Rodney Harrison (right) and Jac Collinsworth appear on NBC’s “Football Night in America,” the pregame show to “Sunday Night Football.” | NBC Sports
The Markham product and longtime analyst on “Football Night in America” pulls no punches with his thoughts on Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy and what he’d do next.
The question posed to the man on the phone was: What should the struggling Bears do next?
“I would fire the general manager and head coach, and I would get Eric Bieniemy to work with Justin Fields,” he said. “Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy and that organization have killed all hope. You screw up the draft with Mitchell Trubisky, most general managers don’t get a second opportunity.”
The man wasn’t some raging, raving caller on a postgame show. He was Rodney Harrison, a three-time All-Pro safety, two-time Super Bowl champion and longtime analyst on NBC’s “Football Night in America,” the pregame show to “Sunday Night Football” and most-watched studio show in sports TV.
Harrison doesn’t have a professional stake in the Bears’ success. He played for the Chargers (1994-2002) and Patriots (2003-08). But he does have a personal one. He grew up in south suburban Markham and idolized the Bears as a kid. He ran up hills like Walter Payton did and loved the 1985 Super Bowl champs.
“I was a huge, huge Bears fan – until recently,” Harrison said, “I don’t like the way they’ve done things in that organization.”
Harrison, 48, figures to have a lot more to say about the team Sunday, when he’ll be in Green Bay, Wisconsin, for NBC’s broadcast of Bears-Packers. After 12 seasons in the studio, Harrison is part of “FNIA’s” road show, appearing on the set outside the stadium, amid the fans, with Jac Collinsworth.
Harrison’s frustration with his hometown team peaked when Nagy promised quarterback Andy Dalton the starting job well before training camp. Harrison recalled Patriots camps, where coach Bill Belichick annually showed the players a blank depth chart and told them they’d fill it out.
“All my career, all I’ve heard from the best coaches in the world is competition makes us better,” Harrison said. “You have to earn your job. And when Nagy names Dalton the starter, I’m thinking, ‘Are you kidding me? That’s not right.’ When he did that, I knew Nagy wasn’t the right guy.”
Harrison would pursue Bieniemy, the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator and a former teammate with the Chargers. Bieniemy mentored Harrison, then a rookie, and other young players. To Harrison, Bieniemy is a natural leader who would bring instant credibility for his work with quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Truth be told, Nagy worked with Mahomes, too, for a year. But Bieniemy won a Super Bowl with him.
“If I’m Justin Fields and I see Eric Bienemy, I’m excited to work with him,” Harrison said. “That’s the guy that I want coaching my young quarterback. I don’t want Matt Nagy to do anything else to Justin Fields.”
That candor and vigor have helped Harrison carve a career in broadcasting. He always was a media favorite as a player, good for a quote about anything. But he never thought about being on a platform like this for as long as he has.
Before the 2009 season, the Falcons offered Harrison a lucrative contract, but he thought his body wouldn’t hold up. NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood reached out – Harrison had appeared on the network for a Super Bowl – and offered him an opportunity.
“He told me, if you put the type of effort that you put into football with your studying and prep, you’re gonna be really good at [TV],” Harrison said. “And I took those words of advice. I just grind and watch tape, do what I have to do. And 13 years later, they still have me around.”
“Just as he played, Rodney is direct and fearless as a broadcaster,” Flood said. “In his new role, Rodney feeds off the energy of being on site with the fans and players. You can see the intensity he had as a player come through the screen, and that helps build the excitement leading up to kickoff.”
Harrison said his high-revving motor dates to his childhood. Playing football gave him an outlet for it and showed his personality. At Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, he became an aggressive, physical player, despite his skinny frame, earning all-state honors. But Harrison had some tough times at the predominantly white school.
“Initially, I was a little nervous because I was probably the poorest kid there,” said Harrison, whose parents separated when he was young. “People used to make fun of our car, how slow it went. It was a Chevette with a red door. But it just made me hungrier. I said to myself, my mom will never get laughed at again.”
Harrison went on to star at Western Illinois, where he took a senior’s position as a freshman and became a two-time All-American.
“I told my mom, all I want to do is get out of Markham and go to school so I won’t get in trouble and I can make you proud,” he said. “I didn’t wanna get in trouble with gangs or anything like that. There was always that crowd telling you, come hang with us. But I was too focused on football, on doing what I had to do.”
The Chargers drafted Harrison in the fifth round in 1994, and his aggressive play reached new levels. He developed a reputation for playing dirty, though he worked to redeem himself with the Patriots.
As Flood said, Harrison’s brutal honesty could be construed as an extension of his play. It sounds like he’d agree.
“I hear too much on TV everybody’s kissing butt and trying to befriend people,” he said. “The bottom line is this: If you wanna be good at this job, you’ve gotta be able to compliment people, and you have to be able to be critical of people, as well.”