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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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UF receiver Percy Harvin has the talent to be among the best in the nation as a freshman. In the past his temper has gotten the best of him, but he now plans to drop the anger and just catch the ball.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published September 15, 2006
GAINESVILLE - When Percy Harvin arrived on the Florida campus in July, his only goal was to blend in. After a year filled with controversy, including a ban from spring sports his high school senior season, Harvin wanted nothing more than to join the freshman class and become a regular guy.
Fortunately for Florida, it hasn't turned out that way. Not even close.
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound freshman from Virginia Beach, Va., has steered clear of trouble, but he has catapulted himself into the limelight for his early stellar play. In two games, Harvin is second on the team in all-purpose yards (201), second in receiving (132 yards, 18.9 average) and third in rushing (69 yards).
"He's a playmaker," senior receiver Jemalle Cornelius said. "He's explosive. He definitely blew me away seeing him in practice, then seeing him in the games. You don't see that every day as a freshman, the way he's just come in and handled everything. He's a real poised, laid-back type guy. ... He's just a playmaker."
When Florida travels to Knoxville for the SEC opener against Tennessee on Saturday night, Harvin will get his first national exposure. He's smart enough to understand that the real test of how good he is right now will come against the Vols.
"After the (UCF) game, Chris (Leak) and Bubba (Andre Caldwell) came up to me and said you've been making some great plays, but next week the real competition starts," Harvin said. "They said, 'Stay settled and keep doing what you do.' "
What he has done, along with a much-improved receiving corps that includes Caldwell, Cornelius and Dallas Baker, is make Florida the No. 1 offense in the SEC.
Harvin's speed, ability to run, catch and break free in the open field have made him a serious weapon.
"I've seen him in person and he's a Reggie Bush-ish type player," said CBS analyst Gary Danielson, who along with Verne Lundquist will call Saturday's game. "He's very young, he's very comfortable with the ball in his hands and he's a playmaker with the ball in his hands. But there's so much depth at wide receiver at Florida right now, he somewhat blends in. And that's going to be good for him and good for the offense."
Florida coach Urban Meyer knows the physical attributes are what grab attention, but it's Harvin's "extremely competitive" nature that Meyer loves most.
"He looks dynamic and fast, but there's a lot of fast people out there that aren't quite as competitive," Meyer said. "So his No. 1 attribute is that he's extremely competitive."
At one time, it might also have been his No. 1 problem.
In February, Harvin, a three-sport athlete widely regarded by scouting services as the nation's No. 1 high school football player, was banned from athletic competition by the Virginia High School League, losing his basketball and track eligibility after an incident involving a scuffle with another player that resulted in technical fouls for both. It was one of a series of offenses that ultimately labeled Harvin.
As a junior he served a one-game suspension for unsportsmanlike conduct, then was suspended the final two regular-season games of his senior season after making contact with an official and using inappropriate language. Harvin said he was often a target because opponents knew of his volatile, highly competitive nature, but insists he's no longer that person.
"I've matured a whole lot," he said. "I sat out pretty much my whole senior year with track and basketball. And I sat back and took all that in. I had people come talk to me and I just learned a whole lot from that."
Harvin said one of the reasons he was so excited to get to Gainesville was to leave his past behind.
"I came here and got a new beginning," he said. "I wanted a clean slate."
So far, he has found it. His teammates, particularly the receivers, have taken him under their wings. They have tutored him on the game, schooled him on the field and challenged him to become the type of person who has only good things said about him.
"That's how we are," Caldwell said. "We're like family. What happened in the past, is in the past. When you're around us, you've got to carry yourself a certain way. We look for you to be a man and step up to the challenges that face you. And he's done a great job of doing that."
Both Meyer and receivers coach Billy Gonzales said they did extensive checks on Harvin and believed he was entitled to a fresh start at Florida. "You had to get to know him," Gonzales said. "He's a good kid."
At 18, Harvin is taking the early success in stride. He has come a long way in the past year, and he's appreciative of what he has. He swears he doesn't plan to mess that up.
So when the Tennessee fans get going Saturday night with their taunts?
"I've been taunted all my life," Harvin said. "Not necessarily by this many fans, but I've been taunted all my life. I've learned some good lessons from it - especially about sportsmanlike conduct. So I'm pretty much ready to handle that side of it. I just need to stay focused and don't let the crowd get me all wound up."
But if Harvin gets all wound up in the offense, it'll be good news for the Gators.
"I came here and got a new beginning. I wanted a clean slate." - Percy Harvin