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From the start, Peyton Manning realized Marvin Harrison was ‘special’

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INDIANAPOLIS - NOVEMBER 16: Payton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates the touchdown of Marvin Harrison #88 for a 30-20 lead over the Houston Texans during the fourth quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 16, 2008 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

ANDERSON, Ind. – Peyton Manning, always the quick study, immediately realized he was playing pitch-and-catch with someone special.

A future member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Not even Manning could foresee that. But someone special nonetheless.

As the first overall pick in the 1998 draft, the new face of the Indianapolis Colts was anointed the starting quarterback from that first minicamp practice. During drills, he would drop back and make his normal right-to-left progression. Then his attention inevitably would snap back to the right.

To Marvin Harrison.

“I certainly knew who Marvin Harrison was,” Manning told Indy Sports Central. “I knew he was a first-round draft choice a couple of years before and I know I was planning on leaning on him as the veteran receiver coming back to the Colts.

“It didn’t take me long at practice in April after the draft to realize he was special.”

Harrison, the Colts’ 1996 first-round pick, had it all, even in his third season.

“He had unbelievable speed,” Manning said. “I had never thrown to anybody that fast before.”

Then came Aug. 8, 1998, and another occasion that reinforced Manning’s notion that he suddenly was linked to someone special.

The Colts were in Seattle’s Kingdome for their preseason opener, and Manning stood behind center at the Seahawks’ 48-yard line. He looked toward Harrison, who was split out right, his forever alignment.

Manning took a short drop, spied a slanting Harrison and delivered his first NFL pass. Next stop, the end zone.

“There’s certainly something about throwing your first pass in a preseason game and it going for a touchdown,” Manning said.

As Harrison sped through the heart of Seattle’s defense for a 48-yard touchdown, Manning jogged after him, eager to offer congratulations.

“I thought, ‘Boy, this NFL is not that hard. You just throw the ball to Marvin Harrison and you throw touchdowns,”’ he said. “I remember kind of whispering that to myself running down the field in that Seattle game.

“But in many ways it was true. We threw a lot of touchdowns together.”

They did a lot together.

In 11 seasons, Manning and Harrison collaborated for 961 receptions, 12,881 yards and 112 touchdowns. All are NFL records for a quarterback-receiver tandem.

“I just knew good things were going to happen when I threw the ball toward No. 88’s way,” Manning said.

For Harrison, the culmination came in February when he was selected as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2016. He and seven others – including former Colts coach Tony Dungy – will be formally enshrined Saturday at ceremonies in Canton, Ohio.

Manning will be there. So will so many of Harrison’s friends, former teammates and former team. The Colts meet the Green Bay Packers Sunday in the annual Hall of Fame game.

Coach Chuck Pagano will adjust the team’s pregame schedule to allow interested players to attend the ceremony. The only holdovers from the Colts’ careers of Harrison and Dungy are Robert Mathis and Adam Vinatieri.

“It would kind of neat to be a part of it,” Vinatieri said.

Having been a significant part of Harrison’s path to Canton, Manning understands what it took for Harrison to complete the journey.

He described a lithe receiver – Harrison was generously listed at 6-0 and 175 pounds – who was driven by a insatiable work ethic, ran routes at full speed and with precision, never took a play off in practice and was loathe to come out of games.

“One thing was his unbelievable endurance,” Manning said. “He could flat run all day and run fast all day. He never came out of practice or a game. You see guys with the tap-out signal where you tap the top of your helmet. He never did that. He always stayed in.”

And there was a trickle-down effect. Reggie Wayne, a 2001 first-round pick, watched Harrison’s approach, then mirrored it.

“Reggie has admitted Marvin had a big influence on him,” Manning said. “Reggie was the same way. Those guys never came out. They were always in there in practice, in games. You always knew you could depend on them.

“That’s how you get the chemistry and that great timing. That was special. That was the foundation of what made Marvin so special – his natural talent and natural speed that he was blessed with, but he was like that all the time, in practices, in games.

“Anytime you take a guy with Marvin’s talent and you combine with that a great work ethic, that’s a great combination for a Hall of Fame receiver.”

In 13 seasons, Harrison collected 1,102 receptions (No. 3 all-time), 14,580 yards (No. 7) and 128 touchdowns (No. 5).

Long-time offensive coordinator Tom Moore never did Harrison any favors. Harrison always lined up split wide right. He rarely went in motion. Defenses knew where Harrison would be, but seldom slowed him down.

In 2002, he set an NFL single-season record with 143 receptions. From 1999 through ’06, he averaged 103 catches, 1,402 yards and nearly 13 touchdowns.

“He was the target of defenses,” Manning said. “Defensive coordinators game planned toward him, yet he was still finding a way to be productive.

“That’s what made him so special. You have catches, you have touchdowns, you have key third-down conversions when you’re the target of the defensive game plan.”

Manning on Dungy

Manning credited Dungy’s steady hand for much of the Colts’ success from 2002-08, and for helping take his own game to another level.

“Had a great impact on the team, on me,” he said.

With his defensive background, Dungy constantly offered Manning insight on the upcoming opponent. In many instances, he had relationships with the defensive coordinator or a particular position coach.

“He’d tell me what plays they would have trouble covering, where there might be holes in that defense, maybe that defensive coordinator’s philosophy,” Manning said.

“I found that information to be invaluable.”

During Dungy’s seven-year stint with the team, the Colts posted a 85-27 record. They set an NFL record by winning at least 12 games in six straight seasons. They reached the playoffs each year and won Super Bowl XLI after the 2006 season.

Manning credited Dungy for injecting a new level of efficiency in his game. He suffered 23 interceptions in 2001, then lowered it to 21 in Dungy’s first season. After that, it was 10, 10, 10 and 9.

It was critical that Dungy kept Tom Moore as his coordinator, Manning said, “but he made our offense even better by emphasizing protecting the ball. He wanted us to be aggressive, but at the same time thought we could protect the ball better.

“He helped me understand that. There’s no doubt my game took a major step up once Tony Dungy got there.”

Follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

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