Return of Harrison gives winless Colts respite

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Dwight Freeney walked into the Colts' locker room Wednesday and cracked a smile.

All it took was a few minutes of reflection about his old friend, Marvin Harrison, and the good old days when the Colts were contending for Super Bowl titles, not No. 1 draft picks.

''It was good times when Marvin was here,'' Freeney said when asked about his buddy going into the team's Ring of Honor this Sunday. ''That's when we were on top of the world. We had all of our weapons then -- arguably the best receiver in the game, the best quarterback in the game, one of the best running backs in the game. I was a rookie and those guys were like gods out here.''

Yes, 2008 seems like a lifetime ago, given the Colts' dramatic collapse.

Hey, at least the Harrison ceremony is giving players something to think about other than their 0-10 record and their quest to drop the label as the NFL's last winless team.

Harrison can empathize. He endured back-to-back 3-13 seasons before emerging as a key player in Indy's turnaround. He was never the same after hurting his knee early in the 2007 season, and Harrison's clean-cut image was tarnished by questions about his role in a deadly 2008 shooting in his hometown of Philadelphia. Charges were never filed.

His football career remains untainted.

When Indy selected Harrison with the 19th overall selection in the 1996 draft, team officials expected Harrison and future Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk to be the foundation for the future. The plan changed in 1998 when the Colts drafted a guy named Peyton Manning with the No. 1 pick and brought in Tom Moore as the offensive coordinator.

Manning and Harrison developed an immediate chemistry, and after the '98 season, Faulk was traded to St. Louis. Indy replaced him by drafting Edgerrin James with the No. 4 pick, and the triplet became one of the NFL's most formidable offensive trios.

With Manning running the show and James winning two NFL rushing titles, Harrison dazzled fans with spectacular catches and his teammates with his even more incredible plays.

''When I threw my first pass at the preseason game in Seattle (in 1998), it was a four-yard pass and he ran 48 yards for a touchdown. I said to myself, `All you have to do in the NFL is just throw four-yard passes to Marvin Harrison and he runs for a touchdown,''' Manning said in a statement released by the team. ''That's essentially what he did for the time we played together. I'll always be indebted to him because he was always there and you could count on him. There was a special bond, a special connection.''

In the era of mouthy receivers, Harrison was a throwback.

He rarely did interviews, never celebrated touchdowns and refused to discuss opponents. On the rare occasions he did speak with reporters, he reminded them that he didn't watch much film, choosing instead to work on his own moves and make every route look the same.

''The joke was that he could disappear in plain sight,'' Colts vice chairman Bill Polian told radio listeners this week. ''There were people taking bets as to whether he would actually be in the team picture at the Super Bowl, and he was, and we didn't know where he went after that. That humility, that lack of need to get the public's adulation, was balanced by the fact that he was a proud professional.''

Instead of wasting time chattering, Harrison tried to follow the model of his favorite receiver, Jerry Rice.

Harrison owns all of the Colts' major career and single-season receiving records, most of which were previously held by Hall of Famer Raymond Berry. In 2002, Harrison shattered the NFL's single-season record for receptions with one of the greatest seasons in league history -- 143 catches for 1,722 yards and 11 TDs -- and was the only unanimous selection on the All-Pro team.

Fans will perhaps best remember Harrison for three plays -- the twisting catch he made in the end zone to help beat New England in November 2006; the one-handed diving spear that he made at Tennessee before waving the offense down the field in December 2003; and the catch he made in January 2004 when he feel to the ground untouched, then alertly got up in the middle of four Denver defenders and ran for touchdown in a playoff game.

''He was awesome,'' kicker Adam Vinatieri said. ''His stats speak for themselves. He came to work every day. I didn't have the opportunity to be around him, but he always reminded me of Jerry Rice. I remember him (Harrison) making some amazing catches when I was with a different team.''

As Harrison aged, it seemed he would never slow down.

He caught more than 100 passes in four straight seasons, went to eight Pro Bowls and even after Reggie Wayne emerged as a legitimate complement to Manning's favorite target, Harrison still caught more than 80 passes and topped 1,000 yards every season from 1999-2006.

In 2007, the year after he won his only Super Bowl ring, things changed. The durable receiver injured his left knee while making a block in the Colts' fourth game. He played only two more games that year, one in the playoffs, and caught 60 passes for 636 yards in 2008 -- the least productive non-injury season of his career -- before the Colts released him in a cost-cutting move.

Harrison never played again and is No. 3 on the NFL's all-time receptions list (1,102). He is No. 6 on the league's yardage list (14,580), No. 5 in TD receptions (128) and his 14,580 yards are No. 6 all-time. In 2005, Manning and Harrison passed Jim Kelly and Andre Reed as the most prolific passing duo in league history. The Colts tandem combined for a league record 953 completions, 12,766 yards and 112 TDs.

''He would give anything he had to give for this team, and at the end, when he no longer could do it anymore and he realized that the injuries had taken their toll and had taken away some of that magic, he was a proud professional and absolutely in sync with the way he conducted himself throughout his career,'' Polian said. ''He went out on top.''

Harrison's post-playing career has not been as quiet as he might like.

He was interviewed by police about a shooting near his North Philadelphia car wash in the spring of 2008. Investigators later determined that a gun owned by Harrison was used in that shooting but declined to file charges because of conflicting accounts of who pulled the trigger. The man who claimed he was shot by Harrison, Dwight Dixon, later died from wounds sustained in another shooting more than a year later, raising more questions.

But now, Harrison is coming back to Indy to revel in the spotlight he always tried to ignore.

''I'm at a loss for words,'' Harrison said in a statement issued by the team. ''When Mr. Irsay (the team owner) called me and said `You're being inducted into the Ring of Honor,' I thought he was extending an invitation to me to be there for someone else. As the conversation went on it occurred to me that he was talking about me. As a player that was drafted in 1996, I saw others going up into the ring. But now to be one of those players placed in the stadium for a lifetime, words can't describe how I'm feeling.

''I've never had anything retired jersey or number-wise on any level. But to be recognized by the Colts is the highest honor for me and my family.''

Tagged: Colts, Peyton Manning, Jerry Rice, Dwight Freeney

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