Marvin Harrison a Hall finalist; slaying victim's kin still seek answers

Posted: January 31, 2015

A few minutes after 9 p.m. Eastern time on Saturday, in a 2,300-seat symphony hall in Phoenix, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will reveal its 2015 class of inductees. Among the 15 finalists for induction is Marvin Harrison: a Philadelphia native, an alumnus of Roman Catholic High School and Syracuse University, a wide receiver who caught 1,102 passes over his 13 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, a player who rarely so much as spiked the football after any of his 128 touchdown receptions and who guarded his privacy with such ferocious secrecy that he remained a mystery even to those teammates who knew him longest and best.

Hundreds of media members will gather in the hall, joining the 46-person selection committee for the announcement. NBC will televise it live. Millions of football fans will watch.

In a home in West Philadelphia, a rowhouse with a white awning shading its porch and a well-known biblical quote stenciled in Victorian script on a wall of its foyer, a mother will not watch. The quote is Philippians 4:13: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. But when it comes to Marvin Harrison, there are some things Pearl Bronson cannot bring herself to do.

Her husband, Horace, who described himself as a "football nut," will do what he always does whenever someone on television mentions Harrison: He will either turn down the volume or change the channel, just so she doesn't hear. Her daughter Nya, 16, will fight that familiar feeling she sometimes gets - that her older brother will just bound through the back door, unannounced, and scoop her up for a hug.

Whoever Dwight "Pop" Dixon was when he was on the streets - before and after a gun registered to Harrison was used to shoot Dixon in April 2008, before Dixon was shot again in July 2009 and died less than two months later - he was not that person when he walked into that rowhouse. And whoever Marvin Harrison is to so many of those media members and Hall of Fame voters and football fans, he is someone else entirely to Pearl Bronson.

"I'm still harboring some anger toward this whole situation," she said in a recent interview, little tears forming at the corners of her eyes. "And I don't think he should be in the Hall of Fame."

Dwight Dixon dealt drugs. He served time in state prison for it. His turf was the North Philadelphia neighborhood where he and Harrison had grown up just a couple of blocks from each other. After Dixon started skipping school in his teens, his mother sent him to St. Gabriel's Hall, a youth treatment facility.

"He did what he was told to do until he turned 18," said Pearl Bronson, who works at the city's Office of Addiction Services. "Once they're grown, I have no more control. It was something in that fast life that he liked. I didn't condone his life, but he didn't bring it here. When he would get locked up, I didn't go get him. I didn't pay bail. I'd say, 'I didn't choose that life for you.' "

By all appearances, Harrison didn't choose it for himself, either. In high school and college, his coaches lauded his work ethic and respectfulness. In the NFL, his athleticism, preparation, and self-discipline earned him the admiration of those he played with and against. His 143 receptions in 2002 remain the league's single-season record. "Marvin took a lot of pride in his craft and his route-running," Peyton Manning, Harrison's teammate for 11 years in Indianapolis, said last year. "Unbelievable speed, great competitor."

But on April 29, 2008, Dixon - weighing 300 pounds, built like a gigantic root-beer barrel - got into a shouting match, then a fistfight, with Harrison outside Chuckie's Garage, a car wash owned by Harrison, according to police documents. The fight escalated into a shooting, one that left bullet holes in Dixon's car and a wound on his hand. Dixon told police that Harrison had shot him, but only after "not really telling us the truth," said a detective close to the investigation, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

An eyewitness, Robert Nixon, was also shot and injured, according to police. In his statement to police - which he began by saying that he feared for his safety in coming forward - Nixon identified Harrison as the shooter, as the only person at the scene holding a gun. Police said they matched bullet casings found at the scene to a gun registered to Harrison.

Harrison eventually gave a statement to detectives at the Central Detective Division with his attorney, Jerome Brown, present. He admitted to fighting with Dixon five to 10 minutes before the shooting. He admitted that he owned the gun that had been fired at Dixon and that he had kept it in a safe at his home in Jenkintown until "20 minutes before" the police arrived, but he said he didn't know who had fired it.

"It was his gun," Pearl Bronson said, "and he lied about it, in black and white."

No charges related to the shooting were ever brought against Harrison. On July 21, 2009, Dixon was sitting in his car on the 2800 block of Girard Avenue - two blocks north of Playmakers, a bar that Harrison owns - when a gunman approached and fired several times at Dixon and his car, hitting him in the chest and throat. Dixon was taken to Hahnemann Hospital, where he registered under a pseudonym, Michael Williams. After lapsing into a coma, he died on Sept. 4, 2009. He was 33.

In a statement, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office said Dixon's murder case remains active but the office "does not have any further updates at this time." The Philadelphia Police Department's public affairs office did not respond to a request for comment. Homicide detectives have never questioned Harrison about Dixon's death.

"He's never been questioned about [Dixon's slaying], and as far as we know, knows nothing about it," Brown said. "He is not a suspect in this case, if he ever was one. . . . Marvin is a caring guy who, I know, wants to give back to his community. He's very low-key, and he's the antithesis of many athletes out there today."

Through the Colts' media-relations department, Harrison, 42, last week declined a request to be interviewed. But in a telephone interview before last year's Hall of Fame vote, he reiterated that police have never questioned him about Dixon's murder.

"If you know me, the person, I don't have to worry about what other people think," he said. "Everyone's going to have their opinions. I don't worry about what people think. My fans and people who are close to me know what type of guy I am."

According to the Hall of Fame selection committee's voting rules, Harrison's life off the field is supposed to have no bearing on his worthiness for induction. Given his accomplishments, his enshrinement would seem a fait accompli, if not this year then sometime soon.

For Pearl Bronson and her family, though, Harrison's candidacy is another reminder that, after 51/2 years, Dixon's murder case has no resolution - that the pain that accompanies caring about someone who lives such a dangerous and destructive life doesn't fade after his death.

"I need to know," she said. "At the end of the day, Marvin Harrison gets to go on with his life."

Once or twice a week, she calls the police to see if anyone still cares to solve her son's murder. The people on the other end of the phone are polite, but they never tell her anything new. She and Nya attend grief counseling once a week. Whenever Pearl wants to see and hear her son again, she fires up her computer, logs on to the Internet, and watches an on-camera interview that Dixon gave to ESPN. The box spring on Nya's bed is broken, but Nya doesn't want Horace or Pearl to repair it, because her brother was the one who sat on the bed and broke it.

They still get mail from Hahnemann Hospital sometimes, addressed to Michael Williams.

One day not long ago, Pearl Bronson gave a coworker a ride home. The coworker lived in North Philadelphia, so Bronson drove there from Center City, heading west on Master Street until she reached 26th Street. There, five blocks from Chuckie's Garage, Master Street was closed because of construction. Bronson turned left to go south on 26th.

The going was slow. The construction had caused a backup of cars, and it was close to 5:30 p.m., rush hour, not quite dusk yet but getting there. As Bronson inched her car to the intersection of 26th and Thompson, she saw on her left a man she said she recognized but had never met before. He was standing on the corner, wearing what Bronson described as a "sweat jacket," talking to someone.

"I'm sitting there," she said, "and I'm looking at him, and he's looking at me, and he's smiling."

She didn't realize that her right leg had started shaking, she said later, until after her coworker put her hand on it to calm her. "I'm grinding my teeth," she said, "and he's got the nerve to smile." Then the cars began moving again, and Pearl Bronson kept looking at the man on the corner, the man she believed to be Marvin Harrison. She pressed her foot to the gas pedal, and he kept smiling at her as she drove away.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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