When you ask Percy Harvin what could have been if he had been able to stay healthy for all 13 games, he doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t have to. The grin on his face tells you everything you need to know. Remember the FSU game? He was like an Indy car driver on the first lap after caution in that one. The Arkansas game? That was like the final sprint to the checkered flag.
Harvin went down with a high ankle sprain early in Florida’s third game of the season against Tennessee. Up until that point, the freshman wide receiver had seven carries for 81 yards (11.6 per carry) and eight catches for 145 yards and a touchdown. He touched the ball twice against Tennessee, running for 12 yards and catching a pass for 13 before he hurt the ankle. When he went down with the injury, Harvin was well on his way to becoming the X-factor in the Florida offense, that one guy that nobody has an answer for. It was like old times for the 5-11, 180-pounder from Virginia Beach who was the nation’s most electric offensive recruit in the class of 2006. At Landstown High School, there were no answers for Percy Harvin. It was starting to look that way at the University of Florida, too.
Then came the injury, a high ankle sprain that not only slowed down Harvin but took away that dynamic dimension that could have opened up the entire Florida offensive arsenal. Tough times were ahead for Harvin who felt helpless because he couldn’t do anything to help his team.
“It was so frustrating,” said Harvin, the Southeastern Conference Offensive Freshman of the Year. “Going through high school I was never hurt enough to sit out a game so getting hurt and not being able to play and help the team was frustrating.”
He stood on the sidelines a lot for the next eight games. He missed the Alabama and Vanderbilt games completely. He touched the ball only once against Kentucky and LSU. He had very limited roles in the Auburn and Georgia games and even in a win over South Carolina where he caught six passes for 91 yards, he still wasn’t able to cut loose.
He tried to do everything the doctors and trainers told him to do. He stretched. He rehabbed. He rested. But standing on the sidelines at practice, there were times when he just couldn’t stand it any longer. Meyer would look the other way and there was Harvin, in the huddle, trying to get a rep or two. Meyer had to assign strength and conditioning Coach Mickey Marotti to be the Percy Police. Harvin would try to sneak in a play and Marotti would grab him and haul him off the field.
Meyer understood the frustration Harvin was going through. He understood that he had a thoroughbred that simply needs to run.
“He [Harvin] was a mess,” said Coach Urban Meyer before the Georgia game. “He’s an emotional guy that loves football. Some guys you don’t worry about. Some guys get hurt and I hate to say this, but I think guys actually don’t like to practice but that happens. That kid [Harvin] hates it. That kid wants to compete and he probably himself back a little bit because he kept going and going and going and wouldn’t sit out when they told him to sit out.”
There were a few times during the rehab process that he thought he was all the way back, but then something would happen in practice. On those days he felt like he was stuck in a two steps forward, one step backward rut.
“Every little plant you take you can tweak it the wrong way and then you re-injure it,” said Harvin. “You get it right and then you come our here and plant, just twisting it the wrong way one little time and you’ve re-injured it.”
The setbacks were tough to take because he would be feeling like he was on the verge of being the old, electric Percy Harvin once again.
“I’d think it’s 100 percent and then it would mess right back up,” he said. “That was the most frustrating part.”
Harvin made significant contributions in Florida’s electrifying 17-16 win over South Carolina. He tweaked the ankle a little bit in the fourth quarter of that game but he got back in the game and made a critical 19-yard catch and run on Florida’s game winning drive. Harvin sat out the next week when the Gators played Division I-AA Western Carolina and that extra week of rest seemed to get him over the hump with the injury.
“About the FSU game my ankle started feeling a lot better,” he said.
He felt better and in the first half he took it out on Florida State. Running with abandon and without pain for the first time in weeks, he cut loose for 86 yards on four carries including a 41-yarder off a direct snap in the second quarter that staked the Gators to a 14-0 lead.
He had a scary moment in the third quarter when he took a huge hit on a little dump pass over the middle. He was carried off the field on a cart and missed the rest of the game but he was on the sideline cheering his teammates on in the fourth quarter. By the following Tuesday he was practicing again. He had some neck pain but the ankle was just fine and he was cleared to play in the SEC Championship Game against Arkansas.
Against Arkansas, he was the lightning bolt that made the difference. He caught five passes for 62 yards and a touchdown and he ran for 105 yards on six carries for another score.
The two touchdowns literally sucked all the oxygen out of the Georgia Dome. The first was a 37-yard touchdown pass from Chris Leak. Harvin took about three steps off the line, made one little move to the inside and then a crossover step that practically broke the ankles of the defender. When he turned on the jets that was that, a dial-a-score, made to order touchdown.
The second scoring play was the stiletto plunged into the heart of a feisty Arkansas team trying to come back. It was a simple counter play off the right side and with one quick step, Harvin eluded the only tackler that had a chance. The next 67 yards were a blur. Harvin kept running faster and faster and the Arkansas secondary kept falling further behind.
For the season, Harvin had 773 total yards. He ran 36 times for 406 yards (11.3 yards per carry) and two touchdowns. He caught 25 passes for 367 yards (14.7 per catch) and two more touchdowns. Good numbers for sure, but he knows things would have been different if he was healthy.
So when you ask how good it could have been, he just grins. He’s proven that when he’s 100 percent healthy, he is the difference maker that can turn a pedestrian offense into a light up the scoreboard machine.
“I started practicing without the ankle braces two weeks ago,” he said last week. “I was still wearing the braces for precautionary reasons. This is the second week and it feels really fine again.”
He has another two weeks before he will play again so the ankle will only get stronger. The next game is against number one ranked and undefeated Ohio State for the national title, something he expected when he was being recruited but perhaps not this fast.
“A lot of people thought when we first came here that we wouldn’t play for one for two or three years but we’re here now,” he said.
He admits he’s at Florida because Urban Meyer never once tried to sell him on individual accomplishments. Instead Meyer had a loftier vision.
“The main thing he said was you’ll get a chance to play, a chance to get your degree and a chance to play for a national championship,” said Harvin. “He [Meyer] is the reason I came here,” he said. “He told me the truth. He didn’t beat around the bush. He was just so straightforward. That’s the reason I came here.”
And now that he’s here at Florida playing for a championship, healthy and feeling once again like the Percy Harvin that was never “it” in games of tag when he was a kid, he breaks into a grin when you ask him if the Gators can win it all.
“We’ll see,” he said. “All I know is that we’re here and I guess that means anything can happen.”