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Marvin Harrison: the forgotten Syracuse football star

Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire

In upstate New York, there isn’t a number more immortalized than No. 44, and rightfully so. Some of the great running backs of all time – Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Floyd Little – donned the number.

That reality – as much as it ought to persist – sometimes causes other Syracuse greats who didn’t wear No. 44 to be forgotten. None fit this category more than wide receiver Marvin Harrison, one of the newest members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

While wearing No. 8 for the Orange from 1992 through 1995, the unassuming receiver let all his play do the talking. He remains the greatest wide receiver in school history.

Despite just two catches in his freshman season, Harrison is still Syracuse’s all-time leading receiver with 2,728 yards. Compared to today’s brand of college football, Syracuse threw the ball far less often, making the fact he’s still the program’s leader that much more impressive.

With fewer passes, Harrison had to make his opportunities count. He certainly did, averaging over 20 yards per catch in both his junior and senior seasons. In his sophomore year, he averaged 19.8 yards per catch, and Harrison actually finished his career with a 20.2 yards-per-catch average

He also registered 20.2 yards per reception his senior year, which was the best in the (then-) Big East Conference. Harrison was the only receiver in the Big East during the 1995 season to finish with over 20 yards per catch and 1,000 receiving yards. He led the conference with 1,131 yards and was second with eight receiving touchdowns.

Syracuse posted winning records in 1993 and 1994, but back then, not every team with six or more victories earned a bowl bid. Harrison waited until January of 1996 to play in the college football postseason. He made his one appearance count: No. 8 caught two touchdowns, including one from 56 yards out, to help Syracuse rout Clemson in the Gator Bowl, 41-0.

The following spring, the Indianapolis Colts selected Harrison 19th in the first round of the NFL Draft. At the time, Harrison was Syracuse’s first opening-round selection since nose tackle Ted Gregory in 1988.

His success in the pros helped bring NFL respectability back to the Orange. After the Colts took Harrison in the first round in 1996, six more Syracuse players went in the first round over the next five years.

To say Harrison had success at the NFL level is a huge understatement. He didn’t record a 1,000-yard season in any of his first three years with the Colts, but starting in 1999, Harrison reeled off eight straight 1,000-yard years. During that time, he made the Pro Bowl every year and All-Pro three times. He also led the league in receptions twice and receiving yards twice. He had three seasons with over 1,500 yards and four years with more than 100 catches. Plus, his 143 catches in 2002 are still an NFL single-season record.

Passing has steadily increased over the years, but Harrison posted his numbers before the huge spike in passing yardage this decade. Yet, he recorded numbers that NFL receivers can’t touch even today.

Harrison is still seventh in receiving yards (14,580), fifth in receiving touchdowns (128) and third in receptions (1,554). The only wideout with more catches in NFL history is Jerry Rice. Saturday, Harrison became the eighth Syracuse player to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

For such a magnificent career, one would think he would receive much more praise from his school. Instead, most people seem to forget he ever wore Orange. Harrison never drew attention to himself, which is part of why he flies under the radar, but that isn’t the only reason.

Syracuse’s obsession with the No. 44 hurts its other past stars. Donovan McNabb and Dwight Freeney were excellent players, but their jerseys aren’t for sale everywhere you go on the Syracuse campus like No. 44. Neither is Harrison’s No. 8.

That’s a shame. The Orange never won the national championship in the 1990s, but the players from that decade are still some of the best in Syracuse football history. Harrison deserves more than just the occasional footnote from Syracuse fans.

No receiver wearing orange and blue was ever better than No. 8.

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