Commentary

Harvin making Favre look good

Originally Published: November 19, 2009
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

Percy HarvinTom Dahlin/Getty ImagesMinnesota receiver Percy Harvin has become one of quarterback Brett Favre's go-to guys.

MINNEAPOLIS -- The first time the two met, Percy Harvin called him "sir" twice. What's a kid, barely 21, supposed to say to Brett Favre? That he watched him his whole life, and oh, his mom is a huge fan, too? Sometimes, when Favre text-messages him, Harvin is so proud he feels compelled to show it to somebody, even his mom. KEEP PUSHING, the texts will say.

In one of their recent exchanges, Favre suggested that Harvin watch tape on New England receiver Wes Welker for some pointers. Within hours, Harvin had the video downloaded on his computer.

"Every time he texts me, it just shocks me," Harvin says. "Brett Favre is actually texting my phone. It's humbling to know that a guy who's done it all, who will go down as one of the best quarterbacks ever … still likes to help.

"We just clicked."

There have been a thousand stories about Favre's defection to Vikings purple and how the graybeard has frustrated one Midwestern city and galvanized another so hungry for a championship. This one is about gambles.

It's Week 8, the Vikings are playing at Lambeau Field, and Favre is getting booed by the same Green Bay fans who showered love on him for 16 seasons. He sees Harvin in double -- no, triple -- coverage down the middle. He lets it fly, and Harvin, who stands just 5-foot-11, reaches up to grab it. Two Packers collide. Harvin cuts back and goes 51 yards for a touchdown.

[+] EnlargeBrett Favre
Rich Gabrielson/Icon SMIFavre says he doesn't see the word "rookie" when he looks at Harvin.

"It's just kind of freaky how it turned out," Favre says. "But Percy made me look good, and turned what could've been a bad decision into a great play."

It's even freakier how this whole thing has worked out between the 40-year-old quarterback and the kid wideout. Favre trusts Harvin and has made him his favorite third-down target. Nine games, one huge generational gap, and the Vikings are 8-1 and midseason shoo-ins for the playoffs.

They are seeming opposites, from personalities to backgrounds to the way Harvin avoids the media and Favre fills a notebook with one 15-minute news conference. But they do share one thing in common: That in the 2009 offseason, before a make-or-break year for coach Brad Childress, the coach took calculated risks on both players to the opposition of fans.

We know how it has turned out for Favre. But who, exactly, is Percy Harvin? Detractors call him immature and unpredictable, an uber-talented do-it-all player from Florida who tested positive for marijuana during the NFL combine. Favre calls him one of the catalysts for his season of rejuvenation.

Harvin mostly keeps to himself, smiling occasionally, bursting internally. He's the midseason favorite for rookie of the year and has emerged as one of the NFL's top kickoff returners. He was so determined after the predraft scandal broke, so motivated by a late-April visit from Childress, that he sat at home on draft day hoping he'd fall a few more spots so the Vikings could snatch him at No. 22.

"Money can only take you so far in life, and I'm still well-off moneywise," Harvin says. "Looking at all the teams in the draft, I just felt, watching the Vikings, that I could probably be that one little … just a helping piece to help them get over the top.

"Everything happens for a reason, good or bad. It turned out good for me."

Why did he do it?

The first question that begs to be asked is why did he do it? Why did Percy Harvin, who Childress says comes from a "great family" with a strong-willed mother and a cuddly shih tzu, make a decision, sometime leading up to February's NFL combine, that led him to test positive for marijuana?

He didn't do it for medicinal purposes. Harvin will confirm that he does suffer from severe migraines, with pain so intense at times that it makes him vomit and impairs his vision, but says he didn't smoke pot to alleviate any headache. He didn't do it to escape financial stresses, either. In a few months, Harvin was projected to be a top-10 draft pick.

"I didn't look at it and think of all the stuff or all the people that I might've let down at the time," Harvin says. "Of course, I thought about it afterwards. I was disappointed with myself. I had let myself down, my family down, the University of Florida down. So it was probably one of the worst days of my life.

"But I learned from it. I got back up, kept moving, ended up here and I'm having a great time."

Harvin's roots in the Tidewater area of southeastern Virginia have been frequented by news trucks and Nancy Grace types reporting on the area's talented but troubled misfit athletes. There's Michael Vick and Plaxico Burress and Allen Iverson.

Harvin fought to escape the negativity of the area, knowing some of his actions didn't help. He won championships in just about every stage of his life, from the Pee Wee Super Bowl to a five-medal performance at the state track meet, but his on-field persona led to altercations, taunts and what those closest to him call a few misunderstandings.

[+] EnlargePercy Harvin
James Lang/US PresswireWhile at Florida, Harvin became one of college football's most versatile players.

Harvin eventually was suspended from the Virginia High School League, ending his senior year of basketball. And his reputation followed him south. When he committed to the Gators to play football, "people were thinking this monster was coming to the University of Florida," Harvin says.

Dwight Robinson, who coached him in basketball and served as an assistant football coach at Landstown High, saw a different side. He told a story of how Harvin used to help a widow with her gardening, how he still keeps in contact with the woman. He said Harvin used to give his needy friends lunch money in high school.

"I was around him every single day for four years of his life," Robinson says. "He's a good kid. He was an honor roll kid his last couple of years of high school. His mom is his everything. She was at every game. If you called her, she would be at school in five minutes; I mean, she was on it. That was the one person who put fear into his heart, even today.

"He's not the type of guy to back down, and maybe sometimes his competitiveness gets the best of him."

That competitiveness, after high school, led to bigger things. He won a national championship as a freshman at Florida, shaking off a list of injuries to become one of college football's most versatile athletes. In addition to playing receiver, Harvin bolstered the Gators' running game and occasionally lined up at quarterback.

It was in that 2006 season, in the SEC championship game, when Vikings receivers coach George Stewart first noticed Harvin.

"I was like, 'Aww, who is this kid?'" Stewart says. "This little freshman, he was the best player on the field."

Gators receivers coach Billy Gonzales calls Harvin the hardest practice player he has ever coached. Gonzales loved his toughness. Florida won two national titles with Harvin and quarterback Tim Tebow, and half of that combo looked very iffy before the 2009 BCS National Championship Game. Harvin, playing with a hairline fracture in his leg and a high ankle sprain, ran for 122 yards and a touchdown and caught five passes for another 49 yards in the Gators' 24-14 win against Oklahoma.

A week later, he announced he was forgoing his senior season to enter the NFL draft, and Harvin believed, after three years of stability in Gainesville, that he had the maturity to take the next step. Roughly a month later, he stumbled.

Harvin cried after the positive test for marijuana. His mom, Linda Little, told him to face up to the mistake and move on. He returned to Virginia Beach this past summer and visited Robinson at the high school. He told his former coach that he knew he had messed up but that his head was on straight now and he was going to do the right things.

"If he says that, I believe him," Robinson says. "I think he understands the position God's put him in with all his athletic ability. He definitely understands that you only get so many chances to do it the right way at this level, regardless of how talented you are.

"I don't think, in high school, he ever figured that he would matter that much to so many people. Sometimes, I may go watch a game somewhere and so many people will be talking about Percy Harvin. Every time he touches the ball, people just stand up and expect big things from him."

Childress does his research

It should be noted that Childress owns a shih tzu, too, just like Harvin's family. Like most coaches, Childress is big on gut feelings but backs much of it up with extensive research. So, three days before the draft, with Harvin plummeting off a few boards and the Vikings in need of an explosive all-around threat, Childress flew to Florida in search of some answers.

[+] EnlargeBrad Childress
Leon Halip/US PresswireCoach Brad Childress has thrown a lot at Harvin.

He talked to Harvin's mom and met his niece. As they were driving from the airport, Harvin informed his future coach that the county they were passing through gives more speeding tickets per capita than any other in the U.S.

"Right after that, we saw three state patrolmen in a row pulling people over," Childress says. "He was in the know. He was mindful, let's put it that way. Sometimes when you're not mindful, it takes that fast to ruin a day."

Slowing down and thinking things over -- that, Harvin says, is the key to a peaceful existence. He ponders the consequences of his actions now. He stops and gives himself at least five minutes before reacting to something negative.

Thing is, under Childress, Harvin hasn't had much time to think. In addition to his role as a kickoff returner, Harvin had to learn all three receiver positions. He's also the Vikings' main Wildcat quarterback and does tailback duty. Recently, Childress has pondered using him on punt returns, too.

"We inundated him," Childress says.

"The more you can do, the better off you are. And we talked about this before the draft. He can probably come off the edge, block field goals, block punts. He's done that before. He might do that sometime here."

From Rice's perspective

Sidney Rice calls Harvin his little brother. Every night after practice, Rice and Harvin stay at least 20 minutes longer to work on their eye-hand coordination, catch extra passes, improve their conditioning. Rice likes to mentor Harvin, to tell him what it's like to be a receiver who's been in this league a while.

Rice just turned 23.

He acknowledges it now, that he was somewhat worried this past spring when the Vikings picked Harvin. He wondered what it meant for his future. But Favre has taken all the receivers under his wing and proved that, if they work together, everyone will get his share of catches. In that Week 8 game against the Packers on Nov. 1, Favre threw touchdowns to four targets.

"At the end of the day," Rice says, "I feel like the organization is going to do what's best for the team. I'm glad they brought Percy in. It made me work even harder. And he's a huge spark to this team. He means so much to this team."

Maybe it was fate that Harvin was the first player Favre met after he rolled into Minnesota in the infamous black SUV. Favre was beyond casual, wearing a T-shirt, shorts and sunglasses on top of a worn-out, dirt-covered ball cap, but he might as well have been in an Armani suit and top hat. In a video played over and over on the Vikings' Web site, Favre invoked nervous, almost awestruck, handshakes from the people he passed that day in mid-August, including Harvin.

"Look forward to working with you," Favre said in his calm Mississippi drawl to Harvin. "Make me look good, now."

Fifteen times this season, Favre has connected with Harvin on third down. Thirteen times, it has led to a first down. Harvin calls playing with Favre "a chance of a lifetime," something he never dreamed about this spring.

Favre says he doesn't see the word "rookie" when he looks at Harvin. He sees a 5-11 receiver who plays as if he's 6-5, a 21-year-old with instincts normally reserved for grizzled veterans.

"I told him from day one, 'Hey, you're not a rookie,'" Favre says. "'Don't play like it, don't buy into it. … Because I don't.'

"I've seen him take some hits, as George Stewart will tell him in the meetings, 'You're going to feel that at about [age] 40, 42, maybe not today.' But he bounces back up."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer at ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com. ESPN's Stats and Information contributed to this report.