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January 16, 2010 6:32 AM   Subscribe

The Dirtiest Player. Was it only last season that Marvin Harrison was still catching TD passes for Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts? Now, in the wake of a brazen but mysterious Philadelphia gunfight - many details of which are reported here for the first time - the man who holds the NFL record for most receptions in a season may yet find himself with a permanent record of a different sort. (SLGQ)

From up high, Marvin appeared to be a millionaire athlete like any other; at street level, he was a businessman cobbling together a mini-empire in the hood. It was an iconoclastic way to reconcile his money with his roots—a tricky thing for any athlete flung from poverty into wealth. Many simply flee to suburban McMansions. Some, like Allen Iverson, go the other way, keeping questionable company and giving shout-outs to "my niggas back home." But Marvin didn't run and he didn't flaunt. He just sort of hid. His life was exquisitely controlled—an extraordinary man's attempt to become a ghost in his own story. For a long time, it worked. And then, for reasons that go well beyond Marvin Harrison—reasons having to do with race, class, jealousy, politics, and the problems of American cities—it didn't.
posted by The Card Cheat (37 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
This is great article. As a Colts fan, this story makes me depressed. But damn, nobody's above the law and Harrison needs to see his day in court.
posted by billysumday at 6:40 AM on January 16, 2010

And, just to clarify, it doesn't make me depressed in that "oh great now my team looks bad" way or something like that. It saddens me because Marvin Harrison was that rare wide receiver who was very easy to root for, who portrayed himself as a hard-working, diligent, team-oriented player, quiet and tough like his coach and his quarterback. Beneath calm waters and all that...
posted by billysumday at 6:43 AM on January 16, 2010

One of the reasons I enjoyed this article so much was the Vanilla Sparkle tie-in. I love the smell of creative destruction in the morning.
posted by nervousfritz at 7:01 AM on January 16, 2010

Can we assume he likes his women to be like his gunfights?
posted by biffa at 7:10 AM on January 16, 2010

This isn't really either all that sad or all that mysterious. If Harrison had taken his ticket out of the 'hood and never gone back, what would he have been? Another aging NFL ex-star hawking life insurance? But back home, where he was known, he was a god among men. And furthermore, he was a god among men he knew -- the characters he'd looked up to, been deferential to as a kid, now they had to pay him the respect. Anywhere else the best Harrison could hope for was to be treated as an equal by other gods and adored from a distance by strangers until his legacy was overshadowed by newer, younger football stars. Back home, though, he could walk like a god for the rest of his years, and nobody would ever forget who he was or that he held the power.

And so he stayed, but the price of staying was that he also stayed in the culture of poverty with its ever-present layer of criminality and violence; even millions of dollars and a football career do not make it possible to ignore a slight or turn your back on someone who is heckling you. You have to demonstrate your power. If people think you're unwilling to follow through your power might as well not exist at all. Pop obviously thought Harrison wasn't really of the 'hood any more and wouldn't be willing to risk his station in life by acting like a criminal lowlife. That turned out to be a fatal miscalculation; Harrison was obviously sincere in his commitment to the ways of the 'hood. The problem is, when the chips came down, that required him to act like a criminal lowlife.
posted by localroger at 7:19 AM on January 16, 2010 [18 favorites]

Brilliant analysis, localroger.
posted by Faze at 7:33 AM on January 16, 2010

This isn't really either all that sad or all that mysterious.

Harrison's upbringing, his family's criminal past, his desire to settle scores, his inability or unwillingness to escape the poverty and violence of his youth, the death of a man, the incarceration of another, the tragic cycle of destruction - these are things that make me sad. That doesn't mean that they make you sad, but they make me sad.
posted by billysumday at 7:34 AM on January 16, 2010

This is going to be a really tough case to make in Philadelphia. In fact one could make a legitimate case (excluding his foolish claims of not having his gun infront of his businesses) for self defense and defense of ones businesses without any trouble.

All he had to say was:Dixon was selling drugs in my bar which I don't take kindly to, So I dragged him out and beat him to the ground. When I tried to leave afterward he blocked my car in and proceeded to call someone. I thought he was calling for backup. I felt as though my life was threatened I got angry and started shooting next thing I knew I was in the street. Toss in a few vague claims of selective prosecution, racism and greed. There's your defense, just add lawyer.
posted by Rubbstone at 7:52 AM on January 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Rubbstone, Pennsylvania does not have a castle doctrine law (yet at least). The existence of someone with a bullet in them that can be traced to a gun you admit was in your position is pretty much proof that you committed a felony. You can argue with the prosecutors about what felony it was, but at that point you're pretty much going to jail. (All of which makes the fact that Robert Nixon is walking around with a bullet in him that might have the hammermarks of Harrison's gun on it very interesting.)
posted by localroger at 8:29 AM on January 16, 2010

I happened to read that article earlier today and still can't decide whether it's a great piece of investigative journalism or a complete hackjob. there's the writing stile, which is alive yet somewhat dirty, and the case which upfront claims to be so extremely clear and in the end just has way too many holes in it for me to want to believe the author has much more than speculation. I wished a really outstanding writer had investigated this case.
posted by krautland at 8:29 AM on January 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed this article too, in large part because I used to live in the neighborhood north of the Art Museum where all this stuff apparently took place. (29th and Girard, woot!) Like krautland, I find the author's easy references to the North Philly culture a bit suspect. For instance, this:

It was Nixon who asked them, in a ploy to suss out their intentions; thugs from North Philly never go to West Philly, and vice versa, so Nixon only suggested the meeting spot in West Philly because he thought they'd never agree. When they said yes, that's when he knew he was in trouble and panicked. (Nixon denies this.)

The "woods near the zoo" where they supposedly met, which the author calls West Philly, are not in West Philly. If people from West Philly and the area where the folks in this story lived (which is not really North Philly either) wanted to meet, though, that would be a perfect meeting point. So the author appears to have turned something practical into some dramatic depiction of thug life.

Still, though, cool story. Danger-esque.
posted by nosila at 8:49 AM on January 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

The tenor of the GQ comments is fascinating. Harrison's supporters are, shall we say, enthusiastic. I've done a fair share of writing myself and I find nothing wrong with Jason Fagone's style or his research; it's clear he talked to a lot of people, many of whom were only willing to talk off the record. The DA and Harrison himself both declined his interview requests, which can be interpreted as a sensible move if the rest of the article has any accuracy to it. There are some facts in the article which can be easily verified and, if so, are very damning; there really aren't any legitimate reasons for recently fired shell casings traceable to your personal gun which you admit has been in your personal possession at the time to be in the middle of the street. That there is pretty much proof that you have committed a felony, and makes the DA's refusal to prosecute quite mysterious.
posted by localroger at 8:52 AM on January 16, 2010

I don't mean to sound like a naysayer about this article, by the way. The author is good, the writing is good. I guess I just mean that it's probably really difficult for someone who doesn't belong to that culture to understand it and convey that understanding. I lived in that neighborhood for four years, and there is no way I get it. The author acknowledges that toward the end of the article, when Robert Nixon and his lawyer laugh at him for asking a naive question.
posted by nosila at 8:55 AM on January 16, 2010

25th and Thompson is totally North Philly, the drop off is real steep once you're above Girard. His placing the neighborhood "7 blocks from the Art Museum" provides white readers with a familiar landmark to identify with so they feel included in the story. Having worked up that way I think it's more accurate to say 25th and Thompson is around the corner from the Blumberg high rises, which is one of the gnarliest projects in the city.
posted by The Straightener at 9:08 AM on January 16, 2010

Uh, wouldn't removing the bullet from the guys back and running analysis on it be a good idea?
posted by Ron Thanagar at 9:13 AM on January 16, 2010

Not if it forces an unwanted surgery on the victim.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 9:48 AM on January 16, 2010

localroger in that case saying he didn't have the gun that day is the only thing he could say. My thing is when the dude blocks him in, Nixon is to my limited understanding of the law to some degree holding him against his will possibly to do him further harm.
posted by Rubbstone at 9:54 AM on January 16, 2010

Maybe I missed it, but I saw nothing in the article that suggests Harrison or others considered him godlike; rather, tending bar and working at the car wash seems he at least felt quite the opposite.
posted by minimii at 10:00 AM on January 16, 2010

I guess "North Philly" is sort of an amorphous concept. That area definitely has that North Philly feel, but most people I knew who referred to North Philly were talking about further north and, usually, a little further east too. But like I said, I really have no clue what North Philly is for the people in this article. Even though I lived there, I was separate. That was weird.

I rode my back down Thompson from my place to Temple every day for awhile, which took me from 29th to Broad Street (past 25th). One time, just around that area, some kid threw his Chinese food at me. It splattered in my bike tires. I thought, "Man, I would have to really hate someone to throw my Chinese food at them." That was also weird.
posted by nosila at 10:10 AM on January 16, 2010

Good article; thanks for posting it. I liked this paragraph:
Piece of shit is a versatile bit of law-enforcement slang. It can mean something as specific as "hustler with a record" or it can mean something rounder, like "person who won't cooperate with us" or "person who lied to us" or "person who will not be trusted by a jury." All of the witnesses, for various reasons, could be grouped under this same heading. Nixon was a piece of shit. Pop was a piece of shit. The father of the wounded boy was a piece of shit. McCray was a piece of shit, albeit an intelligent piece of shit, because he never signed a statement. And Harrison, although he had no record, was a piece of shit, too. The prosecutors and cops were in agreement on the piece-of-shit front; the only difference was that the cops believed that there were degrees, with Robert Nixon being what one of them called "the least piece of shit."
Now that's what I call usage analysis.
posted by languagehat at 12:25 PM on January 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Rubbstone -- but according to Falgore, Harrison admitted to the police he had the gun, had had it in his sole possession, for months. Falgore seems mystified by this because, as he says in the article; it makes no sense. Given the other evidence available it is practically a de facto admission of guilt.

minimii -- at least one commenter in the GQ comment thread said from claimed personal knowledge that he was haughty, arrogant, aloof, and pretentious. I myself have no dog in the hunt; I'm not a Colts fan and didn't even know Harrison existed until I read this article. I was responding though to the between-the-lines question that is in the article and in a lot of the comments, which is why, if you have the chance to escape this environment and make better, do you come back and subject yourself to a situation like this? My comment was an answer to that question.
posted by localroger at 12:27 PM on January 16, 2010

Damn, GREAT piece, fine journalism, I remember when the first stories of these shenanigans came out I was like "MARVIN Harrison? Marvin HARRISON? That guy???". Thanks for the link.
posted by vito90 at 12:32 PM on January 16, 2010

ESPN Outside the Lines vid.
posted by billysumday at 12:35 PM on January 16, 2010

Aloof and arrogant, maybe, but pretentious? That's not a word you often hear applied to dudes from the NFL.
posted by box at 12:40 PM on January 16, 2010

It's hard to square localroger's caricature of Harrison with the man in the second video I linked. This is a fascinating story to a lot of people because it's Marvin Harrison - polite, kind, soft-spoken. Your first comment, localroger, is still chafing at me, and I guess it's because I take issue with your direct pronouncement that this story is not sad, is not mysterious, and that you were able to so easily divine the motivations of a man you just now admitted you have never heard of before. That's a lot of supposing masquerading as pronouncing going on up there.
posted by billysumday at 12:49 PM on January 16, 2010

billy, Jason Falgore himself expresses amazement that the understory seems to lead where it does from the top story you link. My 'caricature' is basically an answer to a simple question that seems paradoxical, but isn't -- why would a person who didn't have to go back to that environment do so, and why would he act that way if he did. This is a story that makes perfect sense to me and is totally unsurprising, given the alleged facts. Now I suppose it is possible that the article is a total hack job on Falgore's part but that seems very unlikely, because I have travelled in the circles that hire people like him to write articles like this for magazines like GQ, and they tend not to be in the business of slandering famous powerful people. I cannot attest to whether the facts as stated in the article are accurate, I was commenting that the attitude of the author himself that if those facts are accurate Harrison's actions are hard to understand, is mistaken. If the facts in the article are accurate then it is very easy to explain why. That's all I'm saying.

That said, I find it extremely interesting how vehement the response in defense of Harrison is, particularly in the GQ comment thread. This is of course one of Falgore's points, that Harrison is actually a dangerous person now partly because of what it seems he might be willing to do but also partly because of what his defenders might do on general principle. The fact that so many people, both on and off the record, seem totally afraid of the guy does not really square with his clean-living straight-shooting image.
posted by localroger at 1:00 PM on January 16, 2010

This is a story that makes perfect sense to me and is totally unsurprising, given the alleged facts.

Neat freak perfectionist good guy pulls himself out of ghetto, becomes millionaire, invests prudently, then goes back to the hood and kills a guy - all while still an eligible NFL receiver. You may be only person who finds this "totally unsurprising" but regardless, you have to grant that the story is at least interesting on a human level. Or maybe you don't.
posted by billysumday at 1:12 PM on January 16, 2010

Well I didn't say I didn't find it interesting. I read the whole thing and I'm not a football fan. What I find more interesting, though, is how everyone else is reacting to it.
posted by localroger at 2:23 PM on January 16, 2010

God nosila, are you me? I did that exact same thing for two years from Hollywood street between Thompson and Stiles (including getting doored once at around 19th and Cecil B. Moore and being comforted by an extremely supportive group of onlookers).

Interesting story, and not out of character for the area. What has been allowed to happen to our cities is sad and disgusting. Large sections of Philadelphia look worse than any warzone, and have looked that way for more than 50 years. I remember hearing gunshots out my window every night, and hearing about shootings at this bar or that bar. Two people were killed on my street while I lived there, a street filled with very nice, caring people. All a few blocks from the Greek Revival colossus founded by one of the wealthiest men in history (Girard College).

Depressing. And it appears that very little will change this or the culture of violence that persists there.

(nosila, did Queenie ever try and sell you fragrances?)
posted by deafmute at 2:52 PM on January 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

localroger: The fact that so many people, both on and off the record, seem totally afraid of the guy does not really square with his clean-living straight-shooting image.

Seriously. You'd think if he were such a straight-shooter that 'Pops' wouldn't have survived the first shooting.
posted by paisley henosis at 4:17 PM on January 16, 2010

By the way, in case anyone glossed over the part about the five-seven pistol, it is apparently one hell of a fire-arm: half the weight of most pistols, with bullets which also weigh half as much as 9mm rounds, yet high accuracy, 30% less recoil, and apparently the light weight of the bullets causes them to 'tumble' inside of the body after impact. Oh and 20 of them fit in one clip.

posted by paisley henosis at 4:26 PM on January 16, 2010

paisley: I do know guys who own hardware like that for the same reason I own old Commodore computers. Some gun nuts are just into the hardware. But in this case, who knows? As you said in the other comment, it doesn't seem like Harrison knows how to use his hardware very well considering he failed to get a clean kill twice, even with his really superior hardware.
posted by localroger at 4:33 PM on January 16, 2010

localroger: Rubbstone, Pennsylvania does not have a castle doctrine law (yet at least).

They do, according to wiki; "there is no obligation to retreat from the home or workplace unless the actor was the initial aggressor," furthermore,
Deadly force itself is not justifiable unless "the actor believes that such force is necessary to protect himself against death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping or sexual intercourse compelled by force or threat."
Sounds like he could have just said that he reasonably believed that he was in imminent danger of being shot and fired first, to me, but IANAL.
posted by paisley henosis at 4:48 PM on January 16, 2010

paisley, Penn is what is called a "weak castle doctrine" state. These things are very fine grained, as I remember from the debate when Louisiana's strong castle doctrine thing was being debated. Under all but the strongest castle doctrine statues (think Texas) you are not justified shooting the perp in the back as he runs away. Under most, you aren't justified unless the perp is in your home, advancing on you. My reading of PA's statute is that there is no way you could launch a castle doctrine defense of yourself and leave casings in the middle of the street outside of your property. Just not possible.

Of course, I am neither a lawyer nor a Philadelphian, so whatever.
posted by localroger at 5:13 PM on January 16, 2010

half the weight of most pistols, with bullets which also weigh half as much as 9mm rounds

Half the weight also means half the kinetic energy. There's endless nerdery over the "best" hunting/self defense/target cartridge, but it's largely meaningless since most people, outside of hunters, only ever use it to make holes in paper targets. I'd argue that the Five Seven, similar to the Desert Eagle (another favorite of drug dealers and people interested in compensating for physical shortcomings), is mostly a collectors item because it's not particularly common, fantastically expensive and not especially useful.
posted by electroboy at 8:45 AM on January 18, 2010

deafmute: There were a few fragrance hucksters around, but I don't remember Queenie specifically. I'm guessing I would remember Queenie. :)
posted by nosila at 8:08 PM on January 18, 2010

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