PITTSFORD — Percy Harvin is at peace. Not disgruntled, not in a coach’s ear. Moments after this Buffalo Bills practice ends, the wide receiver sprawls out on the Growney Stadium turf with his girlfriend and son in a state of liberation.
The 85-degree heat beats down on the three of them. Few words are spoken. Harvin spots a visitor, coolly saunters over to the nearby metal fence and extends a hand.
Training camp, this summer, feels different.
“Man, it feels so great to come out here and just let it loose,” Harvin said. “At other places, I felt like every day I had to walk on eggshells and look over my back to see who’s watching me. Here, the guys let me be me.”
His mind traces back those practices 2,600 miles away in Seattle when Harvin played for the Seahawks. The jealousy. The cold glares. When Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate weren’t getting the ball in practice, Harvin said they’d protest. They’d pout on the sideline or switch up their positions in the offense from “X” receiver to “Z,” to “F,” to whoever could get the ball on that play.
To Harvin, the two felt threatened.
“It was a constant thing,” Harvin said. “It was something that got under my skin. I felt like they were acting like kids.”
Fights with both players ensued and Harvin’s reputation was tarnished. The kid who was once the No. 1 prospect in the nation out of Virginia Beach, Va., who went No. 22 overall to the Minnesota Vikings in 2009, who revs from 0 to 60 faster than anyone — at receiver, at running back, at returner — is now known first as a malignant chemistry-killer. The Great Divider. The “Most Hated Player” in the NFL, per Sports Illustrated.
Options low, Harvin signed a one-year, $6 million pact in Buffalo.
Saint Rex has granted second chances to several outcasts, but no player is more perplexing than Harvin. Cancer or competitor? Soft or soldier? Friend or foe? You’ve read all the Harvin headlines.
As his son squeals and stuffs rocks in a Gatorade bottle behind, Harvin stares ahead.
“I want this to be the year,” Harvin said, “I look and say, ‘Year Seven was the turning point. That’s when I put it all together.’ ”
His case is not merely black and white, rather years of gray up for interpretation. Figuring out the real Percy Harvin is one complicated case.
He hopes to debunk each red flag as myth.
He divides a locker room
This is the one that pains Harvin most. By now, the world knows he fought Golden Tate the week before Super Bowl XLVIII. One report said he body-slammed Tate, many others that he gave him a black eye.
The following August, Harvin and Baldwin went at it with Baldwin suffering a gash on his chin.
Two fights. One common denominator.
Here today, Harvin explains how the blow-ups were months in the making. First, he claims both players viewed him “as a threat, rather than a teammate.” He talked to coaches. He talked to Tate and Baldwin. Harvin vows he tried to make it work, even as both lobbied for the ball.
Yet leading up to the Super Bowl, privately and publicly, Harvin couldn’t fathom what he heard.
“We all played the same position. So me coming in took reps from them,” Harvin said. “They wanted to show they were already established having made it to the NFC Championship the year before I got there. So they kind of had the approach of, ‘We don’t need anybody else. We’re established.’ ”
A sense of insecurity? “Exactly, exactly,” he repeats.
The undrafted Baldwin was the unofficial spokesman for this agitated, overlooked band of receivers who reached this game on grit, not genetics. All week, they were scrutinized. Hall-of-Famer Cris Carter, for one, called them “appetizers.” And as this media storyline dragged on, Harvin listened to all “We don’t really need Percy”-themed comments.
“I said, ‘I understand the message you’re trying to get out but I’m your teammate. If you don’t want to talk about me at all, just say ‘Hey, we’re a great offense. We’re glad to have him back,’ ” Harvin said. “But every time, it seemed like they were hell-bent on saying, ‘We’re going to be this, whether he’s here or not.’ And it just kind of started rubbing me wrong because those guys, I felt, were my teammates, my brothers.
“I was like, ‘Whoa, buddy, I’m your teammate! Let’s get it together and let’s go out there and kill people. If you all were already doing this, imagine what we could do with me in there!’ But I just kept getting, ‘If he comes back, he comes back. If not, we’re good without him.’ Finally, I wanted to say something.”
Harvin won’t relive the details but ex-teammate Michael Robinson later admitted that he needed to break up a fight between Harvin and Tate.
In retrospect, Harvin wishes he would’ve kept his irritation “on the back shelf” instead of trying to force a relationship that’d never exist. However, the next summer — before the preseason finale — Harvin and Baldwin fought.
In the middle of this dispute, Harvin actually tried walking away.
“Everybody calls him, ‘Tough Doug’ or ‘Angry Doug,’” Harvin said. “That was one of the times, he tried to use me to show he was a tough guy. I tried to walk away and he came back. It got messy. And I think what happened was the best for me.”
Baldwin did not return a voicemail seeking comment.
As for the report of players saying quarterback Russell Wilson “wasn’t black enough?” “To this day, I don’t even know what that means. I just shook my head.”
Tensions lingered. Seattle struggled. Harvin was traded to the New York Jets on Oct. 18. Coincidence or not, the subtraction turned the Seahawks’ season around, as they won 9 of their last 10 games and were one historically bad play call away from winning another Super Bowl.
These days, Harvin still talks to Bruce Irvin — their sons were born one day apart — and most of the Seattle defensive line. He’ll text receiver Jermaine Kearse. He’ll call Marshawn Lynch. He’s tight with Ricardo Lockette.
He has not spoken to Baldwin or Tate.
OK, let’s assume Harvin doesn’t tear apart the Bills’ locker room. What if he tears a muscle? Harvin has missed 28 of a possible 96 games. His first head coach, Brad Childress, once went where no head coach dares.
During a 2010 practice, with Harvin limping around on a bad ankle, Childress questioned the receiver’s effort and reports indicate the two needed to be separated. In Minnesota, there were constant whispers that Harvin milked his migraines.
This 5-foot-11, 184-pounder loaded with transcendent talent has been a souped-up Lamborghini that teases for one drag race before shutting down. Yet Sanjay Lal has a much different take. After only two months with Harvin in New York, the Bills’ wide receivers coach calls him “one of the toughest guys I’ve been around.”
During one 2-minute drive against Minnesota, Harvin suffered a third-degree ankle sprain, it swelled to the size of a softball and he hobbled around afterward in an oversized boot. On Tuesday, the team ran the options by Harvin — they could sit him out three weeks or place him on injured reserve — and he told them flatly, “No, I’m playing.”
“And we’re like ‘Have you seen your ankle? It’s the size of a balloon,’” Lal said. “And he goes, ‘I’m just telling you I’m playing.’ ”
He practiced on Friday and played Sunday.
Lal calls him “ultra-competitive,” someone who lowers his shoulder and blasts through you with no thoughts of stepping out of bounds. On Sundays, a switch flips.
Chances are, Harvin gets nicked up again because he feels invincible. Feeding such invincibility is an uncontrollable fire within.
His mentor and track coach at Landstown (Va.) High School, Tom Anderson, brings up a middle school meet in which Harvin lost to eventual Florida State star Charles Clark. The defeat haunted Harvin. Drove him. Into high school, at a city championship meet, Clark glared at Harvin after edging him in trials.
The next day, Harvin toasted Clark and won all five of his events.
“He doesn’t understand half-speed,” Anderson said. “He doesn’t understand just going out here. His thing is ‘if we’re not going out to win this thing, then why are we doing it?’”
Adds Lal, “He doesn’t care if he gets hurt. He doesn’t care about anything. He’s going to keep playing until you have to drag him off the field.”
In turn, Harvin’s blessing is his curse. His fire burns at all times.
And that could be a problem.
He’s a hot head
This narrative began in high school when the senior Harvin was banished by the Virginia High School League for, supposedly, inciting a riot in a basketball game.
Landstown was playing neighborhood rival, Green Run. And Anderson, sitting behind the Green Run bench, remembers hearing players conspiring to take shots at Harvin. Elbows. Forearms to the head. Verbal abuse. He claims Green Run’s kids were “out to get him.” Harvin says he had “a target” on him.
“And then all of a sudden,” Anderson said, “it escalates. There’s 4 minutes left in the game and these guys are teeing off on him. At some point, you have to retaliate just to protect yourself.”
He claims Harvin only threw his hands up, but the insinuation of a fight led to spectators pouring down from the bleachers, the punishment and a road-rage reputation.
To Anderson, it’s a matter of “jealousy.” Harvin was a rock star in this area, he said. But there’s that theme again: Jealousy. Threatened. Envious. Is this the case? Or is there a reason trouble finds Harvin? You’ve seen the footage. During one 30-20 loss to Seattle in 2012, Harvin was caught shouting in the ear of Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier.
Frazier nods, Harvin barks, the 10-second clip is damning.
Harvin explains this, too. All week, the Vikings had prepared for this exact check, a “rail” route up the sideline vs. this specific coverage. The opportunity arose and quarterback Christian Ponder missed it. Slow the video down, Harvin insists, and you’ll see him telling Frazier “Coach, that’s a check we made all week!”
“There was no ‘F-U,’ none of that,” he said. “The competitiveness of me took over. There are things like that I wish I could’ve just handled way better.”
So it’s not raw, myopic selfishness. Anderson repeats Harvin is “not an ‘I’ guy.” Rather, he “doesn’t want to be around losing.” Simple. Such a 100 MPH mind-set can be a powerful thing when harnessed in the right direction. Or, you know, it can boil over with a popgun-armed quarterback and a surly receiver.
Which begs the question: What happens if shoddy quarterback play — a Buffalo staple since 2000 — settles in by October? Mount Harvin could burst.
Leaned over the fence with his grapefruit-sized biceps, Harvin nods as if expecting the question.
“Right now, I just put in my head — and I tell the receivers this all the time — let’s not coach anybody’s group but ours,” he said. “The quarterbacks, they’ll get it. There’s been days when they come out and are lights out. There have been days when it hasn’t been so good from an offensive standpoint.”
Harvin holds his eye contact.
“I don’t have any doubt in my mind that whoever’s behind center will get the job done.”
A new start
When Rex Ryan signed Harvin last season, the wide receiver spent the five-hour plane trip to New York planning what he’d say. The two met at the Jets’ facility on a Tuesday and Harvin immediately started rambling.
“Coach!” he said. “Let me explain everything to you before we even start ...”
“Man, don’t even,” he told Harvin. “We don’t need to talk about that. Come in. Be you. We’re going to be fine.”
To this day, Ryan has never asked Harvin what happened in Minnesota or Seattle.
This offseason, the receiver took a much different plane ride. Harvin joined the Pegula family on a flight to Florida. He chatted it up with the owners’ daughter, Jessica, about their dogs and she recommended one of Tony Dungy’s books that he’s reading now. Nobody talked football. Nobody asked about his fights, his outbursts, his past.
“I think they got to see the side of me most people don’t see,” Harvin said. “It was just all love. For them to fly with me and make the investment after all of this was a privilege for me.”
Harvin’s mind is blown by the frequent texts from Terry Pegula: How are you doing? Is everything OK? Do you need anything?
Right now, everything is so … serene. A dream. Of course, such honeymoons lasted only so long in the past with Harvin. Now, in Year Seven, he is fully aware his NFL career is on the line. He’s eager to prove who the real Percy Harvin is.
The one who bought “NormaTec” recovery machines for all wide receivers in Seattle. The one who Anderson says is genetically “wired perfect” and had 476 total yards in a high school game. The complete wide receiver.
Everyone here in Buffalo believes — from the rookies to Rex.
“Outside, people may feel like he’s this or he’s that,” wideout Andre Davis said. “But I see nothing but a great guy with Percy. He’s a great teacher, a great leader. I might be down and he’s always picking me up.”
Adds Ryan, “He is a great teammate, he is all about the team.”
Everywhere else, Harvin is known more for detonating locker rooms than detonating defenses. He won’t change that perception overnight. Maybe never will.
But as teammates glide toward the locker room, one by one, Harvin cannot help but breathe a deep sigh of relief. These are the people he must win over.
So far, so good.
“It’s finally time to reach the potential of where I think I am,” Harvin said. “I said before I got here, this would be the year I put it all together. No off-the-field troubles. Not that there was off-the-field troubles, but no calling my name for anything other than being a good teammate making plays for my teammates and helping us win.
“That’s all I want to do.”