Morgan’s motivation goes beyond record game

November 23, 2017 GMT

LINCOLN — Dec. 9, 2013: New Orleans.

Cyril Crutchfield called a timeout and motioned for his offense to huddle around him.

The St. Augustine High School drumline tapped a cadence into the muggy evening. Air horns chirped and fans danced on the metal bleachers, adding a constant clang to the ESPN broadcast.

Crutchfield’s offense leaned in close.

“This is it,” he yelled.

St. Augustine hadn’t beaten John Curtis High School in eight tries the past decade. And down 28-21 with two minutes to go, 87 yards from the pylon, live on national television, this moment was as good as any.

Crutchfield scanned his players’ eyes. He looked at his running back, Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 recruit in the country. He panned over to his junior wide receiver, Stanley Morgan Jr. He’d need both.

“When we score, we have a choice to either tie it and go to overtime, or go for it,” Crutchfield yelled.

Morgan cut him off.

“We’re going for it.”

Everyone nodded in agreement. And then above the sound of the drumline and air horns, Morgan piped up again.

“We’re going for it. And you’re gonna throw it to me.”

It took eight plays before the Purple Knights found the end zone. Fournette rumbled over a safety on a screen pass to make it 28-27 with a minute remaining.

The two-point conversion play was disrupted almost immediately. A John Curtis defensive end flushed the quarterback out of the pocket. Morgan saw, broke off his route and shuffled in the back of the end zone. The quarterback flipped the ball to Morgan, who’d found a small opening.

Morgan sprinted, with both arms raised, directly to the sideline, leaping to chest-bump teammates as the scoreboard lights flicked from 27 to 29, running until he found the clanging metal bleachers.

Morgan’s mother, Monique Jason, pointed to her only son and screamed in joy. Parents flocked around Jason, who was sporting a custom-made and bedazzled “Stan The Man” jersey.

They knew what she’d done to bring Morgan to this point. What she’d had to navigate her son through while his namesake sat in a Mississippi prison cell.

And Morgan knew, too. That muggy December night and still today.

It’s why he has a tattoo on his wrist. Why he knows Etta James songs by heart, and why the pursuit of one of Nebraska’s oldest records won’t be his focus in the Huskers’ final game on Friday against Iowa.

On the final day of Nebraska’s disappointing season, Morgan could paint a silver lining by eclipsing Johnny Rodgers’ 1972 receiving record of 942 yards. Morgan’s currently at 912.

But he also knows that kids like him don’t make it to places like this. And he knows why he’s here. He knows why he plays.

“After God,” Crutchfield said, “he owes everything he has to his mom.”

That stuffy Louisiana night, as Morgan celebrated in front of the bleachers, he pointed at his mother in the crowd. She pointed back.

They both screamed.

Making it

Before Morgan spent Friday nights in hotels in Big Ten cities or shared high school fields with future NFL running backs, Friday nights were movie nights with mom.

The routine stayed the same for years. Morgan and his mother would drive to Blockbuster or Hollywood Video and pick out a VHS tape. One week, she would pick a movie. The next, it was his turn.

In their apartment in downtown New Orleans, they’d eat popcorn and watch the tapes.

Morgan always ended up liking the movies his mom chose.

“I would pick like ‘E.T.’ or ‘Herbie Fully Loaded,’ movies I knew he’d like but he’d never pick,” she said.

For most of Morgan’s life, it’s been just him and his mom, plus his two grandparents. And from birth, his mom has been trying to lead him in the right direction. And Morgan’s usually followed.

She likes old music, so as a child Morgan sang Etta James at family parties. She likes reading, so he got into books at an early age, and begged his mom to read to him before bed. She loves the outdoors and being active. As a young boy, Morgan had so much pent-up energy that in church, someone usually had to hold him in their lap to keep him from breaking out into the aisles to dance to the hum of the organ.

His mom drove school buses to put food on the table and pay the rent. They didn’t ever have much, Morgan said. But it was always enough.

In second grade, he pleaded for a black toy motorcycle for Christmas. And sure enough, on Christmas morning, there it was under the tree.

“She always makes it happen, and it don’t matter what she has to do,” Morgan said. “It’ll always be there.”

When she caught her son running around the neighborhood in elementary school with a football, she and her cousin asked him if they should sign him up to play football. It was a way to get that energy out, she thought. Provide him with strong male role models. Keep him busy down the road when he was old enough to realize what happened on the streets at night.

Morgan said yes. For his first game, his mom bought a white T-shirt and bedazzled it.

“Stan The Man” the back read, with Morgan’s number below it. She has an entire closet full of those jerseys now. One for every season.

Turned out Morgan was pretty good at football. Especially as a quarterback. By the time he was in middle school, he was nearly 6 feet tall and had hands the size of a legal pad.

Every high school in Louisiana was recruiting him, his mom said. One school in particular, St. Augustine, caught Morgan’s eye. One of his mom’s cousins attended and talked it up to Morgan. It was one of the perennial football powerhouses in the state, alma mater of NFL player Tyrann Mathieu and former Nebraska players such as wingback Tyrone Hughes.

But tuition was $8,000 a year. And Morgan confided in his cousin that he wasn’t sure if he should ask his mom about attending. He didn’t want to pressure her into a situation they couldn’t afford.

When she caught wind of Morgan’s desire to go to St. Augustine, she approached her own mother. Then a few cousins. Then sat Morgan down.

The family would chip in, she said. The village would take care of tuition.

“It was just the right thing to do,” she said.

But she had one caveat for her son. Was football just something he was interested in for now, or was football really something he wanted to chase? Was this his lifelong dream?

He smiled. And she remembered the conversation the two had a few weeks prior.

On Nov. 19, 2006, Morgan and his mom took in the New Orleans Saints vs. Cincinnati Bengals game from the field of the Superdome. Morgan had such a good season on his youth football team he was named an all-state all-star for his age group. Field tickets were one of the perks.

At halftime, Morgan and his mother walked around the field. Morgan kept looking up to the rafters, around the arena at all the fans. He fell in love with the lights, the cheerleaders, the fans, the crowd, the cheers. That day, Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw for 510 yards. Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson caught three touchdowns and had nearly 200 receiving yards.

Morgan was in awe of it all.

His mom remembers that he tugged on her shirt watching the halftime show.

“Mom,” he said. “This is what I want to do.”

She smiled and nodded.

Three months after that moment in the Superdome, north about three hours in Greenwood, Mississippi, Stanley Morgan Sr. was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Stanley Morgan Sr.

The details are uncomfortable. Morgan and his mother don’t talk about it much.

The day before Valentine’s Day 2007, Stanley Morgan Sr. was convicted of sexual battery in Jasper County Court in Mississippi.

In March of the same year, he was sentenced to prison. He appealed the ruling but lost. Morgan Sr. is currently working with the Innocence Project on another appeal. In 2011, two more years were tacked onto his sentence for possession of an illegal object in prison.

His release date is tentatively set for July 27, 2038.

Morgan didn’t see his father much growing up. They spoke on the phone every now and then, and Morgan spent a few weeks for a few summers at his place in Mississippi, his mom said.

But when his father was put away, she said, she could sense there was something inside her son that broke.

What hurt, he said, was the simple fact he wasn’t there.

“He was there vocally on the phone but he wasn’t there in person. And then he wasn’t there vocally. And I always just wanted him physically there,” Morgan said.

Football became Morgan’s release. Where he focused his energy and angst.

His mom was able to gather enough money to send Morgan to St. Augustine. Entering him at the all-boys school was great for many reasons, she said. Especially a place like St. Augustine, known for churning out successful men such as former NBA coach Avery Johnson or the executive editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet.

But at an all-boys school, there’s a constant reminder of fathers and sons. And throughout high school, Jason noticed the pain it caused her son to be without one.

“He had father figures. My stepdad, older cousins, coaches,” she said. “But he wished his dad was there. You could just tell.”

So she approached her son’s coaches and specifically instructed them to help guide her son if he needed it.

If Stan was acting up, make him run, she said. If Stan was talking when coach was talking, shoot him a look. Call him out. Build him up as a man.

“A lot of these schools, they’re easy on the kids that are good,” she said. “But I didn’t want that for Stan.”

“Basically,” Crutchfield said, “I was Dad away from home.”

It was an easy job for the most part. Morgan never caused any trouble, Crutchfield said. And after one season on JV, he became a star on varsity.

In his first few varsity practices, Crutchfield caught Morgan snagging passes one-handed during drills. Two hands seemed too easy, the coach said.

As a sophomore, Morgan reeled in 61 passes for 806 yards and 13 touchdowns. His junior year, he had 66 catches for 1,077 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Even with a guy on the team like Fournette, who would go on to be one of the most prolific offensive players in state history, Crutchfield knew who to go to when he needed a play.

Morgan, he said, “was that one individual that we knew if we needed anything, we’d have to dial up something for him.”

After his junior year, especially after the game-winner against John Curtis, the scholarship offers began rolling in. Michigan State was first, followed by Tennessee and Nebraska. Utah and Clemson also came calling.

When things got crazy, and Morgan started to think about taking college visits, his mom pitched the idea he needed to make one visit first: to see his father.

It would be a decade since the two saw each other face to face. And she thought it’d be good for her son to see him one more time before making that big of a decision.

So one spring day, Morgan and his mom drove nearly six hours north to the Marshall County Correctional Facility in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

She watched as the two Stanley Morgans spoke on the phone between a pane of glass. One whose life had hit a roadblock. The other with endless roads to travel.

“I wanted him to gain some perspective, get his mind clear,” she said of the visit. “I think it was good for them both.”

Afterward, a determined Morgan began looking seriously at a place to play football.

LSU pursued him, but Nebraska kept calling, too.

He chose Nebraska, those close to him say, because he wanted to get out of Louisiana.

There was another reason, too.

Former Nebraska receivers coach Rich Fisher kept telling Jason her son could be special. That he’d excel at Nebraska.

“If your son comes to Nebraska,” Fisher would say, “he’ll break records. I guarantee it.”

In record position

Nov. 18, 2017: State College, Pennsylvania.

The rain just wouldn’t stop.

It turned on and off like a shower head all afternoon. In the second half, it began to pour. But it couldn’t seem to slow Morgan. And on that rainy night, in a game that didn’t matter, against a team up four touchdowns, in a 106,000-seat stadium half-full, Morgan put himself in position to be historic.

In the fourth quarter against then-No. 13 Penn State, on third-and-1 from the 8-yard line, quarterback Tanner Lee’s pass nestled into Morgan’s fingertips just so, and Morgan reeled the pigskin in one-handed like he’s done so many times before.

He kept feet in bounds, controlled the ball despite slipping on the wet grass, and Nebraska cut Penn State’s lead to 56-31 in the fourth quarter. The game had been over before halftime, but the touchdown bumped Morgan’s career high up to 144 yards and his season total within 100 of Rodgers’ 942-yard record. He’d finish the day with 185 yards, just 31 yards from breaking the record with one game remaining.

And in a season full of lows, his teammates are now looking forward to seeing their teammate chase history Friday.

“He’ll get it,” receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El said matter-of-factly this week. “We want him to get it.”

They’ve been tracking it the past few weeks. During the Penn State game, Pierson-El even egged Morgan on.

“You going for 200 today?” Pierson-El would say.

Morgan is a special receiver, his coaches say. For a million reasons.

“He’s basically fearless,” coach Mike Riley said.

“He’s a dog,” wide receivers coach Keith Williams said.

The way he approaches the game pushes everyone else, junior receiver Keyan Williams said. He sets the bar. Which is why no one is surprised he’s on pace to break a 45-year-old record.

“He’s aggressive and he wants to get better,” Keith Williams said. “He has no ego. He’s what you want in a football player.”

When his mom first heard about the record, she thought he was on pace for 1,000 yards in his career. When she found out it was for the season, she was floored.

“I’m so very, very proud of Stanley,” she said. “For everything.”

She hopes he breaks the 942 record against Iowa. But Mom’s expectations are always a little higher. She’s hoping he cracks 1,000 yards.

After the Penn State game, Morgan spoke with the media for just the second time this season. Below the bleachers in the cold, he fielded questions while lights from video cameras gleamed off his face.

He thought his 185-yard performance was just all right. And the record? Yeah, it’s cool he’s close. But it doesn’t motivate him. It isn’t his goal to break it.

His goals are much simpler. To see his mom’s face after surprising her with a birthday gift of skydiving. To see her reaction when she catches him carrying groceries for a neighbor up the stairs of their apartment complex.

“I think about my mom before every day to do right by her and do everything she deserves,” Morgan said.

What motivates him isn’t the record, but what’s tattooed on his wrist.

In June 2014, it started to dawn on the mother and son that their days together were numbered. No more movie nights. No more cooking together. No more Saints games.

So three days before packing up for Lincoln, the two went to a tattoo shop.

As a kid, when he was feeling sad or hopeless, she would tell him she loved him. Loved him to infinity.

Quoting “Toy Story,” Morgan would always respond: “And beyond.”

Her wrist now reads “to infinity,” which is how many opportunities those close to Morgan say she’s given him.

“It was her sense of wanting greatness for him to put in position to be where he’s at today,” Crutchfield said.

On Morgan’s wrist, his tattoo reads, “and beyond.” Which, some might say, is how far he’s taken those opportunities and run with them.