Raider defensive tackle Nolan Harrison has had many sacks in his career, but none were more important or rewarding than the two he had against the New York Giants last Sunday.
“I was thrilled to death to get those sacks,” said Harrison, who missed two games this season because of a knee injury. “The first one was great, but the second one was the icing on the cake.”
Harrison’s return to the starting lineup was a blessing for the Raiders’ inconsistent defensive line. His sack in the first half helped set the defensive mood in the Raiders’ 13-10 victory.
On an inside rush, Harrison smashed quarterback Phil Simms to the Coliseum turf.
“It took me a second to realize what had happened,” the 6-foot-6, 290-pound Harrison said. “Then, it hit me that it was my first sack of the season and I went into my sack celebration.”
In the fourth quarter, Harrison teamed with Howie Long to sack Simms again and end a late New York drive.
“Nolan played a great game,” Raider linebacker Riki Ellison said. “It was the best I’ve ever seen him play.”
Harrison, a 1991 sixth-round draft pick from Indiana, is being counted on to replace Scott Davis, who retired last spring.
Harrison started three games at defensive end last season in place of the injured Long, worked hard during the off-season, then made the starting lineup during the exhibition season. He was off to a fast start, too, then suffered a partially torn ligament in his right knee during the third quarter of the Raiders’ second game against Cincinnati. The Raiders wanted to put him on the injured-reserve list but Harrison would have none of that.
He figured that he had worked too hard to become a starter in the NFL and did not want to miss any playing time. He talked the Raiders into keeping him active and worked hard in rehabilitation.
While the Raiders looked helpless in applying a pass rush during defeats by Cleveland and Kansas City, Harrison was determined to return for New York. He surprised the Raider trainers when he said he was ready to play a week before the Giant game.
“I had never been hurt where I would miss a game before and I wanted to help the team out as soon as I could,” Harrison said. “I felt that I could have played the Kansas City game, but they kept me out. So, they made me go through a tough week of practice to see if my knee would hold up. And it did.”
Coach Art Shell was impressed.
“Nolan coming back like he did was tremendous,” Shell said. “It was the best game he played since he’s been here. He was coming off the ball. A lot of times he was into the backfield and playing on their side of the line of scrimmage.”
Being quick off the ball has been Harrison’s trademark. Ever since he was a three-sport standout at Homewood-Flossmoor High, south of Chicago, his speed has been his primary asset.
“I used to run on my school’s relay teams and the little guys would all be surprised when they saw me on the track,” Harrison said. “It didn’t bother me because I could hold my own. I was fast even with my size.”
In his two-year career with the Raiders, Harrison has been a pleasant surprise.
He did not play his senior season at Indiana in 1990, having been kicked off the team by Coach Bill Mallory because of an alcohol-related traffic accident. That ended a college career that had also included a run-in with an ATM machine. He tore the machine out of a wall when it ate his bank card his freshman year.
Harrison paid for his rash actions. His status dropped in the eyes of NFL scouts and he went from a potential first-round pick to a problem player. And without a senior season, Harrison had to play the waiting game when it came time for the draft. Now he is glad that he did.
“Things have worked out for me because I probably wouldn’t be here if I had played my senior year,” Harrison said. “I would have been drafted by a team that needed a defensive lineman to start immediately, like Tampa Bay or Green Bay. I wouldn’t have been able to come in to a team like this and be a backup until I was ready.”
Harrison’s emotional style of play has fit in well with the Raiders. They hope that he can continue to dominate Sunday against Buffalo the way he did against New York.
“I just have to stay focused and keep playing hard,” he said. “Hopefully, I will able to put together a string of good games like that. If we all continue to play with intensity and make plays, we’ll continue to improve and we’ll be right there in the end.”