It is ungodly hot. The cornfields along the highway near the Steelers' training camp in Latrobe, Pa., are completely still. No breeze, no cloud cover, nothing to stop the heat, which radiates up from the ground at St. Vincent's College and pounds down from the sky. As players, coaches and fans mop incessantly at the sweat trickling down their necks, one thing is clear: today is way too hot to be wearing black.
And yet many of the 3,500 diehards at this mid-August afternoon practice happily suffer in the Steelers' home colors. Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward jerseys are popular. So is Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu's. But what about the jersey of the guy voted team MVP last year? The guy who had the breakout season in 2004? The guy who took over games that needed taking over? No, not Ben Roethlisberger, whose jersey is by far the most popular. In the entire crowd, there is one guy-one fortysomething guy-wearing James Farrior's No. 51.
Despite the hype, Big Ben wasn't the only reason Pittsburgh went 15—1 last season and came within one W of the Super Bowl. With 119 tackles, four picks, four sacks and five forced fumbles, the 30-year-old Farrior made his first Pro Bowl, was a first-team All-Pro and finished second behind Ravens safety Ed Reed for the league's defensive MVP award. "I thought he was going to win it," says Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "Not taking anything away from the young man in Baltimore, but James contributed to a bigger season."
Now the Steelers are 2—1, with a defense that is allowing just 12 points a game. Still, Farrior's best efforts are again being overshadowed. He had 14 tackles and a sack in the Steelers last-second, 23-20 loss to the Pats on Sept. 25. And in Pittsburgh's first two wins all the talk was of thirdstring-back-turned-rushing-phenom Willie Parker. But there are certain NFL archetypes-the loudmouth, the prodigy, the kid from nowhere-that always draw the most attention. And Farrior isn't any of them. He is a member of the Tim Duncan tribe: smart, stoic, fundamentally sound and completely uninterested in fame. "He doesn't display himself the way other guys do," says Bill Cowher. "But I respect that about him."
Small wonder. Like his head coach, the 6'2", 243-pound Farrior is a throwback. If Ray Lewis spasms in celebration after big hits, Farrior ambles back to the huddle, not caring if anyone caught his number. He's the perfect point man, in temperament and talent, to run the Steelers' chaotic zone blitz, where linemen regularly drop into coverage and D-backs rush the passer. Says Polamalu, "James is the father figure who gets everyone in line."
Farrior's parental control of the Steelers D begins with his own stance-feet close together, heels flat on the ground, torso inching forward. He keeps his chin up while reading the guards, QB and running back. Right before the snap, he begins pointing out adjustments to his defensive backs while yelling an entirely different set of orders to the defensive linemen. Then Farrior uses his 4.6 40 speed to cover the field sideline to sideline.
As with many elite athletes, Farrior often experiences on-field action as if it were happening at quarter speed. "I know I'm moving really fast and that the other guy is too," Farrior says. "But I'm seeing everything really slowly." He looks for the subtlest clues in his opponent's body language-a hip twitch, a shoulder shift, a change in balance-then asks himself what he would do if he were that player and responds based on the answer. All this in the three to six seconds that most NFL plays take off the clock. "He makes plays up the middle, at the goal line, inside, outside and back in coverage," says Cowher. "We try to do things that fit his strengths, and when we do, James rewards us handsomely."
As he did during the Steelers' season opener against the Titans. On the first three plays of the game, the Titans ran through the Steelers D and a hyped-up Farrior, gaining 21 yards up the middle on the way to a touchdown. But by Tennessee's second possession, Farrior says, he had calmed down and was keying once again on the Titans' interior. With the game tied 7-7 early in the second quarter, Tennessee had the ball on a second-and-six from its own 48. After a handoff up the middle to Travis Henry, Farrior pressed forward through an inside gap, hit the 215-pound running back low at the line of scrimmage, locked his hands behind Henry's knees, drove him backward off his feet and forced a fumble. The Steelers recovered, took the lead with a field goal and went on to win 34-7. "I felt like the hit changed the momentum and made things swing our way," Farrior says in his easy Virginia drawl.
It's the kind of play-from adjustment to tackle-that someone makes when his football faculties are at their peak. Ask the modest-to-a-fault Farrior about it, and he'll praise his teammates. Ask LeBeau, and he doesn't hesitate. Farrior, the coordinator says, "is in the prime of his career."
MOST NFLERS don't peak at 30. They don't sit for their first national magazine story after nine years in the league. At this point, if they're not already superstars, they're often permanently overlooked, labeled as role players or journeymen. Farrior, on the other hand, just needed time to get comfortable.
He grew up in the country town of Ettrick, Va., where horses and cows graze on corralled hillsides, and tobacco and soybean fields separate neighbors. Even before high school, Farrior-nicknamed Potsie by his Happy Days-loving mom-established himself as a preternatural talent. The upstairs hallway of his parents' two-story home is covered floor to ceiling with photos and articles from Farrior's football career, Pee Wee to pro. At 13, he once hit an opponent so hard that the lenses flew out of the kid's goggles and his sternum cracked. But by high school, Farrior's on-field dominance had produced a local celebrity that the shy teen couldn't fully embrace. After Friday-night wins at Matoaca High, there'd be 20 kids in the Farrior living room wanting to be near James. He'd entertain them for a while then head upstairs, leaving the crowd behind. "His senior year, the local TV station wanted to interview him," says Gabe Hicks, Farrior's high school coach. "He said, 'Coach, I don't want to.' I told him he was good enough that he'd have to talk to the media, and he should start now."
He was good enough, in fact, to draw offers from major programs such as Penn State and Boston College. But Farrior stayed close to home, opting to play with friends at Virginia. And after being named first-team All-ACC his senior year, he was an NFL lock. Bill Parcells, then running the Jets, envisioned Farrior as a defensive anchor and took him with the eighth pick overall in the 1997 draft, giving him a five-year, $8.8 million deal. "Being picked so high in New York," Farrior says, "that was a lot of pressure."
Left unsaid is the pressure of playing for Parcells, who is notoriously tough on high-profile picks. Hanging on the wall behind the Farriors' dining room table in Ettrick is a framed Sports Illustrated article featuring a caricature of Farrior as a rookie handing Parcells a cup of Gatorade. Farrior started 15 games that first season, but he played a new position (lining up outside, across from the tight end in a 3-4) and underperformed (picking up just 1.5 sacks). He sprained his knee in the 1998 season opener, which sidelined him for a month, and by the time he was healthy, he'd lost Parcells' confidence-and his job. During the next two seasons, one with Parcells and another with Tuna protégé Al Groh, Farrior started just nine games. "I guess I didn't deliver to Parcells' expectations of being a No. 8 pick," Farrior says.
But when Herm Edwards was hired in 2001, Farrior found the comfort zone he'd been missing. Edwards moved him to the weak side in a 4-3, freeing the linebacker from facing the tight end. Suddenly, it was as if he were playing a different game. With space to read and react, he flashed the true range of his skill set. In the last year of his Jets contract, Farrior finished with a team-high 116 solo tackles and two picks. Yet even that wasn't enough to persuade the Jets that he wasn't just the lucky beneficiary of the Edwards system. When the Jets put a lowball offer on the table, Farrior signed a three-year, $5.4 million deal with the Steelers.
The move was about more than changing states. The Steelers asked Farrior to transition from outside in the Jets' 4-3 to inside in their 3-4. He answered by playing well enough his first two seasons to earn a five-year, $16.4 million extension in July 2004. But it wasn't until LeBeau arrived last year and installed the zone blitz that Farrior improved from reliable defender to impact player. "When we needed a big play," says LeBeau, "it always fell on James."
Or seemed to, anyway. During a comeback win against the Cowboys last October, Farrior forced the fumble that set up the game-winning TD. Against the Bengals in late November, he returned a pick for six in a 19-14 Steelers win. Then in December came the Jets. In a 17-6, AFC North-clinching win against the team that dropped him, Farrior had 11 tackles, one interception and a pass defensed. After the game, Farrior ran into Jets GM Terry Bradway in the bowels of Heinz Field. Bradway, Farrior says, had a confession to make: his only regret as a GM has been letting the linebacker go.
SIX DAYS before training camp began, Farrior was standing in a Kmart checkout line in South Beach, his off-season home. Given his preference for avoiding the spotlight, it's odd that he'd live here, a place so many athletes treat as their off-season playground. There's Edgerrin James signing autographs at Cafe Martorano. There's Randy Moss surrounded by fans near the stores on Lincoln Road. But Farrior blends in wherever he goes. He wears no ice and travels without an entourage. He will never be a player whose jersey is worn by Diddy during the MTV Video Music Awards. "The upside would be that the red carpet is rolled out everywhere you go," says Farrior, who's in South Beach for the simple reason that he loves the beach. "But the downside is that people are in your personal life, they get too involved. That doesn't get my motor going." Instead he's just a guy at Kmart running errands in a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. No one recognizes him, not even the woman behind the counter running his boxes across the scanner.
Just the way he likes it.