If the Bengals linebackers room at Paul Brown Stadium is the home of the unwanted, the unloved and the undrafted, then James Harrison is the Ugly Duckling who grew into the Swan that has gone to five Pro Bowls and won an NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, all the while becoming "The Baddest Man In Football."
"Whenever he walks by and just kind of messes with the reporters and the cameramen," says Jayson DiManche, a rookie who plays Harrison's position of SAM backer. "That's the funniest thing to me because he comes up to them and tries to intimidate them pretty good and they act pretty scared. You know in the back of your mind he's not really like that. He's probably one of the nicest guys on the team at heart. He's a good guy."
After all, Harrison has two delightful little kids who came to practice over the weekend and they can't think he's "The Baddest Man in Football."
"They still see me as the baddest man," says Harrison, with a smile smaller than the love lost between the Bengals and Steelers. But these other kids, these other rookie free agents gasping for any shred of an NFL roster, think he's pretty cool. DiManche, out of Southern Illinois and one of those tweener types that rushed 70 percent of the time in a 3-4 and is now trying to play 4-3 linebacker, is watching Harrison's every move. And why not? DimNache has been doing it since he was in junior high in Hamilton, N.J.
"It's crazy. For the longest time he was one of my favorite linebackers ever to play the game. I've followed him since I started watching football. I try to model a lot of moves after him," DiManche says. "The way he plays with that leverage. That power and speed around that edge. And the physical force he is. A lot of guys look up to him. He was always one of my favorite players. It's an honor to be on the team with him.
"I knew about him coming out of Kent State. I knew he was a really good player that somehow didn't get drafted. I didn't hear about him until he became a starter for the Steelers. I knew he was doing things on special teams. I was about 13, 14. I had just started watching NFL football. I didn't really know much about James, but once he really started to make that impact and had that Defensive MVP that one year (2008), I think everybody saw that."
Linebackers coach Paul Guenther's room is an easy place to buy into the Marvin Lewis's mantra that it doesn't matter how you got here, it only matters what you do once you get here. Nine of the 12 didn't get drafted and DiManche only has to look at the guys from last year that are now starting (WILL backer Vontaze Burfict) and playing regularly (nickel backer Emmanuel Lamur). Both undrafted, just like Vincent Rey, the de facto special teams captain.
So it's no surprise, really, that DiManche didn't blink in his first NFL game Thursday, racking up a sack and impressing the Bengals with his energy and speed. Like Harrison, DiManche is making a position switch. Unlike Harrison, he doesn't have 131 games of NFL experience. There were mistakes on Thursday against the Falcons, but DiManche made them fast.
"Because you see the guys that have been here and how they've made it," DiManche says of believing he's got a shot. "Not only saying it, but it holds true with the people you see in the locker room. There's a lot of free agents or guys that came in as tryout guys and are on the team."
DiManche calls Harrison a model and here's the first lesson:
No nonsense. The Swan isn't going to mother hen these guys.
"To be honest with you, I couldn't tell you who was doing what because I'm worried about me," Harrison says. "That's how I go into each camp year in and year out, is to worry about myself and make sure I make the team."
The man with 64 career sacks, which would be second in Bengals history, is asked if he thinks he will make it.
"I don't know.," he says with nary a smile. "We'll see what the coaches think come September when it's time for the last cut. We haven't made cuts yet."
If that's what the 35-year-old Harrison is saying, then you have to wonder what the 22-year-old DiManche is thinking.
"On the field and off the field, he's what I thought he'd be. He's all football all the time. He's really a focused guy," DiManche says. "Defensively, after you've played ball for a while you can figure things out. I think the older guys have done a really good job of helping me along with things, guys like (Lamur) and Tez and Rey (Maualuga) and James. They've been showing me a lot, not only with the playbook but with techniques and just how to be a good linebacker in the NFL. I think that's one of the reasons I've been able to pick things up the way I have."
It turns out that Harrison and DiManche are getting help from the same guys.
"As far as the playbook, I'm leaning on them. Rey and Vontaze and those guys who have been here, I'm leaning on them to make sure I'm doing what I need to do," Harrison says. "But as far as actually trying to take care of your body and everything like that, they talk to me about that, about what it takes to continue to play this long."
DiManche is doing the right thing watching because he may not have to listen that much.
"I don't think anyone who's a leader doesn't try to be a leader; it comes naturally," Harrison says. "My whole thing was I just did what I did and when I did, people wanted to follow and try and do the same thing. So I guess I'm a leader by example. But I can be vocal when it calls for it."
People continue to be amazed by what looks to be Harrison's smooth adjustment from 3-4 outside backer to 4-3 SAM. He continues to be amazed that people don't believe he was doing a lot of the same stuff in Pittsburgh.
"I'm basically doing the same things, I'm just doing it from a different alignment. The hardest part is getting used to lining up stacked off of the line and having to read centers, tackles, guards, all of that, where normally I'm just reading the tackles and tight ends," Harrison says.
"I don't rush as much, especially on tackles now, but I'm doing the same things as some point in time that I did in Pittsburgh. Even when we were in our nickel coverages in Pittsburgh, sometimes I lined up stacked. Now I'm just doing it down after down."
After racking up 16.5 sacks and 38 tackles for loss during his career as a 3-4 rusher in college, DiManche is grappling with much larger issues.
"I could do a little bit of coverage, but nowhere close to what I do here," DiManche says.
"SAM usually plays on the strong side, but here it's kind of different. When he told me SAM, I just looked at it as any position they put me at, I'm going to do my best at it and try to be as successful as I can. He told me it's SAM now, but he could move me to WILL tomorrow and MIKE the next day. I'm just going to go out there and run around and tackle people like I've been doing."
Guenther sees a little of Lamur in the kid Maualuga calls "J.D."
"He's real athletic. He's sudden in the rush," Guenther says. "His athletic ability and the way he bends and moves on his college tape you say, man, this guy has the traits of a linebacker. What he has to work on is coverage and playing in space. He's a lot like Lamur was. Once he doesn't have to think, you're going to see a huge jump."
But DiManche just has to look in his own space to study the professional approach.
"Wanting to be in the NFL and have a career is what drove me," Harrison says. "Drafted or not, it really doesn't matter how you get there, it's really about what you do once you get there. Being drafted can only save you for so long."
The Marvin Mantra amplified. DiManche is asked if he feels like a Bengal now. It's all pretty basic for a rookie free agent. Whether 0 games or 131 games and five Pro Bowls and two Super Bowls.
"Soon as I get that paycheck, I'm a Bengal, baby," he says.