Morgan: ‘Football Gave My Life Structure’
Davon Morgan was lying. He had to.
The 25-year-old defensive back had been waiting for this moment for 983 days, but while he prepared to leave his Philadelphia hotel room after rookie camp ended in May, he told his roommate he didn’t make the team.
“I held it in because I knew my roommate was going home and I didn’t want to make him feel worse than he already was,” said Morgan, who was the only one of seven tryout players to make the Eagles 90-man roster. “I just gave him words of advice and told him to keep putting in the work. You can never lose your faith.”
Morgan never did, even when the Jets cut him in 2011. Or after three failed Canadian Football League (CFL) tryouts. Or after a season in the Professional Indoor Football League (PIFL) failed to attract much attention.
But his focus never wavered, even if his dream of making it back to the NFL diminished by the day.
“What he did is rare, very rare,” said Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis. “It’s an incredible story.”
The root of Morgan’s motivation was a rough upbringing. He holds on to football with the firmest grasp he can because that’s what got him out of Richmond’s East End. Football is what helped him avoid the fate of his father — a drug dealer who was murdered when Morgan was two months old — and his mother — a former cocaine addict who spent time in prison.
To lose football would be to lose his escape, and to potentially lose the power to help others avoid the life he at one time seemed destined to live.
“I just want to use football to help my community,” Morgan said. “I know I can use this and go back to my neighborhood and be very influential to the younger kids. I want to help people on the wrong path.”
FINDING AN ESCAPE
Morgan’s smile disappeared, and his typical happy-go-lucky demeanor reverted to a solemn tone and little eye contact. He doesn’t like discussing his childhood.
He grew up in Church Hill, a historic but poor and violent area in Virginia. When he was 5, his mother, Cynthia, was arrested for drug possession. She then signed custody of him and his half-sister Kiara over to Mary Barlow, Kiara’s paternal grandmother.
While Morgan’s step-father spent years incarcerated because of drugs and violence, his great-grandmother, Daisy Williams, helped Barlow raise him.
“I don’t want to go too much into that. It was rough,” Morgan said. “They did a great job of raising me, though. They taught me manners and a good work ethic gets you far, and look where it got me.”
The opportunities for Morgan to get into trouble were aplenty, which pushed him toward one of the few things that wouldn’t: football. When he was in sixth grade, the 12-year-old joined the Mosby Spartans, where he donned the black and yellow.
“When I first started playing, it taught me discipline. It taught me to respect people and to be hard working,” Morgan said. “You have to learn to trust the guys around you, and as a kid, I didn’t trust many people. Football gave my life structure and my passion evolved from there. Football was definitely an escape for me.”
Youth football also introduced him to positive male role models for the first time, namely Floyd Brown and Darryl Watts. Morgan’s desire to give back to kids in the East End originates from the impact the two coaches had on his childhood.
“They were strict guys who wanted to help the community,” Morgan said. “They’re good people, they help you whenever you’re in need and they put others first. It’s something I noticed from them early on.”
Morgan made it to high school without getting into much trouble, but as time passed, his mindset shifted from keeping on the straight and narrow to finding a way out of Church Hill. He decided to transfer to a different high school his sophomore year, but to do so, he had to move away from his support system in Barlow and Williams.
MAKING THE SWITCH
Morgan ended up attending Varina High School, a football powerhouse. He moved in with his cousins, including LaTonja Wright, who shared custody of Morgan with Barlow.
Meanwhile, on the football field, it took the sophomore only a week to impress Kevin Hollins, the quarterbacks and defensive backs coach.
“He has had to work for everything he’s ever gotten,” Hollins said. “From the time I first met him, he was willing to work. If you asked him to do something once, he’d not only do it, he’d keep doing it until he perfected it. You don’t see many 15-year-olds like that. He just had something different no one else had.”
Morgan started at quarterback as a sophomore, but with his junior year approaching, he and Hollins began thinking about college. Division I-AA programs like James Madison were interested in him, but Hollins thought Morgan could get further by moving to the other side of the ball.
“He had a sit-down with me and told me, ‘You can go to college to play quarterback, or you could go to the NFL to play defensive back,’ ” Morgan said. “Can’t was a word I couldn’t stand. Whenever someone told me I couldn’t do something, I did it just to prove them wrong. But then I thought about it and saw how guys like Brian Dawkins played the game with passion, that’s who I wanted to be. I wanted to be that enforcer and playmaker.”
The transition proved to be seamless for Morgan, whom Hollins said already had a great understanding of coverages and defensive schemes. His junior season, Morgan recorded nine interceptions, including three returned for touchdowns. He also threw for 1,402 yards and 20 touchdowns on just 70 completions and rushed for 505 yards and seven scores.
Ranked the No. 24 defensive back in the country by SuperPrep and the No. 5 player in Virginia by the Roanoke Times, programs from across the country came calling, including Florida and Michigan. Despite the opportunity to get away, Morgan chose to stay home and committed to Virginia Tech.
“I’ve coached several kids who had similar situations to him, and there’s two ways they handle it,” Hollins said. “It either motivates them or they use it as an excuse. He never used it as an excuse. He used [his parents] as examples of what he didn’t want to be and that has driven him. He doesn’t want to put his future children in the situation he was in as a youngster. It’ll probably drive him his entire life.”
Just as he did in high school, Morgan started for the Hokies as a sophomore. However, after beginning the year strong, he tore his right ACL and missed the rest of the season. He played every game his junior year, and as a senior, he earned second-team All-ACC honors.
“I felt like I capped off a good career,” Morgan said. “I felt good about my chances making an NFL roster.”
Two months after his last season ended, the NFL lockout began in March of 2011. Morgan signed with the Jets as an undrafted free agent, but he didn’t have OTAs, minicamp or any other practices before training camp.
“At the time, it wasn’t too frustrating because as a rookie, you don’t know how important it is,” Morgan said. “But then I was really behind the eight ball because I didn’t know any of the playbook. I was coming in and they’re like, ‘Here’s the full playbook, let’s go!’ You’re like, ‘I got to learn all this in two weeks for the first preseason game?’ When you don’t have the OTAs, college to the NFL is already a big jump. But it makes it an even bigger difference.”
Morgan expected to make the Jets heading into final cuts, but after the fourth preseason game, they let him go. He waited months for another team to call, but no one ever did.
Then, in the middle of December, the Steelers set up a workout with him the day after Christmas. After performing well, Pittsburgh planned to sign him to a futures contract pending his physical. However, the Steelers discovered the meniscus in Morgan’s right knee wasn’t completely healthy, and they nixed the deal.
“After that, I was depressed,” Morgan said. “I really went into the dumps. Football is what I love to do and it was taken from me.
“The fans go away. Everyone that was riding for you, they go away. You become a regular person again and now you’re just normal Davon, not Davon the football player.”
TRYING ANOTHER AVENUE
Morgan was having a tough time adjusting to life without football, the avenue through which he channeled his frustrations.
He went back to Virginia Tech to get his knee surgically repaired, but his renewed focus was on making a living outside of football. He began working with kids as an in-home counselor and reaching out to at-risk youth.
“I wanted to be a positive role model,” Morgan said. “We have a lot of role models, but I wanted to be the athlete that came back to show them I made it from the same environment. You all have what it takes if you use your resources properly and put in the work.”
Still, the itch remained. About nine months after his failed physical in Pittsburgh, Morgan began to watch the new NFL season. As he started seeing familiar faces on the television screen — like former Virginia Tech teammates Kam Chancellor and Brandon Flowers — something clicked in his head.
“I just told myself I knew I could do what they were doing,” Morgan said. “I just needed to work to get myself that chance and opportunity to prove what I can do. I wasn’t taking no for an answer. I want to play in the NFL and that’s where I feel I belong and I’m going to find a way to get there.”
Then 23, he hoped the CFL could provide that opportunity and traveled nearly 600 miles, paying $100 to work out for the Toronto Argonauts. But after that experience and two more tryouts the following year with the Calgary Stampeders and Ottawa Redblacks, Morgan came away dissatisfied.
“It sucked man, it sucked,” he said. “There was good competition but it was like a fundraiser. I paid $100 to work out but no one’s probably going to talk to me no matter how I do.”
Having been out of the NFL for two years, Morgan knew it was unlikely he’d be able to return. He wasted hundreds of dollars on travel and workouts. With seemingly no prospects on the horizon, he had absolutely no idea of what to do next.
OLD FACE, NEW PLACE
Morgan was walking around Highland Springs High School, his former rival when he was a teenager. He was watching his little cousin’s recreational all-star game when he noticed a familiar face under a big white tent.
Gary Criswell used to broadcast Morgan’s high school games, but now, he was the operations manager for the Richmond Raiders and was promoting the PIFL team. Morgan approached Criswell, who remembered him, and later signed with the Raiders for the 2013 season, making $150 a week.
“A lot of people didn’t understand why he was playing arena but he understood he had to take two steps back to get to where he wanted to be,” Jessica Cardwell, Morgan’s girlfriend, said. “For me, that was really admirable. He knew it was something he had to do.”
Morgan thought the game film would help him, but one of the biggest benefits of his Raiders experience was playing for James Fuller, who spent two seasons in the NFL as a defensive back and was out of the league for three years before returning with the Eagles.
“When he first came in, he was still struggling with not being in the NFL,” Fuller said. “He was playing in the indoor game but he wanted his shot. We had long, hard talks throughout the year and his mentality changed.”
Morgan transitioned from being a safety in high school and college to playing corner for the Raiders. He was a defensive leader on a team that made it to the PIFL championship game.
“He struggled a little bit with the nuances of indoor football, but he was still able to do well because he’s always been a playmaker,” Criswell said. “James did a good job of grooming him. He rounded off the rough edges with technique and gave him some really good insights.”
Morgan’s season ended in July and he once again waited several months for a phone call to no avail. He considered moving up to the Arena Football League, but he realized how small his window of opportunity was and knew he had to make it back to the NFL soon.
In January of 2014, he came up with an idea and called John Ballein, Virginia Tech’s associate athletics director for football operations.
“I told him this was my last shot at making the NFL and was hoping he’d give me this opportunity,” Morgan said. “He agreed. I’m forever grateful for him.”
‘WHO IS THAT GUY?’
Chip Kelly traveled down to Blacksburg in the middle of March along with Davis for Virginia Tech’s Pro Day. They were interested in seeing Kyle Fuller, the Hokies’ cornerback who was a projected first-round pick. While there though, they came away impressed with a 25-year-old stranger who worked alongside Fuller in defensive back drills.
“At first, we were just like, ‘Who is that guy?’” Davis said. “Then the coaches gave us background on him. The first test that he passed is the people in their building raved about him as a person. If he was a knucklehead, we wouldn’t have asked any further questions.”
After Morgan’s Pro Day performance alongside Fuller and future sixth-round pick corner Antone Exum, several teams approached him. While the Bears, 49ers, Ravens and a few others talked to Morgan and got his contact information, the Eagles were the only team that called in the weeks following the draft.
“A lot of the rookies had no chance in the lockout year because they went in training camp and couldn’t really learn the system,” Davis said. “Between that and a nice Pro Day, we decided to bring him into rookie training camp. He passed a series of tests for us.”
Morgan arrived at the rookie minicamp in May, and after the three-day tryout, earned his spot on the training camp roster.
“He showed us quickness, burst and great change of direction,” Davis said. “He was in great shape, he could run all day. He just looked like a guy ready to play.”
NOT YET SATISFIED
One day after training camp, Morgan was working opposite wide receiver Kadron Boone. They were going through the first few movements of a passing play while Morgan practiced staying square in his press technique and focused on moving his hands and feet together.
He played corner for a season in the PIFL, but the Eagles have him splitting reps between corner and safety, so he’s trying to get more comfortable with the position. Davis says Morgan has made the transition well, and although he’s more of a true safety, “the numbers put him at corner sometimes.”
Morgan has been getting some help from an old teammate and his current roommate. Roc Carmichael, a former Hokie, has assisted Morgan with his adjustment to the playbook and the corner position.
“Roc has helped me tremendously. He’s like my big brother,” Morgan said. “We learned from each other in college a lot but him being in the league, he’s been teaching me different techniques. It’s just great having him here to help me with anything I need.”
When Morgan first arrived at OTAs earlier this offseason, the duo broke down the playbook and film as Carmichael related it back to Bud Foster’s defense at Virginia Tech. In addition to simplified terminology, Carmichael relates fundamentals and coverage techniques back to college too.
“It’s easy going out there in the secondary and playing with someone you have chemistry with,” Carmichael said. “I’m just trying to get him up to speed so he has a fair shot and can come out and compete with everyone else.”
After Morgan finished up his extra work with Boone, he walked off the field in the rain with an ear-to-ear smile. He’s focused on hurdling his final obstacle to complete his comeback, but he’s also happy to have made it this far.
Morgan is considered a long shot to make the roster, but when he dons an NFL uniform for the first time in three years tonight for the Eagles’ preseason opener, he’ll feel back at home.
“Words can’t even express how I feel being here,” Morgan said. “But I’m not just happy to be here, I want to stay here. I want to make Philly my home. I’m just looking forward to working my tail off every day, trying to embrace the coaches on defense and special teams, wherever they want me so I can stay here for as long as I can.”