By Arnie Leshin
It was the year 1995 and I was covering high school sports for the Miami Herald. Broward County was my beat in the Sunshine State, where prep school football was nationally recognized as one of the finest in the land.
Cardinal Gibbons High School in Fort Lauderdale, just a few dips from the Atlantic Ocean, played the sport but when at home, it was all in daytime for it had no lights. At halftime of the game I was covering, I noticed a player at the concession stand wearing a J.P. Taravella High School jacket, and on the front it said “Dan”. So I waited until he left with a drink and a hot dog, strolled over, told him I was from the Herald and asked if he was the school’s star running back I heard so much about.
He smiled, and said he is having a good season. That he is a junior in his first year on the team. That he played his first two years of high school ball in Pennsylvania, and that he will be playing on this (Gibbons) field next Saturday, and if I’m there, maybe he will have another big day. We shook hands after he introduced me to his father, Dan, Sr., and I did get to cover his tilt against Gibbons, where the red and white had big turnouts for its day games.
The morning of the contest, the skies were gray, cloudy when the teams warmed up. The field was okay, but there were warnings about lightning and thunder and heavy rain later in the day. But the visiting Trojans in blue and gray received the opening kickoff that came to Morgan, who I figured to be about 6-foot-2, 200 pounds. And he took off up the middle, and once he sped to midfield, the defense pursuit ended as he ran untouched into the end zone. It was all of 88 yards and a quick Taravella lead.
Gibbons didn’t move the ball on its first possession, and punted. A Trojan gathered it in at his own 40, and the the first handoff of the possession went to Morgan. Again he stepped up and broke past the would-be tacklers, and again dashed, this time for 60 yards and, and as he returned to the sidelines after the PAT, he gave me a short smiling wave.
But after he had run for 230 yards in the first half, the skies emptied while the teams were in their nearby locker rooms. The thunder and lightning forced spectators to head for their cars, some even bolted to the locker rooms, and it was such a mess, they called the game. If not for this, no telling how many yards Morgan would pick up. He was disappointed when he left for the team bus, but also said he feared for the people’s safety.
But he was off and running just as he had been doing all season, only five games so far, but they were impressive, and maybe after his senior year, some college would recruit him as a hard-running, swift ball carrier.
His senior year, though, was set back by injuries, but he continued to play and excel when able.
Then came the injury that ended his high school career. It was an afternoon tilt played at Coral Springs High School versus Ely High, sixth contest of the campaign. On an early second half play, No. 44 took a short pass and sped down the Trojans’ sideline. Two Ely players chased and one knocked him to the ground. He was in pain, his dad rushed to the field, the Ely players danced on their sidelines, and it amounted to ‘turf toe’ that left him with nine toes to play on. It never really healed and it was his final time running the ball, although he did play some defense in the last two games.
He was recruited by the University of Miami for several reasons. He had other offers, one from Georgia Tech that interested him,
but his dad was all-UM, served as a chauffeur for Miami Dolphins Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino along with his regular job as a roofer, and it was his wish that his young and talented son stay home and play for the Hurricanes, reminding young Dan that they both grew up Hurricanes and Dolphins’ fans.
And when he committed there, it was on defense, as a linebacker. He was told the roster was stacked with running backs and thought he would instead be a factor on defense.
That’s now history. How good was he? He was excellent, played four years and was an All-America his senior season. And after being selected as the 11th pick in the first round by the Carolina Panthers in the NFL draft, played there until 2007 before hanging up his cleats because of various injuries, but mostly too many concussions. He took two years off before turning back to football.
Now, as the Player Personal Director for the NFL Buffalo Bills, he arrived at his desk Monday morning to find a box sitting there. He had no idea of what it contained, but opened it and inside was a painted football and a letter saying that he will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. It added to being named his senior season as the only player in college football to win the Chuck Bednarik-Bronco Nagurski prestigious award as the nation’s top linebacker.
In regard to this gala honor, he said: “This of course was a pleasant surprise,” he said. “But let’s put it this way, it was yet another welcoming award after my disappointment of being named to the Big East “second team” my junior year. I was upset because I did have 139 tackles, 15 for losses, three forced fumbles, and was a semi-finalist for the (Dick) Butkus and Nagurski defensive awards. To me, it was a bummer to be second team.”
He added that he was never a complacent person, but just felt like that trophy was saying like I’m not as good as I thought, and it just made me hungrier. He said he didn’t go out and party, that he hung out in his garage lifting weights, doing pushups, knee bends, and did some running.
He was remarkable his senior year, deciding to stay in school rather than coming out for the college draft. He led the Canes in tackles, unassisted tackles, sacks and forced fumbles for the third-straight year. He wound up his college career by setting this storied program’s record of 532 total tackles, 309 solo, and in sacks with 138. This time, he was Big East Player of the Year and on the All-America first team.
So now he no doubt had one of the most important awards of his life. And because of COPID-19 having to cancel last year’s Hall of Fame inductions, the 65th National Football Foundation induction ceremony is now officially scheduled for Dec. 7 alongside the 2020 class.
His freshman year in Coral Gables, he made 105 tackles, with a best of 21 against Virginia Tech, despite playing part of the campaign with a broken thumb. The next season he was named the first Miami sophomore team captain, and he continued to harass the opposition with his smarts, strength and size. Never mind his second-team Big East selection as a junior, he was an exceptional player, team leader, and capped it all with his all-everything senior season.
The current Buffalo general manager, Brandon Beane, hired Morgan after he first was an apprentice learning administrative duties with the Seattle Seahawks. But when Carolina chose Morgan in the college draft, Beane was an administrator with the Panthers.
Said Beane after congratulating Morgan that morning: “Listen, we would have selected Dan in the first round if he came out after his junior year. He was well worth it. He was all-team, always passing the credit along to his teammates, and they respected that. And he was a favorite of the fans in Carolina, never hesitated to sign autographs and would enjoy conversing. In Super Bowl XXXILL against New England, he had a whooping 18 tackles, still a Super Bowl record.”
But Beane added that Morgan was humble, very humble, didn’t care about the record, only that the team lost, and that Dan was great all over the field, that he was a dude who played sideline-to-sideline, an animal out there, and yet you’d think he was the 52nd man on the roster.
Yes, his two years on the Taravella varsity, despite injuries, were impressive because his goal was to be on the field, lead the team but his four years as a Miami star overwhelmed that. And his stay with the Carolina Panthers brought him glory in high school, in college, and in the NFL. When he unraveled the box on his desk, he said the first one he called was his dad.
“He was ecstatic,” Morgan, Jr. said, “called out to my mom, Cass, and I again thanked him for guiding me through the years. He was my greatest supporter, and this was more great news for him and mom.”
Now 40, Morgan is excited about the Buffalo Bills being in the playoffs for the first time in 25 years, happy that they were able to hold off the visiting Indianapolis Colts, 27-24, and advance to the division round this weekend at home against the Baltimore Ravens.
“It’s winter time up here now,” Morgan said, “but the people have warmed up to this. I met up with Hall of Famer Jim Kelly and he told me that the fans on Chippewa Street were celebrating big time after last week’s exciting win. Kelly is a good guy and was the quarterback on the Bills’ team that lost four-straight Super Bowls. Now he’s rooting to finally win one.”
And for the gifted, personable Dan Morgan, he’s deservingly won a field full of awards in the sport he loves best.