Alvin Harper's Fickle Fingers of Fate
The hopes of Tampa Bay football is riding on the tip of Josh Freeman’s right thumb. Broken in a freak play Saturday night against the Kansas City Chiefs, Freeman’s digit has become the most famous fingertip in Buccaneer history, supplanting the finger of former Buccaneer wide receiver Alvin Harper.

Hopefully the fate of Freeman’s finger, and with it most of Tampa Bay’s chances to rebound from last year’s 3-13 disappointment, will be much more positive than that of Harper’s.

Many people have heard the story of when Alvin Harper accidentally had the tip of his finger cut off by former Buccaneer assistant trainer Joe-Joe Petrone before a practice on October 18, 1996. What many people may not recall is that the accident occurred while Petrone was attaching a pad to Harper’s hand to protect the stitches he had received from a bizarre injury the week before.

During practice leading up to a game against the Minnesota Vikings, Harper suffered a severe laceration between his fingers when he caught a pass from Trent Dilfer. The laceration required five stitches to close.

Amazingly, two months earlier Harper had his hand cut open when he caught a pass from Dilfer in training camp (Who knew that Dilfer had that kind of a gun!?!). That injury had required nine stitches to close. By the time Petrone was impersonating Sweeney Todd with scissors, Harper had suffered more cuts than a bovine visitor to a packing house.

Of course, the joke could be made that this is one of the few times that scissors beat rock (as in stone hands).

Harper had been a big-name free agent in 1995. A deep threat for the Dallas Cowboys’ back-to-back Super Bowl champions in 1992 and 1993, Harper was supposed to become the speed-burning wide receiver the Bucs had always lacked.

A four-year, $10 million contract was number one receiver money but unfortunately for the Bucs, Harper proved he wasn’t quite as good without Michael Irvin and Jay Novacek running interference. A pedestrian 1995 season was followed by a disastrous start to 1996.

The week of the finger incident the Bucs were 1-5 having just come off their first victory over Minnesota (Harper had 2 catches). Preparing for a Friday practice before flying to Phoenix to play the Cardinals, Harper sat in the training room to have his hand taped by Petrone.

As Petrone affixed a pad to Harper’s left hand and began to cut away the excess tape, the scissors slipped and clipped off the tip of Harper’s finger. At first the Bucs and Harper tried to keep the story under wraps, but when the Bucs downgraded Harper from probable to questionable for the Cardinal game, reporters grew suspicious. It wasn’t until the Monday after the Bucs’ 13-9 loss to Phoenix that the truth came out.

Harper, not an especially warm and fuzzy player when it came to dealing with the media, actually went out of his way to protect Petrone, telling reporters, “Anybody could have done that. Joe-Joe, he is one of the top trainers in the world.”

Harper admitted the cut didn’t hurt too badly, but it certainly was a deep and bloody cut. “It’s cut pretty good, that’ all.” Harper continued to tell reporters. “It’s cut in an angle, the top of the nail is cut off and some of the top of the finger is cut off.”

When asked how he felt about his run of bad luck with finger injuries, Harper was circumspect. “The way I feel now is it can only get better,” he said. “What’s been going on has been a total nightmare. It’s one of those things that have been going wrong with me the whole year.”

Unfortunately, things never got better for Harper in Tampa Bay. He finished the year with just 19 catches for 289 yards and one touchdown. At the end of 1996 he received yet another cut, the loss of his job. All told Harper provided the Buccaneers with less than 1,000 receiving yards spread over two seasons.

Joe-Joe Petrone also became an unfortunate casualty of the accident. Whether the inadvertent cutting of Harper’s finger played a role is unknown, but Petrone was terminated by the Buccaneers following the 1996 season as well.

If Josh Freeman’s finger tip injury leads to as much angst and devastation as Harper’s well, that would be the unkindest cut of all, wouldn’t it?

Denis Crawford, August 2010