LATROBE, Pa. — The most notable thing from Steelers‘ training camp on Wednesday did not happen during Pittsburgh’s two-hour practice. It’s what happened afterwards, when the sun had dipped into the clouds and the once overflowing crowd at Chuck Noll Field was down to a handful of autograph-seeking spectators. There was one notable Steelers player still remaining, however: Najee Harris.
Harris, who missed time earlier in camp with an injury, spent roughly a half-hour after practice running up and down the practice field. He then spent another 30 minutes signing autographs, rewarding the fans who waited for him to finish his on-field work. That’s when things took an unexpected turn, for both the Pro Bowl running back as well as the reporters who had stuck around to speak to him.
While initially surprised at the sight of the reporters, Harris invited them to walk with him to a hill alongside one of the neighboring practice fields. He then proceeded to do several hill sprints, which created another crowd of fans who were still awaiting autographs. It was then that Harris, who by this point had sweat dripping off of his Steelers sweatshirt, held court with the media, over an hour after practice had ended.
“Even when I wasn’t hurt, I tried to tell myself that I was going to do a lot after practice,” Harris said of his post-practice regiment. “Running hills is one of them, but then I got hurt. … I had to find a way to replace the days that I missed not running. I try to run after practice as much as I can, before practice. And trying to wear stuff like this. … Just find the ways to replace the days that I’m missed.
“I just want to be prepared for anything that’s presented to me during the season. So if it’s a heavy workload, I want to be prepared for that. I was down for two weeks. I kind of went back conditioning-wise, but I’ve been doing a lot of swimming, hills, running extra, even the plays after practice, just running extra. Any way that I can stay in shape.”
A football historian, Harris said that instead of watching how prior running backs played, he’s looked deeper into how they trained. That’s what inspired Harris to train this past offseason with Adrian Peterson, who one day will receive a bronze bust in Canton, Ohio, as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The extra work before, during and after practice requires elite physical and mental stamina. Harris hopes this work will prepare him for the most taxing moments of the season.
“Fourth quarter mentality. That’s why I try to run 10 after practice,” Harris said. “Just to have the fourth quarter, even if we got into overtime, having that extra juice in the tank. (Hill running) works a lot of things, picking up knees in the holes and obviously getting stronger in the thighs. I’m a bigger back, so most of my hits are going to be lower. Just making sure that I’m ready for anything.”
While Harris said the injury was frustrating at times, he said it gave him more time to bond with some of his younger teammates. Harris spoke glowingly about several of those teammates, including quarterbacks Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett.
“Mitch has grown a lot,” Harris said. “He’s got a good feel for everybody. … He’s a competitor, I’ll tell you that. … But that’s what you want in a quarterback. You want a competitor and that’s what he is.”
Regarding Pickett, Harris said he has seen “dramatic” improvement in the Steelers’ rookie quarterback from OTAs to this point in camp.
“You see him improve every step of the way,” Harris said of Pickett, who has gotten more reps with the first-team as camp has winded down. “He has the talent, he just needs to have the confidence and really have the team to back him up. … He’s going to be good, for sure.”
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It’s easy to forget that Harris was a rookie himself last season, a season that saw him break several franchise rookie running back records. Harris’ heavy workload last season helped the Steelers make the playoffs despite a 1-3 start. Pittsburgh will need Harris to have similar success if the Steelers can be in a similar position in 2022. But as Harris said Wednesday night, Pittsburgh will need all hands on deck if they are going to be a factor in the AFC playoffs come January.
“I like to use the phrase that we’re still stacking bricks,” Harris said. “I think it’s the first week that all the guys are back. Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, Pat Freiermuth, and also me. … Throughout this camp, we learned that there’s going to be people coming down with injuries; it’s just something that happens. Just got to make sure that twos or whoever is behind has just got to be ready. I think that they stepped up to the occasion this whole camp. … You’re only as good as your weakest link, as they say. I think we’re in good shape right now.”
With that, Harris had one more engagement before heading off the field: a final walk up the hill to reward the fans who had continued to wait for him.