Justin Harrell is not a bad guy.
He’s not laughing on his way to the bank with every dollar he hasn’t earned through on-the-field production.
He’s not some uncaring jerk who is all fat and happy because he’s rich beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
Harrell knows what you think of him. You think he’s lazy. You think he’s soft. You think he’s a bust.
“I am getting tired of (hearing it) but it’s one of those things that’s expected,” he said at his locker on Wednesday. “It probably won’t ever go away, even if I go out and have a good season.”
A good season?
How about just being healthy for Week 1 and staying healthy for enough games to help the Green Bay Packers into the postseason and beyond?
Conventional wisdom has one foot of Harrell’s career in a grave and the other foot standing on a banana peel. In three seasons, he’s played in 13 games. He didn’t made a single impact play in his first two seasons and lasted just one week of training camp last year. April’s draft, with the additions of accomplished defensive ends Mike Neal and C.J. Wilson, seemed to signal the Packers were prepared to cut their prodigious losses.
Harrell’s career started its death spiral more than two years ago, when he injured his back while working out. The first surgery didn’t work so he needed another, and he wound up playing in only six games in 2008. Expectations — though tempered from his first-round billing — were relatively high entering training camp last summer. He made it through OTAs and the minicamp. Through the first week of training camp, Harrell played like a first-round pick. He might not have beaten out Johnny Jolly at left end, but he was definitely going to land a role in run-stopping situations.
But Harrell’s bad back started acting up. Next stop was injured reserve.
For what it’s worth, Harrell says, “I haven’t felt this good since I hurt it” more than two years ago. He didn’t need more surgery, and spent last season resting his back while improving his strength. He took a week off after the season but has been in Green Bay working out since mid-January. Outside of altering his weightlifting routine a bit, he’s full-go with no limitations.
“We’re excited about Justin,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said after practice. “With what we’ve done in two days in non-pads, he’s looked fine. He kind of reminds me of the way he looked last spring and early in training camp when we saw him. He’s very much in our plans. Hopefully, he can enjoy good health because some of the things that have happened to him have been unfortunate and not his fault. We’re hoping. He’s definitely a strong kid, has good feet, can move. We’re hoping for good things out of him.”
“Hoping” is the key word for a player whose contract included $8.1 million in guaranteed money. Coach Mike McCarthy, while saying Harrell is “very much in our plans,” mentioned the fickle nature of back injuries. Harrell knows that all too well.
“It’s one of them things you’ve got to deal with,” Harrell said. “I’ve had two back surgeries. Your back’s never going to be the same. It’s just one of those things of what you can deal with and what you can’t, and hopefully it stays to where you can deal with it and help the team.”
Asked if he was optimistic that this year would indeed by different, the best Harrell could muster is a “hope so.”
“The way I’m feeling right now and just going through everything, I’m hoping and praying to God every day that this will be the year that my back sustains itself and I’m able to go out and play football,” he said.
Harrell was given Reggie White's No. 92 during an impact career at Tennessee. There’s no doubt in Harrell’s mind that he has the ability to play at a high level. But he doesn’t argue with the viewpoint that this is a “make-or-break” season.
“I’m in Year 4 of my contract and really haven’t done anything since I’ve been here,” he said bluntly. “I’ve been at some low points in my life dealing with this situation, but that’s a part of life. Some things you can control, some things you can’t. I just want to keep a positive attitude, just keep working. As long as I’m here and as long as I have this job right here, I’m going to approach it like it’s my job and do the best that I can do.”
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.
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