Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Mercury Morris

Former Miami Dolphins running back Eugene Morris was so quick on his feet, it was only appopriate he was nicknamed after the Greek god of speed--Mercury. When he scored, he didn't just settle for one yard runs or dives over the goal line. Morris preferred to cruise 40, 50, 60 and sometimes 70 yards past defensive players and leaving them in the dust. He ran fast on the field and he lived just as fast off it. Soon his life spun completely out of control and crashed with cocaine addiction. But just as he overcame the label of a "bust" after he was drafted, he beat his drug habits as well.

Eugene Morris was born and raised in Pittsburgh. He was always athletic, talkative and cocky. He was a standout high school basketball and football star at Avonworth High School. Academically he was a bit of an underachiever. He was intelligent, but didn't necessary apply himself in the classroom. His grades were average, but his athletic ability certainly wasn't. After graduation he took his talents to West Texas State University, now known as West Texas A&M University.

Morris first made a name for himself by putting up huge numbers at the small Texas college. He and USC's O.J. Simpson were the most prolific college runners of the day. During his junior year in 1967, Morris rushed for 1,274 yards and finished second in the nation behind Simpson. In 1968, Morris set college records with 340 yards rushing in one game, 1,571 in one season and 3,388 yards for his career. Unfortunatley for Morris, Simpson broke Morris's single-season rushing record. Simpson also had the advantage of playing for national power USC and easily won the Heisman Trophy. Morris was a small college phenom whose name was on top of the NCAA rushing statistics but was an unknown to most college football fans. But he was no secret to pro scouts.

During his career at West Texas State, Morris earned the nickname "Mercury" for his blazing speed and great breakaway runs. When his college career ended, he was invited to play in the North vs. South Shrine Game at the Orange Bowl. The North vs. South Shrine Game featured many of the top college seniors in the nation. For the first time, Morris got the opportunity to play and prove himself against athletes from bigger schools. But Morris struggled in his few carries and lost a fumble. He was still highly regarded by the pro scouts. But his draft stock slipped and he was picked in the 3rd round by the Miami Dolphins in 1969 NFL/AFL common draft.

When Morris arrived in Miami in 1969, the Dolphins were a struggling 3-year-old AFL franchise. George Wilson was in his final year as the team's head coach and there was a culture of losing. But while the Dolphins weren't winning many games, they were stockpiling a growing group of young, talented players. These young prospects included quarterback Bob Griese, running backs Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick, receiver Howard Twilley, defensive linemen Bill Stanfill and Manny Fernandez and defensive back Dick Anderson. This young core of players would later realize their potential under their next head coach Don Shula.

From the time Shula was hired by owner Joe Robbie to replace Wilson, the Miami Dolphins became South Florida's flagship franchise. They were the only pro team in town and they would no longer take a back seat to the University of Miami or local high school football. Miami became a Dolphins town. During Shula's first season as Dolphins head coach in 1970, Miami finished 10-4 and made the playoffs. Shula had brought a team-first mentality and discipline to a group of players who were talented but needed the right leadership. Most of the players bought into Shula's philosophy. But Mercury Morris wasn't one of them.

Morris found himself playing very little and backed up Jim Kiick at tailback. He was used to being the star of every team he played for and his ego demanded the same treatment with the Dolphins. But he needed an attitude adjustment. The Dolphins were emerging as one of the best teams in football and Morris felt left out. In 1970, he only carried the ball only 60 times the entire season, while the team clinched its first playoff appearance in franchise history. In 1971, Morris carried only 57 times and it appeared he was a huge draft bust. The Dolphins made it to Super Bowl VI, losing to the Dallas Cowboys 24-3. Miami was led by its punishing backfield of Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick. While Csonka and Kiick were the most productive tandem of running backs in the NFL at the time, Super Bowl VI exposed a weakness amongst Miami's biggest strength. The team lacked a home run threat in the backfield. Csonka was power runner who gashed through defenses, often running over and trampling tacklers. Kiick was known for his versatility as both a runner and receiver and was money on goal line and short yardage situations. But neither Kiick nor Csonka had the speed to break big runs. The loss in Super Bowl VI opened the door for Morris. Mercury Morris never touched the ball from scimmage in the game and he vented his frustration.

"A reporter came up to me after the game and said, 'Hey Mercury, is there something wrong?'" Morris said. "I said yes, something's wrong. I didn't play in this game. The only time I was off the bench, except for the kickoffs, was for the national anthem."

Shula was concerned with Morris's attitude and discipline. But he never questioned his talent. In 1971, Morris averaged 5.8 yards per carry, the best on the team. Shula decided to increase Morris's role on the team for the 1972 season. He began rotating Morris and Kiick at the tailback position. Morris played so well, it became almost impossible for Shula to take him out. Soon, Morris had replaced Kiick as the leading tailback. The move could have completely destroyed team chemistry. Kiick and Csonka were the best of friends and were often inseparable. They were nicknamed "Butch and Sundance" and once did a promotional poster wearing cowboy outfits and riding horses. But both understood the promotion of Morris to starting tailback made the team better.

Morris made an immediate impact once he was inserted into the starting lineup. He rushed for exactly 1,000 yards, scored 12 touchdowns and averaged 5.3 yards per carry. His galloping running style was perfect for the Orange Bowl's artificial turf. He often made violent cuts, faking out defenders and then darting past them. When he reached the end zone, he would often end his touchdown runs with a thunderous spike of the football. Morris and Larry Csonka became the first pair of running backs from the same team to rush for at least 1,000 yards in the same season. The Dolphins went from a good team to a great team--perhaps the greatest of all time. Miami finished the season undefeated and went on to beat the Washington Redskins 14-7 in Super Bowl VII. Morris was selected to the Pro Bowl and once again, found himself compared with Buffalo's O.J. Simpson as football's fastest running backs.

In 1973, Morris continued to make big plays from the backfield. He carried the ball 41 fewer times than in 1972, but he was more efficient. Morris rushed for 954 yards and averaged a remarkable 6.4 yards per carry, the best in the NFL. He made the Pro Bowl again and Dolphins went 12-2 and went on to beat the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl VIII. It would be the last time the Miami Dolphins would rule pro football. It was also the last time, Morris would enjoy great individual success.

Morris's career began to decline in 1974. Injuries were beginning to take a toll and he played only five games in the 1974 season. Csonka, Kiick and wide receiver Paul Warfield would leave the Dolphins for the World Football League and the Miami dynasty was over. Off the field, Morris's life began to spiral out of control. He began using drugs, particularly cocaine. His play also began to suffer. In 1975, he played his final season with the Dolphins, rushing for 875 yards, but his average per carry was a career-low 4.0. Morris finished his NFL career with the San Diego Chargers in 1976 and carried the ball just 50 times for 256 yards.

With his football career over, Morris's drug use became a bigger problem. He not only used cocaine, he also was trafficking it. In 1982, his life hit rock bottom. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, with a mandatory 15 year term. But on March 6, 1986, his conviction was overturned by the Florida Supreme Court due to evidence Morris had been unable to prove entrapment based on excluded evidence that was mistakenly characterized as hearsay. He was given a re-trial and reached a plea agreement. Morris was released from prison on 23, 1986. He had been given a new lease on life and he wasn't about to throw it away.

Morris always had the gift of gab. He was charasmatic, articulate and very likeable. He would use those skills as a motivational speaker and began preaching to young people about the dangers of drugs. Over the years, he's shared his story with thousands of people.

"I'm happy that things turned out the way they did in my life," Morris said. "And I'm thankful, as I look back, for every single circumstance that I've gone through because it's enabled me to learn something about myself and about what teammates are and about who people are."

Morris has remained close with his former Dolphin teammates and can be seen at just about every reunion.

"Eugene has grown immensley in the years since we've been playing together," said former Dolphin offensive lineman Bob Kuechenberg. "He made some mistakes that a lot of young people make and he got caught and got into a lot of trouble for it and he paid the price for it. I really enjoy my relationship with Eugene Morris nowadays. He's a pleasure to be with---a very bright fellow, very articulate and just a lot of fun."


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