Dressed in a suit that looked so good he could have worn it on the cover of GQ, running back Jerome Harrison walked toward the door of the Browns locker room at Cleveland Browns Stadium on Sunday on his way to the big press conference room down the hall.
There, a horde of media members were waiting for him to talk about his big game -- again.
But they would have to wait a little longer, for Harrison spotted Jim Brown sitting in a locker stall talking to a Browns public relations person. The Pro Football Hall of Fame running back is maybe the only person in the world – other than maybe family members – who would have caused Harrison to do such a quick about-face. In fact, he changed direction on a dime, which is what he’s been doing on the field a lot as of late.
Brown, using his cane as a boost, got up, walked to Harrison and they hugged before sharing some private words.
What did the man called simply “The Greatest” – as in the greatest running back of all-time, and probably also the greatest player, period, of all-time – say to you, Jerome.
“He just said, ‘I am proud of you,’ ” Harrison said. “I am just going to say that he is proud of me. The rest of it we will keep between us.”
Sure, we understand. But the important thing for Harrison is that someone the stature of Brown is proud of him, and should be. After all, Harrison is treading on some ground onto which Brown, “the closest thing there’s ever been to Superman on a football field,” as a defender once referred to him, never tread.
A week ago, Harrison obliterated Brown’s team record of 237 yards rushing in a game when he raced to 286, the third-highest total in NFL history, and scored three touchdowns in a 41-34 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. And then in a 23-9 victory over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, Harrison became the first player in Browns history to follow up a 200-yard game with a 100-yarder, rushing a club-record 39 times, the most in the NFL this season, for 148 yards and a TD.
Neither Brown nor Bobby Mitchell nor Marion Motley nor Leroy Kelly – the Browns’ quartet of HOF backs – have been so good in back-to-back games.
And few in NFL history have been so good as well. Harrison’s 434 rushing yards the last two games are within 10 yards of being in the top five all-time.
All this from a guy who spent his first 3½ years with the Browns making only cameo appearances on the field. Going into this year, he had 448 yards rushing – total.
In a stranger than strange season, this sudden meteoric rise of Harrison might rank right at the top when it comes to the topic of most pleasant surprises.
“This is what you live for, what you dream about,” Harrison said of waiting so long for this chance, and then taking full advantage of it once Jamal Lewis was forced into retirement in mid-season with a concussion and the Browns began looking for a feature back. “It is what you practice for.”
Ah, yes, practice. Harrison admits he’s never been a great practice player.
“I’ve always been a guy who saves it for the game,” he said.
But that’s not what first-year Browns head coach Eric Mangini wants to see. A throwback type of strict disciplinarian -- someone who believes a player performs in a game how he practices -- Mangini wanted to see as much effort on Wednesday through Friday afternoons as on Sunday afternoons.
Plus Mangini wanted Harrison to be a better blocker.
“When the coach wants you to do something, you have to do it,” Brown said. “And once Jerome became a better blocker, the coach gave him a chance to play.”
Explained Harrison, “Coach and I had a meeting. We both wanted the same things. We were just trying to reach them in different ways. Once we talked and came to an agreement, we were fine.”
Actually, better than fine.
“He’s playing beautifully,” Brown said. “He’s shown flashes of brilliance before. Sometimes, a player just needs an opportunity, and Jerome got that opportunity when, like I said, he did what the coach wanted him to do.”
There’s that reference again of a player needing to listen to his coach. It’s what you hear beginning in the youth leagues, but it still has meaning when a player gets to the NFL.
And oh, another thing, never forget your teammates.
“I really wish I could bring the whole offensive line, (fullback) Lawrence Vickers and the tight ends up here to do the interviews because I’m not doing anything,” Harrison said. “They do all the work, and I’m just getting the credit for it.”
Funny thing, that’s what Brown used to say back in the day. He campaigned for his right guard, Gene Hickerson, to get into the HOF, and now that that has happened, he has started to bang the drum harder for his left tackle, Dick Schafrath.
“It is a blessing – a true blessing – to have a guy like Jim Brown as your mentor,” Harrison said. “Most guys who play running back in the NFL never have a chance to get close to Barry Sanders and guys like that to tutor them.
“I’ve got one of the greatest, and I appreciate it. I don’t take it for granted.”
It’s why Harrison turned back to greet Brown in the locker room when the adulation he had wanted for so long was waiting for him in that press conference room.
But the respect is mutual, for it’s also why Brown, who has a hard time getting around these days, made it a point to get to his feet as Harrison approached.
In this nightmare of a season, seeing the Browns star of the present and their star of the past, and all-time, be able to interact on a regular basis and talk a running back language that no one gets to hear – or could understand even if they could – is about as cool as it gets.