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HALF-NAKED, Marvin Harrison stands at his locker in the RCA Dome, his back to a crowd of reporters. They are all trolling for quotes and anecdotes to pump some life into their stories about the latest win by the Colts, but they don't approach Harrison. They know from long experience that he doesn't want to talk to them. That he won't talk to them. The wideout quickly and quietly tugs on black pants, ties the laces of his black shoes, buttons a black shirt over his six-foot, 185-pound frame, wriggles into a black jacket, tugs a black baseball cap down low on his forehead and darts out of the locker room. His only words are a whispered goodbye to three security guards.
Harrison, 34, will someday retire as one of the greatest players in NFL history--and possibly its most inscrutable star. Over his 11 seasons with the Colts, he has averaged 93 catches a year, an NFL record. He has teamed up with Peyton Manning for 878 receptions and 106 touchdowns, both records for a quarterback-receiver tandem. Yet off the gridiron Harrison is uneasy in a crowd, especially when he's the center of attention. The eight-time Pro Bowl player sometimes goes several weeks without agreeing to do even the most perfunctory postgame interviews. Basic football-related questions from reporters can bring terse responses, and personal information is treated as if it were a state secret. He declines to give a reporter contact information for his mother, saying, with a smile, "She talks too much." Teammates and coaches see him at practices and team meetings but seldom anywhere else. "He's like Batman," linebacker Cato June says. "I don't know if I've ever seen him sit down and eat a meal."
Backup wideout Aaron Moorehead is one of Harrison's closest teammates, but it took more than a year for him to penetrate Harrison's shield. When he did, Moorehead discovered an engaging personality, a shrewd businessman--especially in real estate--and a boxing connoisseur. "Some people think he's not outgoing enough," Moorehead says, "but it's fun to be around him. You have to understand that he has certain boundaries. He's not going to open up to just anybody."
Harrison's accomplishments speak for themselves. On Dec. 10 in Jacksonville he became the fourth player to reach 1,000 receptions. The catch came in his 167th game, 14 fewer than it took Jerry Rice to hit that mark. Harrison is essentially competing as much with history as with his contemporaries. Next season he should pass Tim Brown (third alltime with 1,094 catches) and Cris Carter (second, 1,101).
On those rare occasions when he does talk, Harrison speaks softly and deliberately. "People put me into their own categories," he says. "I don't like to talk in front of too many people. I'm not going to be the one in the locker room who's the center of attention. I'm not going to be loud, but I do talk."
He was a boy of few words, in contrast to his younger sister and brother. "They wanted to sing," says Linda Harrison, his mother. "They wanted to perform in front of people. You could never get him to do any of that."
Harrison is such a complete player that it's difficult to identify his strongest asset. He is perhaps the NFL's best route runner, with a genius for the subtle change of tempo or small head fake that throws off a defender. "He can run a hook route and make it a piece of art," says Indy receivers coach Clyde Christensen. "Everyone else just runs 12 yards and hooks. He may run five hooks that all have their own little touch to 'em. Like an artist."
Art, of course, is subjective. Manning considers Harrison's best quality to be his indefatigability. Bengals scout Duke Tobin (whose father, Bill, drafted Harrison) believes it's his ability to quickly shift gears. Colts president Bill Polian marvels at how Harrison snatches balls out of the air like a pigeon plucking crumbs off the asphalt. ("The fastest hands I've ever seen," Polian says.) And Indy offensive coordinator Tom Moore lauds--irony alert--Harrison's ease in a crowd. "He can block out the whole stadium," Moore says. "He's got guys hanging on him, flashing in front of him, and all he sees is that football. It's just him and the football."