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  • Eight years after he started torching NFL defenses, the retired receiver–return man addresses his mental health and how he thinks it shaped his life and reputation as he takes on an unfamiliar role at Florida: mentor.
By Michael McKnight
June 28, 2018

This story appears in the July 2, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine — and get up to 87 percent off the cover price plus two FREE gifts. Click here for more.

Watch Percy Harvin’s Long Road Home, a new feature on SI TV including an exclusive, in-depth interview with Harvin in Gainesville.

***

Percy Harvin is a failure. He’s an entitled, high-strung hothead whose coaches struggled to harness his game-breaking skills as a wide receiver and return man. He complained, fist-fought and prima donna’d his way out of the NFL by age 28.

Percy Harvin is a success. A child prodigy raised by a single mom, he flew past his peers in high school and at Florida, enjoyed a lucrative pro career and won championships at every level. He retired in 2017, citing various medical issues and his desire to be the dad he never had.

Both of these versions of Percy Harvin are cruising Gainesville, Fla., in a silver Bentley on a Tuesday in March. Sporting a woolly beard and thick braids woven close to his scalp, dressed in a royal-blue Gators sweat suit, his seat tilted back at an unsettlingly obtuse angle, the NFL’s 2009 Offensive Rookie of the Year addresses his passenger as “Bossman” as he unfurls his life story.

Right now he’s recounting how he moved out of an Orlando mansion last year and into a modest four-bedroom house in Gainesville, where he burst onto the national scene 11 years ago with BCS-champ Florida. It is also where his son, Jaden, was living with his mother. Jaden is five, one year younger than Percy was when he began playing peewee ball in Virginia Beach, flashing an aptitude for making tacklers miss that would lead to implausible touchdowns, off-field coddling, inter-personal blowups and, as Harvin puts it, “mental stresses that I can’t even put into words, Bossman.”

He says he did not miss playing football last fall, his first without the game since 1994. Did that surprise you?

“Bossman, this whole journey has been surprising. A lot of the stuff I struggled with, it just don’t affect me no more. That’s why I’m comfortable talking about it.” He hangs a right, bringing Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the site of his rise to fame, into view. “I’m cool with you asking whatever you want. Failing a drug test. The fights. ’Cause it’s gonna help somebody.”

Harvin starts with the painful stuff: the migraines he has endured since he was seven. “Take a hammer and beat it on the side of your head nonstop,” he says of the pain. “If you’re trying to relax, if someone’s trying to talk to you, that hammer is still going off. You’re trying to eat, still going off.” That pounding is linked, he says, to an anxiety disorder that has gripped him since he was a kid, which he didn’t even know he had until he broke in with the Vikings and started making regular visits to the Mayo Clinic. Kept confidential by the NFL’s medical protocols, and by his own protocols of manhood, the ailment caused Harvin to play most of his 79 NFL games on little or no sleep.

“The best way I can describe it is that I felt ‘out of body,’” he says of a typical episode. “My heart would be going, I’d be sweating, I felt like everybody in the room was looking at me. My speech was slurring. I didn’t wanna eat. I was gasping for air. You’re so worked up that it’s hard to spit words out.” Inspired by NBA stars Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan, who have spoken out recently about their anxiety issues, Harvin wants to join them in saying, It’s O.K. to be not O.K.

Harvin realizes he’s known as much for his emotional blowups—a disciplinary suspension at Landstown High; the rumored choking of an assistant coach at Florida; a televised shouting match with his Vikings coach; altercations with at least two teammates—as he is for his big plays. While he doesn’t want his anxiety disorder to be an excuse for these missteps (and while the psychologists consulted by SI believe that anxiety and emotional outbursts aren’t usually related), Harvin says, “I just know everything would have been a lot easier if I had been patient with myself.” Considering all the sleepless nights and foodless days that filled his career, though, “most of what I did”—a 9.5-yards-per-carry average in college, 9,000-plus all-purpose yards in the NFL—“was off of just ... will.”

His mind seems at peace on this day, which he began by feeding Jaden breakfast, clicking him into the child seat of an Escalade, cuing up Paw Patrol and driving to preschool. In the fall of 2017, Harvin secured split custody of Jaden with Janine Williams, a former Gators volleyball player whom he dated throughout college and the pros. The same week that Harvin moved to Gainesville to accommodate this shift, Florida fired football coach Jim McElwain, at which point, Harvin recalls, “Me and my mom, our hands were itching. And when our hands itch, something’s going to happen.”

Four weeks later the school hired Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, who as the Gators’ offensive coordinator in 2005 had helped recruit Harvin, then coached him for three years. Mullen chose to move into the same subdivision where Harvin had just bought his house; he invited Harvin to his office, encouraged him to pursue his degree and told him to drop in on the team whenever he wanted. “When I say I’m supposed to be here, it’s not something I say lightly,” Harvin says. “It’s a gut feeling. A following-the-universe-type thing.”

After preschool drop-off and before the Gators’ afternoon practice—he was a constant presence at UF workouts this spring—Harvin heads to the gym, just as he does every weekday. Would he ever consider a return to the NFL? Harvin already came out of retirement once, a two-game stint with the Bills in 2016 after quitting seven months earlier. But now he just tucks one headphone behind his ear, leaking Rick Ross into the weight room, and says, “Nah, Bossman, I’m at peace.”

There’s no reason to suspect he is lying. Harvin has always abhorred insincerity in any form. He listens only to hip-hop artists whose voices sound the same whether they’re recording or not. (Drake, among others, is disqualified.) In today’s world, this intolerance for artificiality makes Harvin something of a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

The most infamous of his blowups (each of which occurred near a football field, involved someone related to football and centered around football) was sparked when two veteran Seahawks receivers welcomed him, after his 2013 trade from Minnesota, then turned around and told the media they didn’t need him. That’s how Harvin saw it, anyway.

“I had been injured all year, and the media asked [in the lead-up to Super Bowl XLVIII, against the Broncos]: ‘The offense is struggling, Harvin is coming back to add that extra boost ... how do you guys feel?’ The defensive guys said they were excited. The receivers were like, ‘We’re already established. If he comes in and do what he do, that’s cool; but if not, we’re already established.’”

Harvin isn’t proud of fighting Golden Tate just a few days before that Super Bowl, or of putting his hands on Doug Baldwin when the issue came up again six months later. (Both former teammates downplay the incidents.) But he doesn’t run from his truth, either. “I was like, ‘This is supposed to be a party. We’re supposed to be like [the] Golden State [Warriors]. Everybody gets some.’ That was my mentality.”

There’s a lesson in here that Harvin wants to impart to current Gators players. “These young guys want to get to the NFL so quick, for the money and this and that. I just tell ’em, ‘Enjoy college.’ I heard Reggie Bush say it recently: USC was home. He got to the NFL and—it was cool, he had fun, but it didn’t have that love. That real love.”

Harvin scored 29 touchdowns in his first four NFL seasons, all with the Vikings. In his last four he scored three. His final two stops, with the Jets and the Bills? He can hardly remember those, the games lost in a fog of hospital visits, anti-anxiety meds, leg injuries and headaches—always the headaches. “I was still dragging on that year in Seattle,” he explains. “That year was so bad. I spent time trying to figure it out. I wasn’t giving all my energy to football.

“At one point my mom said she didn’t even recognize me. I’d get home all worked up; I’d just go to my room. I didn’t really talk. If I did, something would set me off. I just wasn’t peaceful, Bossman. I wasn’t the best person to be around.”


Mercury is best known as the messenger of the gods, an überathlete with superhuman speed. His lesser known side gigs, however, included serving as the god of tricksters and thieves. Hence, the word mercurial: subject to sudden or unpredictable changes of mood or mind. Few mortals know more about the mercuriality of Percy Harvin than Dan Mullen, who still calls him “the greatest college player I’ve ever seen.”

“I don’t know if it’s maturity, but he’s not the same guy he was,” Mullen says. “My wife will come home from dropping the kids off, and he’s already dropped his son off, and there he is walking his dogs.” The 46-year-old coach can’t stifle a laugh at the thought of Percy tamed. “It’s like, boy, he’s a regular guy now. To see him come back here and find what’s important in life, to have something beyond football that he can turn to—that’s the kind of man he’s becoming.”

The Vikings took Harvin with the 22nd pick in 2009, after his junior season. Today he’s a few credits from a psychology degree. He is taking classes this summer; after graduation, he’d like to pursue an M.B.A. For now, he’s providing an example for the 100 post-adolescents in Mullen’s charge: the retired baller who, because of wise investments, including some in several North Florida residential rentals, can focus on helping others.

Dozens of NFL types would do a double take at the sight of Harvin strolling across campus toward an afternoon baseball game with current Gators football players, admonishing one of them for cold-shouldering a fan. (“Dude, be an example. You’re representing the University of Florida.”) But it happened, as surely as the 32 TDs Harvin scored in a Gators uniform happened.

“He’s young enough that our players have seen him play; they’ve seen his success in the NFL,” says Mullen. “So when Percy says, ‘Hey, here’s the standard; I’ve done it and it helped me be successful,’ or ‘I didn’t, and it cost me,’ it’s a valuable voice. I mean, they wanna be him.”

That is, they want to be the shifty, slashing, TD-waiting-to-happen Percy Harvin—the comet of a man who strutted through end zones, toes dragging and arms spread wide. They don’t want to be the guy who couldn’t wait for those touchdown celebrations to be over, so he could return to the sideline and be alone again.


John W. McDonough

A week after that ride in his Bentley, Harvin is asked if he’d be willing to sit down more formally with an SI TV film crew. The reply comes promptly. “I don’t mind,” he texts. Would the first week in April work? “Sure. I’ll have my son that week.”

Cut to 8 a.m. on Tuesday, April 3. A three-man film crew is standing in the street outside Harvin’s house when he emerges with a storm on his face, gently lifts his son into the Escalade and slams the door. This is the Percy who elicited eye rolls and long exhales from NFL employees when asked about the Harvin they knew.

Harvin doesn’t raise his voice this morning; instead, he dispatches his mother, his guiding light since his birth under the sign of Gemini and the rule of the planet Mercury. Linda Joshua will later share, reluctantly, that she was a track star—“long jump, high jump, 100, 200 and the relays”—at First Colonial High in Virginia Beach. Percy was 12 the first time he beat her in a footrace. They haven’t gone head-to-head since; he wanted to retire on top.

Today Linda could pass for Percy’s older sister. With her fit, sprinter’s frame and skinny capri jeans, she doesn’t look at all like a mom who spent her son’s entire career on call, ready for a team employee to ring her and say, “His eyes are red, Linda. He’s sweating; he’s got that look. Come get him.”

“He doesn’t want to do it today,” she tells the crew as the Escalade backs out of the driveway and advances down the street, passing homes just completed and others that are only foundations in the sand. “He asked if we can reschedule. Maybe give him 30 minutes and send him a text.”

Her advice is followed, and Harvin replies with an apology; he’s ready to “hit reset.” And there he is a few minutes later, inside Gainesville Health & Fitness, headphones clapped over his ears, lip-synching Jadakiss, dancing next to a dumbbell rack, smoothing out that morning’s kinks. Putting his body in motion has always been Percy Harvin’s therapy.

George Whitehead, who runs the gym’s training department and who has worked with dozens of pro athletes, can only compare the thickness of Harvin’s muscle bellies, the tautness of his connective tissue, to one other athlete he has trained: “Serena Williams. That’s the only other person I’ve seen who has the physical machinery he has.” Across the gym, Harvin lowers his headphones to shake hands with an awestruck Florida fan and snap a selfie.

A few days earlier he joined a flag football team made up of former Gators, but then he pulled out. Things got more serious than anticipated. No one told him there was money involved, for one thing. “If I’m gonna do something like that,” he says, “I have to do it on my terms, have fun with it. I don’t want to take money. I did all that.”

Back in his car, there’s a smell of air freshener mixed with the faintest whiff of high-grade cannabis. Does weed have a place in football? he’s asked.

“A hundred percent.” He lists the ways it can help athletes battered by the NFL’s physical and mental grind, and says he knows of several coaches and execs who “don’t have a problem with it at all. When the state and federal laws line up, that’s when things will fall into place.”

Harvin heads to his favorite smoothie shop for his video interview. He is so accommodating, so patient with the audio guy and so friendly to the smoothie barista, that the stormy visage and furrowed brow of that morning seem to belong to someone else entirely.

“Another story about me,” he says out of nowhere. “They said I choked Coach G when I was here.” Billy Gonzales handled the Gators’ receivers during Harvin’s heyday, and he was recently hired to fill out Mullen’s new staff. The Sporting News reported the choking in 2012, after Harvin’s third year in the NFL. “First of all, he’s a grown man,” Harvin explains. “Like he’s gonna let a kid just choke him with no consequences. It wasn’t anything close to ‘choking.’” (Years ago Gonzales called the incident “overblown.”)

Harvin continues. “Did we have disagreements? Of course. We had a lot of egos on that team, a lot of guys who wanted touches.” Gonzales is a family friend, Harvin says. “He would call my mom two or three times a year during my pro career, just to catch up.”

“Percy is so competitive,” Mullen explains, which is like saying Mercury could run a little. “I think part of his maturity is that he has found different avenues for that. He’ll still compete—I don’t know if you want to play pickup basketball with him or challenge him to a workout—but [he] has learned to compartmentalize when to be competitive.”

On the drive home, smoothie between his thighs, Harvin is asked what he would change about the way he has interacted with others over the years.

“I’m an in-the-moment guy,” he says. “I want what I want now. And when I don’t get it, that’s when anxiety and stuff [kicks in]. My mom has been telling me for years: Sometimes there are a million things connected, and I should just let the process play out. You have to let more dots connect. When I finally started trusting that—that’s when I got custody and I moved here and [that’s when] Mullen was hired.

“I still have my moments. Like this morning.” His mom had arrived a few minutes late to take care of her grandson, he explains, and that threw him off. “I just wanted it perfect. Sports Illustrated was coming, and I wanted to be right at the door when you guys came. My mom said, ‘Son, relax; everything cool. We’re good.’ That’s how I’ve always been, though. I create my own anxiety. That’s been my struggle. Once I sit back and relax, that’s where the growth is. Normally I would have been mad all day. Now I know how to reset.

“When Coach Mullen talks about me being competitive, that’s what he’s talking about. Like the thing on the sideline with Frazier.” In 2012, TV cameras captured Harvin yelling at then Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, following an incompletion against Seattle. “It was a wheel route up the sideline; we had worked on it all week with [quarterback Christian] Ponder. ‘If we get the right defense, this has got to be our home run.’” When Ponder overthrew a wide-open Harvin, “I came off the field like, ‘Nah, man! We got to have this! I ain’t accepting that, Coach!’”

He takes a deep breath.

“The perfection part, that drove me insanely crazy.”

We arrive at Harvin’s home and he opens three dog cages, allowing Duke, Diamond and Duchess—three disparate breeds whose only commonality is their 80-plus-pound weight—to pad around. Later, Percy walks the dogs around the block with his mother, Linda gliding on the balls of her feet like her son, insects whirring in the nearby woods. “He has received special treatment all his life,” Linda says. “Now he’s learning to do normal, grown-up things.”

Linda was the person Percy called, he says, “when it was two or three o’clock in the morning in the hotel room and I had a game [in a few hours]. Can’t sit down, watching TV, just waiting for time to go by, waiting for the sun to come up.

“It’s different from game anxiety,” he explains. “Game anxiety, you cool. The anxiety I’m talking about is, like, the unknown. You freeze up. Your heart is racing, you want to move around, you can’t sit. ... You don’t feel like you’re there all the way. The only people who understood were my mom and one or two coaches.”

Les Pico, who is still the Vikings’ player personnel director, was “a huge help. That’s why I say Minnesota was my best years; I had at least one person who understood. ... Other places were less understanding, because they just didn’t know.”

By now, SI’s film crew has set up cameras and lights and two stools inside Harvin’s home. There’s no team representative here to hold his hand, no agent. It’s just Percy and Linda, like it was back in Virginia Beach, when Dad was a no-show and Mom worked two jobs and saved up so she could hire someone to lay concrete in her yard for a basketball court.

Regrets since those days? Harvin’s got a few. One of those involves Janine, the mother of his own son. “If I could do some things over,” Harvin says under the camera lights, “I would have sat down and helped her understand that this [athletic talent] was a blessing, and that I was going to get everything out of it I could, but I wasn’t gonna be one of those guys trying to play all my life. It was going to be eight to 10 years, and then I would dedicate my life to my family. I didn’t communicate that very well.”

The hardest part of being a dad, he says, is patience. “[Jaden’s] so young right now. He’s just starting to figure things out. And I’m so geared to perfection. ... That’s been the story of my life. I’m still a work in progress on that.”

A soft rain falls outside as the cameras are packed up and Harvin prepares to pick his son up from preschool. Soon Jaden, whose dad doesn’t want him to play football, will be singing his ABCs and counting to 10 in Spanish during the drive home. Soon he will be engulfed by 240 pounds of dog, who love him in part because he sneaks them Cheetos. The scene calls to mind a phone conversation, weeks earlier, when Harvin was asked, What scares you? A long pause preceded Harvin’s answer. “The idea that my son will not be a good person,” he said. “I feel confident that ain’t gonna happen, but—I just want to make sure he knows the value of people.”

As Harvin readies to leave, an elderly man with an English accent wanders up in the drizzle, walking an elderly dog with cataracts, their feet crunching pine needles as they approach Harvin’s guest, who is sitting on a stump in a vacant lot next door. Ed Brewer is an 80-year-old retired tech executive from London. “Do you know who lives there?” he asks, pointing at Harvin’s front door. “I didn’t know who he was when he moved in. I brought over some cookies that my wife had baked, to welcome him. Percy’s mother answered the door. She is so nice. Have you met her? Ten minutes later, there was a knock at our door.”

It was Harvin, presenting his new neighbor with an autographed pigskin, the very one he returned 104 yards against the Falcons in November 2011. Brewer, never a big fan of American football, later learned that the ball has a special place in NFL history: Harvin had toted it on the longest kick return not to end in a touchdown.

Depending on your perspective, it was a moment of success or failure. Or both.

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