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The Marvelous and Mysterious Marvin Harrison

Jan. 08, 2007
Jan. 08, 2007

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Jan. 8, 2007

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The Marvelous and Mysterious Marvin Harrison

It's not unusual to come across a pro athlete who won't talk to reporters. The Colts' Marvin Harrison, who is arguably the best receiver in NFL history, often doesn't even open up to teammates

A half-nakedMarvin Harrison stands at his locker in the RCA Dome, his back to a crowd ofreporters. They are all trolling for quotes and anecdotes to pump some lifeinto their stories about the latest win by the Colts, but they don't approachHarrison. They know from long experience that he doesn't want to talk to them.That he won't talk to them. The wideout quickly and quietly tugs on blackpants, ties the laces of his black shoes, buttons a black shirt over hissix-foot, 185-pound frame, wriggles into a black jacket, tugs a black baseballcap down low on his forehead and darts out of the locker room. His only wordsare a whispered goodbye to three security guards.

This is an article from the Jan. 8, 2007 issue Original Layout

By the time histeammates emerge from the showers to face that eager and inquisitive mediathrong, Harrison has long since faded to black. The only sign that he was everthere: a half-eaten doughnut in his locker and a bottle of blue Gatorade withone swig taken from it.

Harrison, 34,will someday retire as one of the greatest players in NFL history--and possiblyits most inscrutable star. Over his 11 seasons with the Colts, he has averaged93 catches a year, an NFL record. The Syracuse product set an NFL mark with 143receptions in 2002, surpassing the previous record by 20. He has teamed up withPeyton Manning for 878 receptions and 106 touchdowns, both marks records for aquarterback-receiver tandem. Harrison has, obviously, accomplished all of thisin packed stadiums and in front of millions of television viewers. Yet off thegridiron Harrison is uneasy in a crowd, especially when he's the center ofattention. The eight-time Pro Bowl player sometimes goes several weeks withoutagreeing to do even the most perfunctory postgame interviews. Basicfootball-related questions from reporters can bring terse responses, andpersonal information is treated as if it were a state secret. He declines togive a reporter contact information for his mother, saying, with a smile,"She talks too much." Teammates and coaches see him at practices andteam meetings but seldom anywhere else. "He's like Batman," linebackerCato June says. "I don't know if I've ever seen him sit down and eat ameal."

Reggie Wayne,Indy's other Pro Bowl receiver this year, was initially stung by Harrison'sreticence; eventually, though, he realized that Harrison's silent treatment wasthe norm. "We know he's going to get the job done, so we're not worriedabout getting him to speak," says Wayne. "That's how he was when he gothere, and he's been ballin' ever since."

Backup wideoutAaron Moorehead is one of Harrison's closest teammates, but it took more than ayear for him to puncture Harrison's shield. When he did, Moorehead discoveredan engaging personality, a shrewd businessman--especially in real estate--and aboxing connoisseur. "Some people think he's not outgoing enough,"Moorehead says, "but it's fun to be around him. You have to understand thathe has certain boundaries. He's not going to open up to just anybody."

Harrison'saccomplishments speak for themselves. On Dec. 10 in Jacksonville, he became thefourth player to reach 1,000 receptions. The catch came in his 167th game; 14fewer than it took Jerry Rice to hit that mark. This season, he had 95. SaysBroncos All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey, an eight-year vet, "Playing him myfirst year and playing against him this season, the guy hasn't missed abeat."

Harrison isessentially competing as much with history as with his contemporaries. Nextseason he should pass Tim Brown (third alltime with 1,094 catches) and CrisCarter (second, 1,101). "How close to Jerry [Rice] do you putHarrison?" says Hall of Fame coach John Madden. "There was a time thatI thought Randy Moss was the best receiver. Then I thought T.O. They've kind ofbeen up and down, but the one constant has been Marvin Harrison. I think thathe's very, very close to being the top guy."

Harrison standsapart in another way: In an era in which every touchdown seems to require adance, he is a stoic. "The big end-zone demonstrators--the Chad Johnsons,the Owenses and the Mosses--they can't carry his sweatshirt," says Billsgeneral manager Marv Levy. "Marvin Harrison is more productive. He makesfewer mistakes. He comes to play. He doesn't come to talk."

On those rareoccasions when he does talk, Harrison speaks softly and deliberately."People put me into their own categories," he says in a closed-dooroffice in the Colts' facility. "I don't like to talk in front of too manypeople. I'm not going to be the one in the locker room who's the center ofattention. I'm not going to be loud, but I do talk."

He was a boy offew words, in contrast to his younger sister and brother. "They wanted tosing," says Linda Harrison, his mother. "They wanted to perform infront of people. You could never get him to do any of that."

There will come atime, however, when Harrison will be forced to stand alone in the spotlight.Five years after he retires, he can expect a call from the Hall of Fame."I'm not going to talk at the podium. I don't want to do it," Harrisonsays, his voice rising uncharacteristically. "When people talk about theHall of Fame, the first thing I say is, 'Do I have to give a speech?' If [I'mnot inducted], that will be fine with me because that means I'm not going togive a speech."

There are noassigned spots on the Colts' team plane, but Marvin Harrison always takes theleft window seat of the exit row. In meetings he always sits in the last seatin the far corner. In the locker room his is the only cubicle with the chairperfectly centered in front of the locker, in which all his gear is foldedneatly and his black sneakers are always tucked into the right corner, next tometiculously organized toiletries. "I know where everything is at alltimes," says Harrison with pride. The rituals extend to the field. As hestretches before games, an equipment staffer hands him new black gloves, stillin their plastic casing. At kickoff Harrison places a white towel on the rightend of the bench and sits down on it.

When Harrisonscores, he hooks his mouthpiece on his face mask and hands the ball to the ref."I feel like, O.K., you scored," says Harrison. "Let's think aboutthe next series. The game is not over. My goal is to score another touchdown.There will be a time when I can sit back and celebrate--that'll be when I'mfinished with football."

Teammates andcoaches chart his celebrations the way astronomers track meteorites. "Ifyou look hard you can see his jubilation," says Indy receivers coach ClydeChristensen. "You have to look hard." In 2003 during a Week 14 victoryagainst Tennessee, Harrison dived to snag a pass with his right hand, using hisleft to brace himself. After that sublime 42-yard reception, he sprang up andsignaled for teammates to join him. Last season's Marvin Moment came in avictory at Jacksonville. After scoring on a slant route, Harrison gallopedtoward the back of the end zone, where Jacksonville's mascot stood glumly.Without breaking stride, Harrison tapped the mascot's cheek with his hand."It was the funniest thing," says Colts tight end Dallas Clark. "Ithad a little Marvinesque touch to it. Very subtle."

All that helpsexplain why the Colts were stunned when, in a victory at New England inNovember, Harrison spiked the ball after scoring on a sublime catch. It bouncedup into Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel's face mask, and Harrison was flaggedfor a personal foul. The spike was apparently in reaction to some ill-advisedtrash-talking by a defensive back. "He keeps all of his touchdown balls, sowith a spike you're kind of taking the risk of not getting the ball back,"says Manning half-jokingly.

An insatiabledesire for the ball is one trait Harrison shares with his flamboyantcontemporaries. When few passes are thrown his way, teammates know to keep awayfrom him. His hunger for passes extends to practices, where he still performswith the zeal of an undrafted rookie. ("We see a lot of Wow! catches,"coach Tony Dungy says.) When Christensen suggested during training camp thatHarrison decrease his reps--standard procedure for veterans--the receiverdeclined. "He works the cones in Week 14 just like he did in training campof his fifth year in the league," says Christensen.

"I get paidto practice," says Harrison. I play the games for free. Everyone wants toplay on Sundays."

Although Harrisonhad wrist and elbow operations this past off-season, there has been no drop-offin his performance. In fact, he seems impervious to physical wear during theseason. While Indy's young receivers plop into hot tubs, Harrison never usesthem. "I don't get in any bags to sleep in and all that New Age stuff,"he says.

In 11 seasonsHarrison has missed only six games due to injury. Such durability seemsincongruous with his willowy frame and a body-fat percentage that Manning saysis "equivalent to that of a cadaver. He's unbelievably fit." Theexplanation may lie in an extraordinary metabolism that allows Harrison to eatas if he were a sumo wrestler. He gorges on junk food; three seasons ago heplaced a store display for the Philadelphia-based Tastykakes near his locker."I've never seen a guy be able to eat like that," says center JeffSaturday, "and stay as fit as he has." In fact, Harrison says, hisgreatest off-season challenge is to keep weight on.

Harrison ran a4.37 40 before the draft in '96, and Manning contends that the wideout is asquick as ever. "Nobody would know that better than me," he says,"because I know when to throw the pass on certain routes. In nine years thetiming has been exactly the same, especially on deep passes."

Adds Coltsdefensive end Dwight Freeney, "It amazes me every time I look at him. Howdoes he still run as fast as he does, and eat what he eats, and look how helooks and play how he plays? He should be on Unsolved Mysteries."

Harrison returnsto his hometown of Philadelphia each week during the season for a quick visitwith his extended family and close friends. He spends time with hisfour-year-old son, Marvin Jr., who lives with his mother (she and Marvin arenot married), and with a tiny circle of childhood friends he flies to Hawaiievery winter for the Pro Bowl. "He's very loyal to his roots," says hisuncle, Vincent Cowell, an anesthesiologist. "It's where his support hasbeen all his life, prior to his fame and fortune."

Harrison's fatherdied of natural causes when Marvin was two. Linda worked two jobs to supporther children, stressed the value of schoolwork and issued strict rules aboutstaying off the often-mean streets of North Philadelphia. She says Marvin wasprecocious but obedient. "I only had to tell him to do something once, andit was done," Linda says. "Being the oldest child, he took a lot ofresponsibility when I wasn't around."

The Harrisonsmoved a few times in search of a safer environment before landing inRoxborough, a working-class neighborhood undergoing gentrification. Marvinattended Roman Catholic High, a small all-boys school where he led the hoopsteam to city titles as a junior and a senior and was named Philadelphia's topfootball player three times.

At Syracuse (heplayed two seasons with Donovan McNabb), Harrison became the school's alltimeleading receiver. The Colts selected him 19th in the 1996 draft, which had thebest wideout class in NFL history, including Keyshawn Johnson, Terry Glenn,Eddie Kennison, Terrell Owens, Muhsin Muhammad, Eric Moulds and Joe Horn.

He is such acomplete player that it's difficult to identify his strongest asset. Harrisonis perhaps the NFL's best route runner, with a genius for the subtle change oftempo or small head fake that throws off a defender. "He can run a hookroute and make it a piece of art," says Christensen. "Everyone elsejust runs 12 yards and hooks. He may run five hooks that all have their ownlittle touch to 'em. Like an artist."

Art, of course,is a subjective taste. Manning considers Harrison's best quality to be hisindefatigability. Bengals scout Duke Tobin (whose father, Bill, draftedHarrison) believes it's his ability to quickly shift gears. Colts presidentBill Polian marvels at how Harrison snatches balls out of the air like a pigeonplucking crumbs off the asphalt. ("The fastest hands I've ever seen.")And Indy offensive coordinator Tom Moore lauds--irony alert--Harrison's ease ina crowd. "He can block out the whole stadium, the noise. He's got guyshanging on him, flashing in front of him, and all he sees is that football.It's just him and the football."

It is two daysbefore Thanksgiving, and Harrison is visiting Temple University Hospital, wherehe had his off-season surgeries, to donate 88 turkey dinners to families wholive in his old neighborhood. He steps into a room of roughly 60 people,including his mother, his uncle Vincent, community leaders and hospitalworkers. Guiding Marvin Jr. in front of him, Harrison runs a quick corner routeto his left, and then chats with a doctor. But with all eyes on the wideout,the hospital's p.r. director nudges Harrison toward center stage, behind atable with turkeys, sweet potatoes and Tastykake Krimpets. Harrison stepsforward, looks out at the many smiling people and sighs.

"It seemslike I had a part-time job here," Harrison says, alluding to his surgeriesand rehab. This gets a good laugh. He then expresses his gratitude for the carethe hospital staff gave him and talks about the importance of being active inthe community. "I'm glad to be able to team up with Temple to giveback," Harrison says. "Thank you."

His brief addressdraws hearty applause that last almost as long as his speech. Then severalpeople approach Harrison, who chitchats, signs autographs and has his picturetaken with a few people. When five Roman Catholic High students are introducedto him, Harrison says with a smile, "You all should be in school."

The easy reparteeoffers no hint of the jitters Harrison felt before he spoke. Still surroundedby adoring and appreciative fans, Harrison catches the eye of a reporter, areporter who is clearly surprised by this charming performance from a man whohas an almost pathological aversion to public speaking. Harrison smiles andoffers an explanation that he should keep in mind when he has to give thatdreaded Hall of Fame speech: "When I speak from the heart," Harrisonsays, "that's when I speak the best."

EXTRA

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"We're not worried about getting him tospeak," says Wayne. "That's how he was when he got here, and HE'S BEENBALLIN' ever since."
"I get paid to practice," Harrison says of hiswork ethic. "I PLAY THE GAMES FOR FREE. Everyone wants to play onSundays."
PHOTOPhotograph by Bill FrakesPHOTOGREGORY SHAMUS/GETTY IMAGESCLOSING IN Next season Harrison should pass Carter and Brown in career catches, leaving only Rice ahead of him.PHOTOG. NEWMAN LOWRANCE/WIREIMAGE.COM RECEIVING ACCOLADES Manning (18) and Harrison are already the most productive quarterback-receiver tandem in NFL history.PHOTOMICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHYPHILLY COMBO Harrison was a two-sport high school standout in Philadelphia, where Marvin Jr., 4, is being raised by his mother.