One of the first sports related memories I have from my time at Syracuse University had to do with Marvin Harrison. The speedy, record setting receiver had graduated three years before I got there, but his name was still a topic of conversation among myself and my friends in Sadler Hall. One of the guys who lived next door that year refused to believe me when I insisted Marvin had a reputation as a blazing fast receiver, instead saying he was purely a great route runner with fantastic hands.
In all honestly, he was both of those things. This was back before Google, which makes me feel incredibly old, by the way. I spent far too much time hunched over my laptop, scouring the internet for any traces of Marvin Harrison’s time in the 40 yard dash at the NFL Combine. These days, it would take me about 30 seconds. Back in 1999, it took me about 30 minutes. But finally, I tracked down a reported 4.38 time in the 40, which stunned my friend both because he didn’t realize Marvin was that fast, and he couldn’t believe I’d actually spent so much time trying to prove him wrong.
What can I say? I’m passionate about Syracuse athletics, and I hate being wrong. No, that’s not true. I don’t hate being wrong, I just love being right.
In my office at work, there’s an autographed picture of Marvin Harrison hanging above my desk. Jim Boeheim and Donovan McNabb are also up there, but it’s the Harrison picture that gets the most attention, because people apparently never realize that Marvin went to Syracuse. That’s probably because he apparently never talks about his alma mater, and certainly never returns to campus. These days, he lives like a hermit in Philadelphia, where he grew up and spawned mythological stories like the time a track champion challenged him to a foot race, only to get blown out of the water by the much faster Harrison.
On Saturday, word came down about the inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and for the second year since he’s been eligible, Marvin Harrison’s name was not included. The only receiver inducted was Tim Brown, the former Oakland Raiders receiver who has a history of stealing recognition from Orangemen.
Tim Brown was a terrific player, there is no doubt about that. But it’s hard to argue he’s more deserving of a place in Canton than Marvin Harrison. Brown played 17 seasons, hauling in 1,094 passes for nearly 15,000 yards and exactly 100 touchdowns. Harrison, meanwhile, played four fewer seasons but still caught more passes, had nearly as many yards, and had 28 more touchdowns than did Brown. Few things gave me more pleasure as a Syracuse fan than watching him blossom into a star in Indianapolis, including eventually grabbing what is still an NFL record of 143 receptions in 2002. No one has come close to matching that total, even with Antonio Brown putting up a ridiculous 129 receptions this past season.
I may have a a particularly large soft spot for Harrison in part because he was a senior at the exact time I was first starting to really get into football. I was raised in a basketball household, the son of a college coach in Vermont, a state not exactly known for football. Hell, my brother was 6-foot-6, 230 pounds and could throw a ball about 60 yards in high school and our mom wouldn’t even let him play, despite the pleas of our high school’s head football coach.
Marvin was a senior during my freshman year of high school, with a redshirt freshman named Donovan McNabb slinging the ball around and making unbelievable plays with his feet. It was an exceptionally good time to watch the Orangemen play football, and I still vividly remember McNabb connecting with Harrison for a 96 yard touchdown in a dominant win over West Virginia. Later that season, Marvin absolutely torched future Eagles great Brian Dawkins as Syracuse decimated Clemson 41-0 in the Gator Bowl.
Late in Harrison’s career with the Colts, particularly after winning a Super Bowl ring, I was absolutely convinced he was a first ballot Hall of Famer. Wide receiver logjam be damned, we were talking about one of the greatest receivers to ever play the game. I mean, statistically speaking, that’s the absolute truth. You simply cannot argue with Marvin’s production. Yet here we are, two years of eligibility, and no plaque in Canton.
Obviously, Marvin’s off the field shenanigans have to have given voters some pause. This quiet, introverted receiver who was often praised for just keeping his mouth shut and playing the game with no frivolity, unlike draft classmates Keyshawn Johnson and Terrell Owens, turned out to be a little bit of a real life gangster. Sure, no one’s entirely clear on what exactly happened with Marvin’s notorious and mysterious gun incident, but it’s still left lingering doubts about Harrison’s character.
Of course, that sort of thing doesn’t typically impact the Hall of Fame chances of former NFL stars. No one believes for a second that Ray Lewis won’t get in on the first ballot, for example, despite having allegedly been involved in a homicide. But the fact is that Ray Lewis was more or less approachable and extremely quotable during his days in an NFL locker room, while Harrison was quiet and kept almost entirely to himself. Being personable and engaging goes a long way toward winning votes when it comes to the Hall of Fame.
Eventually, Marvin will get into Canton. With Brown getting in this year, it clears the way for Harrison next season, and at this point it would be not just shocking, but a legitimate injustice for him to be denied a third time. Terrell Owens is eligible for the Hall next year. It’ll be interesting to see if TO leapfrogs the perpetually reticent, reclusive Harrison. If that somehow happens, it’ll speak volumes about the fact that, at the end of the day, a player is going to get stronger consideration if he, too, speaks volumes. There’s no way that Owens should enter Canton on the first ballot, if it means Harrison is left out on his third try. But it’s certainly possible that could happen.
Marvin Harrison is, without question, the greatest receiver to ever play at Syracuse University. Eventually, he’ll get the adulation he deserves and get a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.