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Scary good - Indianapolis Colts receiver Marvin Harrison

Dec 13, 1999 
Paul Attner

Fueled by a steady diet of Tastykakes, the Colts' Marvin has become one of the league's most frightening receivers

I am searching for reasons. Why has this been a year of emergence for Marvin Harrison, who, in his fourth season, has grown from being a good receiver to one of the league's elite? I am told about his special relationship with quarterback Peyton Manning, which was forged during months of offseason, on-their-own practices. I am told about his work ethic, which can be traced as far back as his early school days, when he had perfect attendance amid a peer group full of dropouts. I am told about his exquisite speed and how he can race past cornerbacks and about his catch-everything hands and his fearless route running.

But I sense there is more. I probe and ponder. I refuse to accept general answers. And then finally I see something curious. There, in Harrison's locker at file Colts' practice complex. It is food, but not just any food. It is a package of Tastykakes.

Harrison smiles sheepishly. "Can't live without them," he confesses. "Got to have my Tastykakes."

This opens the floodgates. The truth pours out. All you receivers out there, put away your protein shakes mid those nutritional supplements and everything you have been taught about the food pyramid and eating five daily portions of fruits and vegetables. Instead, try the Marvin Harrison Miracle Receiver Diet. Then, you too may do what Harrison is doing, which simply is producing all All-Pro year and providing the final element of balance required for a Colts offense already profiting from the presence of Manning and rookie running back Edgerrin James.

All you need to understand about Harrison's worth is to study his contribution to the Colts' 37 triumph Sunday over the Dolphins. James dominated the first half by rushing for 104 of his 130 yards. When Miami took him away in the second, Manning began throwing, and Harrison--who had but one catch for 2 yards in the first half--responded with seven catches for 123 yards, including back-to-back, short-throw-and-quick-run receptions of 18 and 16 yards in the final 30 seconds that set up Mike Vanderjagt's dramatic final-play, 53-yard field goal. Upstart Indianapolis has won eight straight and has a surprising and commanding two-game lead in the AFC East. And Harrison showed once again that, with Jerry Rice fading, fading and almost gone, why shouldn't he be the next receiver to step up and capture the imagination of fans?

He has trails that Rice would admire. A honed, 6-foot, 181-pound body kept in shape through diligent workouts, a curious mind that wants to know how he can get better, a conscientiousness that tied him to Indianapolis last spring--and away lot weeks from Ms beloved hometown of Philadelphia--so he could master Ms on-field relationship with the prodigious Manning. And he's his own man, too--no jewelry, no tattoos, no trash-talking, no dancing, no hard partying--just a quiet guy with a generous smile and a love for mellow music doing his job in a highly professional manner.

But it is those Tastykakes that put him over the top.

"He is a freak of nature," says Colts defensive tackle Tony McCoy. "I have never seen anyone eat what he eats and keep a chiseled body. His metabolism must be going 100 miles per hour. I gain five pounds just looking at one of those Tastykakes."

The Tastykakes, which are manufactured in Philly--you can't find them anywhere in Indianapolis--and come in an assortment of flavors, form the foundation of his diet, which best can be described as calorie overload. Harrison, who is single and never cooks, eats junk food all day supplemented by sugar-coated cereal for both breakfast and a late-night snack. It's a must for the Colts' food inventory; they have to stock Lucky Charms, Fruit Loops and Cap'n Crunch at their complex for Marvin.

Every week, without fail, a boxfull of 30 Tastykake packages arrives at Harrison's three-bedroom Indianapolis condo, where he also gets three-day-late editions of the Philadelphia Daily News. He tries to keep the bulk of the Tastykakes for himself, but too many of his teammates have become hooked on the Hostess Twinkie-like snack. They raid his locker, so now he must hide some so they can last the week. But no one has had to endure the agony of McCoy.

Harrison and McCoy used to room together before games. After the last team meeting of the night, Harrison would get hungry, so he would order, oh, sausages and hot fries, chased by a Sprite. Then he would order a hot fudge brownie sundae, heavy on the hot fudge. Then, just before curfew, he would order more fries, an extra large portion. One night, the 290-pound McCoy, who straggles to make his prescribed weight, weakened. Drooling, shaking at the knees, he too got the fries. Ate a couple, then realized he couldn't afford the calories. So, he put the fries outside the door. But the smell was too tempting; he got up, grabbed them and started flushing them down the toilet. All the while, Harrison was pleading for a chance to finish what McCoy couldn't.

"I couldn't handle the eating ritual," says McCoy. "I had to change roommates."

Until this season, Harrison has been what television commentators love to describe as one of the NFL's best-kept secrets. He was the 19th pick in the 1996 draft, taken after three other receivers mainly because scouts wished he was 6-2 and 210. But he quickly became a rare bright spot the past three seasons on an otherwise mediocre team. He led the Colts in catches (64 and 73) his first two years and was pushing Marshall Faulk for No. 1 in 1998 before missing the final four games with a separated shoulder. Still, his 196 receptions entering this season compare favorably with those players taken ahead of him: Keyshawn Johnson (216), Terry Glenn (167) and Eddie Kennison (96).

"It's been a long time coming for Marvin," says Chiefs cornerback Carlton Gray, a former Colts teammate. "He's always been a good receiver. He's always been fast He's always been great at running routes. He just never got the ball (more)."

Harrison has suffered silently--don't expect him to raise a ruckus about anything--regarding his lack of recognition. He feels he was underappreciated at Syracuse, too. "I always felt I have been in the shadows, both in college and the pros," he says. "I have finally proved that I shouldn't have been drafted so low in the first round. Now I have the chance to be the best. I have all the ammunition I need as a receiver, starting with the quarterback. I just never could understand why my name wasn't mentioned with the best (NFL) receivers."

But that has changed. He meshes wonderfully with Manning and James, providing the receiving stability--and big-play speed--that gives the Colts as fine an offensive balance as any team m the league. Opponents who choose to double-team Harrison--that happens routinely now, for the first time in his career--leave themselves vulnerable to the running of James. And Manning's intelligent calling of audibles and dissecting of defenses keeps everything in sync. With these three stars improving noticeably as the season progresses, it is an offense that could be especially formidable in the playoffs.

The results already have been stunning. Harrison is a legitimate 4.3 sprinter capable of game-day breakaway bursts. "I live for the big plays; that is what turns me on," he says. But his improved ability to read coverages has made him a more complete receiver; now he leads the league in yards (1,239, 103.3 a game) and is second in receptions (82). Both numbers already are career marks, and he'll likely break all of the Colts' single-season major receiving records, including some still held by Hall of Famer Raymond Berry.

He has caught an NFL-high (for receivers) 12 touchdown passes, including stunners of 57, 56 and 42 yards, plus a 40-yard burst against Deion Sanders, the first scoring pass surrendered by the cornerback in five years as a Cowboy. He had 13 receptions (for 196 yards) against the Chargers, tying a club record for catches that previously had belonged to running backs (Lydell Mitchell, Joe Washington). His lO0-yard-plus efforts in the opening three games brought about the double-teaming; his consistency and speed have helped make Manning's play-action fakes perhaps the most dangerous move in the NFL.

"People need to start talking about Marvin Harrison," Sanders says. "He's a bad boy. He's not getting all the credit because he's not a flamboyant receiver. He's like a blue-collar worker. He goes out and gets his job done and takes it to the house."

Those are pleasing words for Harrison to hear. No question he has abundant gifts, but it's the way he has developed those talents that is truly impressive. "You'd like to put him on a commercial for young players," says Colts president Bill Polian, "and say, `If you want to become a great player, do what Marvin Harrison has done--work every day, including the offseason, and make yourself into a superstar.'"

After arriving last year in Indianapolis, Polian let it be known he thought Harrison could do a better job running after his catches, that his 12.6-yard average per reception should be higher for someone with his speed. Instead of being offended, Harrison listened. He began running out every catch in practice, and this season he's averaging 15.1 yards.

Last spring, for the first time in his career, he stayed with the other receivers in Indy to work with the methodical Manning. "Let's figure it out, and then we can light it up next season," he told his quarterback. Three or four days a week over a two-month span, the players would practice on their own, taking a route a day and running it against every conceivable defense. They worked out all types of signals that allow them to make route adjustments on the run. Then they would adjourn to a nearby restaurant, eat wings and talk. Even during the season, they use lulls in practice by moving to the side and fine-tuning mutes.

Now Manning is Harrison's closest friend on the team. They've also paired for 19 touchdowns in their first 24 games together; with Young-to-Rice and Aikman-to-Irvin both soon to be history, Manning-to-Harrison will become the next great passing combination.

Their familiarity sometimes gets them in trouble. Against the Jets two weeks ago, Harrison went in motion and spotted a defender standing right where the upcoming pass was intended. But instead of signaling to Manning that he was altering his route, he figured his quarterback also would see the situation and adjust accordingly. Harrison broke upfield instead of cutting outside, but Manning threw to the original spot. A sure touchdown became an interception.

"My fault," says Harrison. "I was getting ahead of myself. But next year, that won't happen. We win know each other even better, and we'll be even smoother."

"It's important for him to be good," says Manning about Harrison, one workaholic admiring another. "That's because he is so competitive. He wants the ball on third down, he wants it in pressure situations. And we are using him better this year. We are moving him around so defenses can't key into him being at one spot. But it's funny. I was just telling him the other day, the secret is out, everyone knows about us now. It makes it harder. I sure do miss those games when he got single coverage."

The secret is out even in Philadelphia, where Harrison's mom, Linda, still has difficulty believing her son has grown up to be a star layer. "I thought he would never get beyond little league," she says, laughing. "But if he did anything, it was going to be in basketball." Harrison was a star point guard at Roman Catholic High in Philly, leading his team to championships and dunking the ball as a 5-10 sophomore. But he stood out more as a running back and receiver, good enough to earn city MVP honors three times and a college scholarship.

That was good news for his mother, who raised Marvin on her own after his father died of a genetic disease when their son was 2. Linda worked two jobs, including cutting hair the past 15 years at night. But she also ran a strict house; Marvin stayed off the streets of North Philly, doing his homework and--parents of teen-agers, take note--making his bed without prodding. Always quiet, never flashy, he listened when his mom told him not to follow fads or peer pressure. When he told her he would buy her a house one day, she didn't listen. She should have. She now resides in a Philly suburb, in a home he purchased for her within days of his signing with the Colts.

Harrison flies back to Philly at every opportunity. He has a condo there and 76ers season tickets and all of his friends and an extended family that bought 75 tickets for a home game against the Cowboys earlier this season. Linda arranged for the bus and accommodations; they all showed up in Marvin Harrison T-shirts. She urges him to give back to the community, and he has listened, doing everything from sponsoring scholarships to handing out 88 free turkeys this past Thanksgiving. She still is working, but after her son signs his next contract--he has one more season left on his original agreement--she'll consider Marvin's request that she retire and let him support her.

The Colts know they must re-sign him. You don't lose a receiver who Polian admits has climbed from among the top 10 to one of a handful of the league's best. And the team doesn't quarrel with the assessment of Chiefs coach Gunther Cunningham, who thinks Harrison's best years "are still to come."

A new contract might help Harrison figure out a quandary. "There are no good (Philly) cheesesteaks in Indy," he says. "And next to Tastykakes, I really like them a lot." In another year, he'll have enough money to solve his problem. He could open up his own Philly cheesesteak restaurant in Indy. And for dessert, he can serve his beloved Tastykakes.

RELATED ARTICLE: A crushing loss for Miami

Barring injury, Dan Marino will finish the season as the Dolphins' quarterback. Other than that, the rest of the Miami franchise is in varying states of disarray after its emotionally draining 37-34 home loss to the Colts.

Ironically, Marino entered that contest as the team's big unknown after a horrid, five-interception performance against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day. But with his arm visibly stronger and his decision-making much more precise, Marino played himself out of Jimmy Johnson's woofhouse against the Colts. Marino sparked a second-half comeback that erased a 24-10 halftime deficit and should have been good enough to put the Dolphins just where we thought they would be entering this season--in charge of the AFC East.

Instead, Johnson's defense, the very fabric of this team, now is betraying him. That defense couldn't stop the Colts from easily moving 34 yards on two simple slant-in patterns by Marvin Harrison, setting up Mike Vanderjagt's 53-yard, game-winning field goal as time expired. Indianapolis now has scored 68 points in two games against Miami, which has shown no consistent clue about how to stop Harrison, Peyton Manning and Edgerrin James. And this was supposed to be a defense so quick and strong and deep that it would be the centerpiece of the Dolphins' Super Bowl run.

Now the wondrous Colts have surpassed the Dolphins. They are improving weekly, already able at this stage to play on the road against a veteran team, withstand a stellar effort from Marino (313 yards, three touchdowns), calmly move the ball under extreme pressure at the end and walk away with a two-game division lead. Remember, this is an offense whose starters average just 25 years of age; its oldest player, tight end Ken Dilger, is only 28. No one is more stunned than the Dolphins, who seemed to have an easy road to the division title once the Jets' Vinny Testaverde was injured in the opening game. Now the Colts are the AFC Present and Future.

"We aren't tackling anyone, and we aren't playing the way we need to," says a disgusted Zach Thomas, the Dolphins' middle linebacker. "We spent too much time trying to take away the ball instead of making sure we tackled first."

Offenses finally have figured out how to attack Johnson's aggressive schemes, which rely on tight coverage from the cornerbacks and overwhelming quickness from the front seven. The Colts demonstrated the blueprint: use cutback runs that take advantage of Miami's heavy pursuit, then go after the corners once the safeties become involved in run stoppage. James had 104 rushing yards in the first half; Manning threw for 156 of his 260 yards in the second. Incredibly, the Dolphins played such soft zone coverage in the final 30 seconds that Harrison was left uncovered on two simple short "in" routes where he faked an outside cut against Terrell Buckley, then burst over the middle 10 yards down the field. Buckley released him, but no one else picked him up.

With four games remaining, the 10-2 Colts, who blew substantial fourth-quarter leads in the only games they've lost, are firmly in charge of the division. They also still are pursuing the Jaguars for the conference's best record. Along with the Rams, they are the league's 1999 surprise, a 3-13 team in 1998 that has shortened the rebuilding process through a combination of great draft picks (Manning, James), fine free-agent signings (defensive end Chad Bratzke, linebacker Cornelius Bennett, safety Chad Cota, even rookie receiver Terrence Wilkins), staff adjustments (new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio) and the stabilizing hand of coach Jim Mora. They're among the league leaders in all the major offensive categories, and Fangio's zoneblitz scheme has improved a hardly formidable defense enough to make them title contenders.

"You couldn't anticipate that we would be this good so quickly," says Mora. "But Peyton's development is beyond what any of us could expect. And we've handled the pressure that builds every week. I was really interested in how we would deal with this Dolphin game. Now, no one can question our heart."

President Bill Polian, the architect of the rebuilding effort, credits Mora's handling of the Colts' last-quarter loss at home to the Dolphins in October with saving the season. "We faced a watershed after that game," says Polian about the 34-31 defeat. "We were clearly devastated and with a young team, the season could have gone right away immediately. He told them we could play with the big guys in our division, and they believed him. And he was right. He saved our season."

Now it's up to Johnson to work a similar savior job with his team. --P.A.

Senior writer Paul Attner covers the NFL for THE SPORTING NEWS.


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