A requiem for Al « Ol' Bag of Donuts

A requiem for Al

What was first reported early Monday morning became official later Monday morning.

Al Harris was a Green Bay Packer no more.

The team officially released Harris, ending the 36-year old cornerback’s eight-year tenure with the club. The team had until Tuesday to decide if it wanted to active Harris, coming off reconstructive knee surgery, from the PUP list. He will now be placed on waivers.

A multitude of factors likely went into Harris’ release. The strong play of undrafted rookie Sam Shields, as well as Harris’ age, salary and the serious injury he suffered roughly a year ago against San Francisco are chief among them. While this is pure speculation on my part, it’s also entirely possible Harris was not comfortable with being relegated to a No. 3 or (possibly) No. 4 corner role.

But, enough about that. Let’s talk about Harris’ seven seasons with the team. It was a run that began under somewhat dubious circumstances.

In 2003, Harris – a then-28-year old nickel back for the Philadelphia Eagles – was acquired, along with a fourth round pick, for Green Bay’s second round selection in that year’s draft. Secondary help is almost always needed, to be sure, but boy, that seemed like a steep price to pay for a relatively unproven player. At the time, the move looked like yet another gem courtesy of the king of such gems, then-general manager Mike “A punter in the third round? I’ll take it!” Sherman.

It did not take long to figure out that Sherman had, in fact, pulled off a steal of a trade. Almost instantly, Harris made a major impact for Green Bay’s defense. Never the fastest corner around, Harris made his name as a physical, nasty bump-and-run specialist. The numbers for opposing teams’ top wideouts began dropping rapidly. Hey, this cat with the dreads was pretty good. Harris picked off three passes, returning one for a score, in starting all 16 regular season games that year.

But it was week one of the postseason that year in which Harris delivered his signature moment.

Packers. Seahawks. Overtime. 27 all. Seattle facing a third-and-11 at their own 45. Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck went to his hot route, wideout Alex Bannister, after Green Bay unleashed an all-out blitz (i.e., the “thriller blitz”). Bannister was unaware he was supposed to cut his route short. Harris jumped the route, snagged the ball and housed it for the walk-off score, causing a then 23-year old Chris Lempesis to briefly think he’d broken his arm after tripping while running around the house screaming.

That alone gave Harris legendary status in my book. But he was just getting started. Over the six seasons that followed, Harris just continued to shutout top receivers week-in and week-out. At one point, Chad Ochocinco called him the toughest corner in the league to face. And, in case you have forgotten, Ocho doesn’t praise many corners.

His interception totals were never very high. He never recorded more than three in any of his seasons with the team and totaled just 11 after that first year. But, dig deeper – look at some of his passes defended totals. He had 20 in 2004, 17 in 2006. Those numbers are astounding. Charles Woodson made the sexy plays, but remember, until a year ago, Woody did so as the team’s de-facto No. 2 corner. Not a dig at Woodson at all – just saying.

It wasn’t all rosey for Harris, however. On more than one occasion, he was absolutely shredded in a big game. Plaxico Burress destroyed him throughout the NFC Championship Game in ‘08, as did Terrell Owens in a game at Dallas earlier that year. Brett Favre did the same to his former teammate in a Monday night contest at Minnesota early last season, as well.

But what I always admired most about Harris was his ability to bounce back, his “short-term memory”, as they like to say. Whether he’d just played his best game or his worst, Harris was always going to give you the same effort every week. In a league where guys are wrecked by singularly bad performances all the time, Harris never was.

After his career-threatening injury last year, Harris allowed us to follow him on his road to recovery. Through a series of internet videos, we were able to witness first-hand the struggles he went through on his journey to reach the field once again. Although the odds were ridiculously stacked against him, watching him work, you got the feeling he’d make it back. And when he ran out on to the field for that first time in green and gold, oh, what a moment it was going to be.

Sadly, it’s there that the realities of NFL life interjected. “It’s a business,” yada, yada, yada – you know the drill.

But for seven seasons, the tall, thin man with the wirey dreads was an absolute joy to watch. His time in Green Bay is done, but his playing days are not. Wherever he lands, I can only hope he brings those fans one-tenth the joy he brought us.

I have a feeling he will.

-Chris Lempesis

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