belichick and the Patriots. They were a team in need of a jolt after a season-long Super Bowl hangover the season prior. But how would he be accepted by his new teammates?
"You have an idea of what a guy is like," said former Patriots linebacker Matt Chatham, who now works as an analyst for NESN. "You might think they're a jerk or something just because they're fined on other teams or you see them make a comment or two in the newspaper or something like that. So, you kind of sort or think you know who a guy is.
"The first time I saw Rodney walking in the door, he's a big 'shake-your-hand-and-hug-you' kind of dude. Then that very first practice, it was like, 'Holy [expletive] this guy practices hard.' There could be anecdote after anecdote after anecdote, but you spend one week's worth of game practices with a guy and you say, 'Oh, this guy is a lot different than I thought.' "
"He came, and he was tough," said former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson. "And maybe early on when he first got here, he just wanted to let everybody know what he was all about. But he was just setting a tone. I loved that. I didn't have a problem with it. You know why? He was taking ownership of the team. He was gonna say, 'Look, I'm new here, but I'm gonna make an impact right away.'
"We all loved that. Because after the whistle had blown, he was a positive influence on everybody. Just a guy you wanted to follow. I absolutely love Rodney Harrison for his attitude. For the way he approached the game. For the way he played the game. There's not a better teammate that I've had."
"I WENT OVERBOARD A LITTLE BIT"
Harrison didn't start his Patriots career with the intention of turning over a new leaf with his style of play. Asked last week about what he remembered of his first few practices in New England, he didn't hesitate.
"Oh," he said, "kicking butt."
He drilled Brown over the middle during one early training camp snap like it was Monday Night Football. Then he reportedly poked Brown in the eye. Brown fired the football in Harrison's direction.
"For Troy to get frustrated like that, it takes a lot," Johnson said. "Troy's about as even-keeled as they come. To see him irritated like that, that says a lot. I loved it. I absolutely loved it."
"There's the first time you see one of those hits," Chatham said, "and everyone kind of looks at each other and goes, 'Are we gonna let that happen?' You kind of hold your breath and wonder how the coaching staff will react. Defensive guys love that stuff, but are they gonna bite our heads off if we do it?"
A few days later, Harrison hit Brown again. Soon thereafter he leveled Faulk as the running back finished off a run along the sideline.
On the Faulk play, rookie safety Eugene Wilson feigned a tackle, as most defenders do in those "thud" situations (make contact, but don't tackle to the ground). But Harrison waited for Faulk and dropped him.
"I won't call it taking cheap shots," Faulk said. "It wasn't really, but it wasn't the way we practiced . . . [But] that's who this guy is. And we respected who he is. It was Rodney being Rodney."
Faulk added: "There was a respect factor, knowing who he was. But we'd tell him, 'Hey, Hot Rod, that's not how we practice.' "
Picking himself up off the ground, Faulk had words for Harrison, then chucked the football in his direction. What resulted was a massive scrum with Harrison and offensive lineman Tom Ashworth right in the middle of things, based on video from the practice acquired by NFL Films. Offensive linemen Brandon Gorin and Adrian Klemm were on the scene quickly as well. Defensive players answered in kind, with Tedy Bruschi making a flying leap to land atop the pile of humanity.
Faulk said he and Harrison were friendly from the minute he got to New England, "but when you're on the football field it's different. If you feel disrespected, it's . . . 'Hey, we got pads on!' "
"I just came in here and said I'm going to play my style of game, and that's what coach Belichick wanted," Harrison said. "I went overboard a little bit, hitting Troy and Kevin Faulk. Getting in fights with the offensive linemen. But it was great because ultimately it brought us together as a team and it let them know that, 'Hey, I wasn't here BSing. I'm here to play football.' "
To Harrison's point, Belichick didn't seem too bothered. While these days fights on the fields behind Gillette Stadium generally result in laps or getting kicked out of practice, that didn't seem to be the case back then.
"We know how competitive Rodney is," Belichick said in the aftermath of Harrison's first few days of knocking people around in 2003, per the Hartford Courant's Alan Greenberg. "Mixing it up in training camp, that's part of training camp . . . I don't have a problem with that. You just do it in a way that's not detrimental to the team."
For that team in particular, one that had just submitted a lackluster 2002 season, a little fighting probably wasn't viewed as detrimental by the head coach. Players at the time believed Belichick felt that way, at least.
"You'd look over at Bill and he'd be over there with a smirk on his face," Brown told NFL Films for Harrison's "A Football Life" special. "Just loving it."
"My feeling was Bill ate that up," Johnson said. "He ate that up."
"I guess I've managed to make a couple guys not like me very much," Harrison said at the time. "But you know I don't play the game for people to like me. My mom likes me. That's all I need."
The reality is, his coach liked him too, and looking back it's easy to see why. Belichick had an idea of what Harrison's approach might mean for the rest of his team.
"HE WOULD EMBARRASS YOU"
It didn't take long before Harrison's relentless demeanor in practice started to impact the players around him. Offensive guys knew they had to bring it in team periods. Defensive guys were suddenly confronted with a new standard.
"He brought," Faulk said, "another level of toughness to our football team."
"When you're out there with him," Chatham said, "you kind of feel pressure to practice like he is. Because most guys don't finish hits in practice on thud drills, but Rodney did. I think it really helped set the tone for the overall team."
At the end of camp in 2003, the Patriots released strong safety Lawyer Milloy -- a move that devastated teammates who were close to the longtime team leader -- allowing Harrison sole possession of that on-the-field role. Off the field, Harrison would continue to to take on leadership duties relatively quickly. He was a key cog in the team's Super Bowl run that season, earning First-Team All-Pro honors. In their repeat performance -- the Patriots are the last team to repeat as champions -- Harrison was named a Second-Team All-Pro performer.
Clearly he meant more to the group than kick-starting the energy in practice with a well-timed shoulder. Those hits were just what caught everyone's eye out of the gates.
Harrison was the living embodiment of a practice cliche, running through everything at 100 percent -- even when a new teammate was finishing off a Hall of Fame career and trying to get through a running play unscathed.
"Rodney that was that player that you respected during the week and definitely on Sunday," Randy Moss said in a visit to town over the weekend. "I just remember when I first got here as a Patriot, Rodney was the strong safety and he had to come down to put himself in the box to support the run.
"Prior to that, 10 years, I was just used to coming there, just putting my hand on guys just to show my coach, 'Hey, coach! I got him! I can block him!' Rodney Harrison was the first guy here that made me turn up in practice . . . It was just something I told him, I said, 'Dude, I will definitely cherish the time we had together.'
"Because he was the one. Tom will definitely tell you. Bill will definitely tell you. Josh McDaniels will definitely tell you. Rodney Harrison was that player. If you did not come to practice every single day, he would embarrass you."
Even in the kicking game, as a scout-team coverage player, he wasn't beyond wearing guys out. Nick Caserio was in his late 20s and working in the scouting department when Harrison arrived to the Patriots, and he was in awe as this player hopped in on kickoff drills.
"When we go out to practice," Caserio said, "you guys see we do the work with one another, right? We have a red team working on kickoff or kickoff return. Rodney would kick on a kickoff – the scout team kickoff team – and bust his hump getting down the field.
"That type of effort, that type of mentality, that type of mindset permeates your football team when you see somebody like that. It left an impression on me. I had been here for a couple of years and you see somebody like that, and what it says is really that it shows you that your job and your responsibility while you're here is to do whatever you can to help the team in whatever capacity that is.
"You're talking about a Hall of Fame player and he's going down on kickoff coverage making it hard on our kickoff return team in order to prepare them for the game in front of them."
Reminded recently of Belichick's "best practice player I have seen" comment while trying on the red jacket he'll receive Monday as a member of the Patriots Hall of Fame, Harrison beamed.
"Best compliment you could ever give me," he said. "For me, it all started in practice. Junior Seau taught me that. It starts in practice. He always used to tell me, 'I play the games for free, Rodney, but I get paid to practice.' That's something I took.
"To me, I just wanted to play every practice like it was a game. So, when you get on the game field, it's easy. You play in front of 70,000 people, that's easy to get pumped up. But what about a Monday when you're sore after the game? Or Wednesday or Thursday, you don't feel like being there? That's when you create separation. That's when you really take your game to the next level. That's what I tried to do."
He did. And he took the Patriots with him.
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