Little Fanfare For an Uncommon Man
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
INDIANAPOLIS There are no ploys from Marvin Harrison, no antic bids for attention, look at me, look at me, look at me. So, it may come as a surprise to learn that Harrison is the best wide receiver in the NFL, and perhaps on his way to being the best of all time, certainly better than any other wide receivers you have heard of, those garrulous self-promoters with their megaphone egos, and Klaxon mouths, and stage props hidden in their socks. Compared with him, those guys are insufferable bleaters. They are merely good. Harrison is great.
Harrison has pulled off a very neat trick: He has become great without becoming famous. He does not hold bawling news conferences, or strike ludicrous poses. He has been named to the Pro Bowl eight times and holds several NFL records yet he has passed through his 11-year career for the Indianapolis Colts without a single memorable end zone display or act of self-celebration. The result is that he is uncelebrated. He is not a star. "Well, he is," says Colts President Bill Polian, "but people don't know it."
A search for public mention of Harrison turns up almost nothing except his age, 34, his vitals, 6 feet, 185 pounds, and some statistics. Which is the way he likes it. "That's good," Harrison says. "Nothing to write about." Now, think about it. This is the age of communication, not to mention brazenness and blatant vulgarity. Do you know how hard it is to leave no real impression of yourself, nothing but a bunch of numbers and secondhand opinions?
Harrison shrinks against a wall in the Colts' complex, hands thrust deep in his gray fleece sweats, exuding an almost panicky shyness. With his slight build, he seems more fawn-like than human. He is all slim reticence. Startle him, say, by asking something personal, and he'll bolt from the building. He constantly glances away, his eyes sliding and skittering all over the hallways. The truth is, Harrison doesn't like being looked at.
"I'd prefer to play in an empty stadium," he says softly. "It would be, um, not less embarrassing, but I don't like the focus directly on me, not anything, no one, no cameras. If I had to I would just play in front of no fans."
Ask any pedestrian on the street to name the top wide receiver in the league, and he might pick Terrell Owens or Chad Johnson, notorious preeners. But ask defensive backs the same question, and you get a different answer. Indianapolis Coach Tony Dungy believes that the only people who properly appreciate Harrison are the people "who have to cover him." Last winter, ESPN queried nine defensive backs: Who is the toughest player to cover in the league? Eight answered: Marvin Harrison.
It's the diminutive, semi-invisible Harrison who is on pace to break virtually every important receiving record in the NFL. He passed the 900-catch mark in the shortest period of time in league history, 149 games. His average of 94 catches per season is the all-time record -- by nine. He holds the record for most receptions in a single season (143) -- by 20. Heading into Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins, he is ninth in the league in receptions with 32.
So why haven't people heard more of him? "Because he's all substance," says Dungy. "He's not flash and dash, it's just all performance for him. Even I really had no idea how good he was until I got here."
In a 45-28 Monday night victory over the St Louis Rams last October, Harrison and quarterback Peyton Manning set the NFL record for touchdowns by a duo. They connected for their 86th score when Harrison, running a fade route, caught a lofted ball over his shoulder, planted his left foot, and dragged his right toe in the end zone. And then he jogged casually away.
Manning ran excitedly down field to greet him. Harrison tossed the ball to him. Manning handed the ball back. "You keep it, you keep it, you keep it," Manning insisted. Harrison handed it back again. He wouldn't accept it.
"I've just never been a flashy person, my work is the key to success," Harrison said during an interview last season. "It's not to go out and rant and rave about one touchdown in a game, when you still have 30 more minutes to play. My job is never done until all the zeros are on the clock."
Humility? Personal modesty? They are all but obsolete qualities among NFL wide receivers -- which is why quarterbacks on other teams openly pine to play with him. One of them is the Philadelphia Eagles' Donovan McNabb, who was a collegiate teammate of Harrison's for two years at Syracuse. "So many receivers go through their career talking about how great they are, and how much they're going to do," McNabb says. "Marvin just does it."