"It's 88." The silent Marvin Harrison speaks

Marvin Harrison. (Tony Gutierrez/AP file)
Marvin Harrison. (Tony Gutierrez/AP file)
Posted: February 01, 2014

NEW YORK - The words "No Caller ID" flashed in white across the front of the iPhone, hiding Marvin Harrison's phone number but revealing his identity. His reputation as the most private of public figures had preceded him.

He does not have an account on Facebook or Instagram. He does not tweet. And if he does not want you to have his phone number, you will not have it. Still, in an exclusive interview with The Inquirer, he erased any doubt as to who was calling with the first two words he said:

"It's 88."

That was the only uniform number that he wore over his 13 years with the Indianapolis Colts, a career in which Harrison - born in North Philadelphia, a football and basketball star at Roman Catholic High School - developed into one of the most accomplished wide receivers, a career that could earn him induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year.

A 46-person selection committee that includes members of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) will vote on and announce the new class of inductees here Saturday, and Harrison, in his first year of eligibility, is one of 15 finalists. Of those 15, no more than five can enter the Hall.

"When he was in high school, you just knew he had the athletic talent to make it in the NFL," said Ed Brodbine, who coached Harrison at Roman. "He could do things on a football field that no one - I mean literally no one - else could do."

The prospect of his induction has forced the inscrutable Harrison, 41, and still a Philadelphia resident, back into the spotlight six years after he played his final game for the Colts - and six years after the incident that established the contradiction at the core of his persona.

Lauded by teammates, opponents, fans, and friends for his natural athletic gifts, his obsessive work ethic, and his utter lack of flamboyance over his time at Roman, at Syracuse University, and in the NFL, Harrison has since seen his image take on a darker, more enigmatic veneer.

Shooting

A gun registered to Harrison was used in the April 2008 shooting of Dwight Dixon outside Playmakers, the North Philadelphia bar that Harrison owns. He has not been charged with any crime. Dixon was then shot again in July 2009 and died from his wounds later that year.

Harrison declined to discuss these matters in any detail. In fact, before he would talk about his career and Saturday's Hall of Fame vote, he wanted to set some ground rules for the interview.

"This is before we even start the story," he said. "No one has ever approached me about a murder - never, ever. Never, ever. I'm just getting that out of the way so we can go forward. I'm just saying that has never, ever happened."

With his lawyer, Jerome Brown, present, Harrison answered questions at the Central Detective Division about the first Dixon shooting, Brown confirmed in a phone interview Thursday. Police did not question Harrison about the subsequent shooting that led to Dixon's death.

"He is not a suspect in that case," Brown said, "if he ever was one."

It is true that Harrison has never been questioned by homicide detectives in the killing, detectives close to the investigation said, speaking on condition of anonymity. But they said Thursday that no one has been ruled out as a suspect, including Harrison.

In an e-mail statement, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office said: "The investigation into the murder of Dwight Dixon is still an active investigation. The District Attorney's Office continues to ask for the public's help in this case."

Football only

The Pro Football Hall of Fame requires its selection committee to use "football-only criteria" in judging whether a player is worthy of induction, said PFWA and committee member Bob Glauber, who covers the NFL for Newsday in New York. So nothing Harrison has or has not done off the field is supposed to have any impact on his candidacy. Nevertheless, "I would imagine some voters are going to take it into consideration," Glauber said. "But I'm not in their heads."

By Harrison's statistics alone, his induction on his first ballot would appear a fait accompli. ("He's got a pretty good chance," Glauber said.) He ranks third in NFL history in receptions with 1,102; seventh in receiving yards with 14,580; and fifth in touchdown catches with 128. In 1998, the Colts selected Peyton Manning with the NFL draft's No. 1 overall pick. The first pass Manning threw in the NFL, during a preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks, was to Harrison . . . for a touchdown.

Manning's vote

The following year, Harrison's production skyrocketed; he caught 115 passes for a league-high 1,663 yards - the first of eight consecutive seasons in which he accumulated at least 1,100 receiving yards. He then set the NFL single-season record for receptions with 143 in 2002, a figure that represents the apex of his partnership with Manning.

"I'll always be indebted to what he did for me," said Manning, who on Sunday will play in Super Bowl XLVIII for the Denver Broncos against the Seahawks. "I leaned on Marvin a lot my entire career. I sure hope he gets that call this Saturday. He deserves it."

Harrison and Manning still trade text messages with each other, though Harrison said that he tries not to bother Manning or any other former teammates who are still active players. He could not abide distractions himself, so he does not inflict them on others. He plans to come to New York this weekend, he said, but he has given little thought to how he will react if he's voted into the Hall of Fame: "I can't because it hasn't happened. I don't want to put the cart before the horse."

Brodbine, Harrison's coach at Roman, made sure to watch all of Harrison's games with the Colts, and he will tune in to the announcement ceremony Saturday. The two have not spoken since 1994, when Harrison was a redshirt junior at Syracuse. Over those two decades, though, Brodbine has kept a note from Harrison that thanks him "for being a great coach and supporting me through the years," the words written in perfect Palmer Method.

Every Sunday, Brodbine would watch that No. 88 streak across his television screen, catching passes, scoring touchdowns, and he wants to believe the best of Harrison. He tries to juxtapose the respectful and reserved high school kid he knew with the things that have been reported about Harrison's life after football. He struggles to reconcile them.

"That's not the Marvin Harrison I ever had dealings with," he said. "He was the classiest kid you'd ever want to meet."


NEW CLASS

The Pro Football Hall of Fame's latest enshrinees will be introduced during the "3rd Annual NFL Honors" show at 8 p.m. Saturday on Fox29.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

Staff writer Mike Newall contributed to this article.

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