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James Harrison, Inhuman 38-Year-Old, Bull-Rushed the Steelers Into the AFC Championship Game

The Pittsburgh legend and fitness monster is still playing at a confoundingly high level — and leading his team to New England

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The Steelers didn’t score a touchdown in their 18–16 playoff win over the Chiefs on Sunday night. Typically, that’s a bad sign. There have been 534 NFL postseason games played. In 87 of those, a team failed to score a touchdown. Eighty-one of them lost. But thanks to the tireless kicking leg of Chris Boswell, who set an NFL postseason record with six field goals, and a combination of Kansas City’s offensive impotence and Pittsburgh’s defensive beastliness, the Steelers got one more win than they got touchdowns.

That defense was anchored by James Harrison, the 38-year-old who’s played 13 of the last 15 seasons for the Steelers. He tied for the team lead in tackles with six, led with three tackles for loss and two QB hits, and recorded the team’s only sack of the night. He also recorded perhaps the biggest play of the evening, although there’s no statistic for it. His bull rush on a two-point conversion attempt with under three minutes to go coaxed Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher into committing a holding penalty.

Before the holding call, the Chiefs easily scored the two-point conversion on a pass to a wide-open Demetrius Harris, hypothetically tying the game at 18. Instead, they had to retake the try from the 12-yard line. The Chiefs’ quarterback is Alex Smith, who sometimes seems incapable of throwing the ball 12 yards on the fly. The replayed two-point conversion was broken up, and Kansas City never touched the ball again.

That Harrison is capable of playing in the NFL, let alone dominating, seems impossible. He played in NFL Europe, which hasn’t existed since 2007. He was released by the Steelers in 2013 and released by the Bengals in 2014, and then retired, seemingly having hit the end of his professional usefulness. I won’t say he’s better than ever — he was once the best defensive player in the NFL — but he’s a pivotal part of a playoff team.

His physical shape is the stuff of legend. Pushing 40, his workout videos get 10,000 retweets:

He reportedly spends $350,000 a year on maintaining his physical shape, a process that involves an acupuncturist, a medical doctor, a “natural path” doctor, three masseurs, a masseuse, and a chiropractor. It’s neat to use alternative practices to stay healthy, but no matter how good those massage practitioners are, I find it hard to believe any amount of meaningful rubbing can make a 38-year-old into a 30-year-old. I’m gonna go ahead and assume there are also four mad scientists, three technically-sane-but-extremely-misguided scientists, two metallurgists, an alchemist, and at least a dozen creepy, subservient assistants who owe blood debts to Harrison and must serve him for life.

Our Kate Knibbs went to a conference for extremely rich old people who are searching for scientific cures for death. I don’t know why they didn’t just interview Harrison and his 30-strong crew of rejuvenators.

The Steelers’ performance seemed timeless, too. While so much of Pittsburgh’s success this season was built on the dynamism of Antonio Brown and patient grinding of Le’Veon Bell, Sunday’s win was a bruiser. It’s the type of game we’ve seen Pittsburgh — and Harrison — win for about a decade.

They’ll need that ugliness next week when they face the Patriots. I’m not sure it’s humanly possible for Pittsburgh to beat New England, the NFL’s dominant team, in New England. But James Harrison isn’t just any human.