This story appears in the April edition of Hail Varsity. To subscribe, go here.
To understand why Stanley Morgan Jr. stayed, you have to understand why he came.
The fourth-year wideout, a 6-foot-1, 195-pound product from New Orleans, as quick-witted as he is physically overpowering, has been working his whole life to get to this moment, this opportunity to mark his name atop a list of Nebraska greats. He says he feels old while still flashing this youthful exuberance every time he touches a football field. He walks with an air of freedom while still bearing the pressure of leading a Nebraska team saddled with inexperience and unmet expectations. He says he thought about leaving, but it was never really much of a threat.
On the other hand, maybe Morgan is a little old; an old soul if nothing else. His teammates have their own gaming channels where they stream footage of themselves playing video games; Morgan didn’t even start playing games until this offseason. He says he’s not very good at them and it’s still hard to really get invested, but he plays NBA 2K now. It’s a start.
Who’s your team?
“I’ve got a created player,” Morgan says. “He’s a center.”
Wait, a center?
“Yeah, I like the big dudes for some reason. I like the post guy, I love getting rebounds, I love hustling.”
So he’s not a 7-footer out shooting 3s and blocking people?
“I don’t have to take no shots. Old school. If you play with me I just need you to shoot the ball and I’ll hustle for you, I got you.”
Pretty much the basketball equivalent of you as a football player.
“That’s exactly what it is because my favorite part of football is blocking.”
Every coach that has worked with Morgan on his rise has fawned over the physicality he possesses, the aggression he plays with. When he was in high school, his mom’s cousin told Morgan to be different and stand out. At first, it was “don’t leave the ball on the ground after a play, pick it up and hand it to the official.” Later, it became about blocking when everyone else stands around.
“Don’t just stand there, if you don’t get the ball, block, do something different,” Monique Jason, Morgan’s mother, remembers. Morgan was a dog on the field long before he got to Nebraska. “I think that’s where he takes a lot of his anger out.”
Morgan went through the ringer last season — the worst losing he’s ever endured on a football field — and didn’t take a play off. He didn’t have to come back for his senior year. Most in his situation wouldn’t. He could have rode out of Lincoln on a personal high note, school single-season yardage record in his back pocket, and prepare for the start of what could be a long career in the NFL. That was never really the plan for Morgan, though.
The Kid (one of a number of Morgan nicknames) wasn’t really going to leave Nebraska this offseason. Are you kidding? He loves it here. He loves the grind. He loves the process. He loves growing his game. When he announced on Twitter his intention to stay, he used perhaps the most famous moment from Leonardo DiCaprio’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” flick, the part where Leo gathers everyone around, anxiously waiting to hear what he has to say and then delivers the line “I’m not f***ing leaving!”
Well, Morgan wasn’t leaving.
He’s got unfinished business to tend to.
Rich Fisher remembers the conversation vividly. Morgan and Jason arriving in town for the start of his official visit — the only one Morgan would take — and sitting in the team room, Fisher, then the wideouts coach at Nebraska under Bo Pelini, going over the plan for that weekend and answering any questions the two might have, then giving Morgan the line that might have sold him on the Cornhuskers.
“I think this kid possesses all the tools and talent to come to Nebraska and break records,” Fisher said then.
Going back to when he was four-years-old, Morgan had a football in his hands everywhere he went. Jason says to think Ricky from “Boyz N The Hood.” She knew he had a future in the game, she didn’t know just quite how successful it would be until later, but she saw passion in his insatiable drive to be the best. She knew others would too.
“There’s a lot of kids when you’re recruiting that they play the game but what are they playing the game for?” Fisher said. “Do they like the game or do they truly love the game? The more I got to know Stanley, you could see that he really has a love for the game. I think it shows. It shows in the way he practices.”
The initial draw was Morgan’s physical profile; Fisher saw a little bit of Quincy Enunwa and a little bit of Kenny Bell in the young receiver. There was a big frame — a frame you could add weight to, as Morgan has — and a large catch radius and a “that ball is mine” mentality when it goes up. But as Fisher started to go hard after Morgan, it was the less quantifiable traits that drew him in.
He remembers going to a practice at Morgan’s high school, St. Augustine, and watching from a park. St. Augustine didn’t have a stadium to practice in and when Fisher says “park,” he makes sure to point out that this was like a swing-set, slide and monkey bars kind of park you take the family to. But, there was Morgan out running around, being loud, being infectious, being himself.
“I just remember his energy,” Fisher said. “He wanted the football and it was just kind of one of those deals where you’re like, ‘Man, this kid is special.’”
In recruiting at the major level, sometimes you look for a reason not to recruit a kid. Some throughout the process questioned Morgan’s speed. How fast was he, really? Fisher remembered a go route where Morgan lined up across from the team’s best corner and proceeded to blow by him like the defender was on a tape delay. “This kid is plenty fast enough,” Fisher thought.
Elsewhere, Morgan was getting recruited from everywhere. His offer list reads like a who’s who of college football’s one percenters. Morgan grew up in LSU’s backyard, attending New Orleans Saints games with his mom as a kid, and was right down the road from Tulane.
When Morgan was a sophomore, Keith Williams was coaching wideouts for the Green Wave. Tulane had just hired St. Augustine’s former head coach as a running backs coach and he turned Williams onto Morgan. So Williams went after him and started building a relationship of his own.
The story of Morgan before Nebraska is one of him and his mother. In 2005, according to court documents, Stanley Morgan Sr. was convicted of sexual battery. In March of 2007, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison at Marshall County Correctional Facility in Holly Springs, Mississippi. (His release date is tentatively set for 2038.) Morgan grew up looking for a physically present father figure. His relationship with his mother has always been stronger because of it. “He thinks he’s my husband,” Jason jokes. Morgan is Jason’s only child and as he’s gotten older, he’s grown more protective.
He found a bond with his coaches, but it went a little deeper with Williams. The coach was recruiting the player but they had a relationship that was growing beyond the confines of a football field.
“It happened naturally,” Williams said. “That’s just the relationship I try to have with the guys I coach.”
Williams never made much headway on the Morgan-to-Tulane front, but the two remained close. Today, Williams considers Morgan like a son and Morgan is roommates with Williams’ actual son, Keyan.
As 2014 wound down, Morgan honed in on Nebraska and took his visit in late September. (Jason says the Nebraska visit was her call.) They both met Fisher in Lincoln, where he sat them down and pitched what he thought Morgan could become.
Fisher went back to St. Augustine a couple weeks later to check in on Morgan and his head coach, Cyril Crutchfield. When he got there, Crutchfield had news for him.
“I don’t know what you guys did up there,” Fisher recalls Crutchfield telling him, “but you made a tremendous impression on the mom and the kid and he’s got you at the top of his list.”
Jason says her son’s main motivation in picking a school wasn’t just finding a place he could call home, but finding a place that could help him develop into the receiver he wanted to be. “His main goal was to be one of the top wide receivers and break records,” she said. “Make a statement.” So, naturally, a coach telling you he envisions a real opportunity for greatness and a chance to play right away — and being real about it — can do wonders.
A few more weeks passed following Fisher’s visit and on Nov. 7, Morgan called him to share the “best words you can hear.”
Morgan was in.
A month later, Nebraska parted ways with Pelini and four days later hired Mike Riley from Oregon State. On Jan. 21, Riley hired Keith Williams as the team’s new wide receivers coach. There was an element of familiarity that kept Morgan on board through the ordeal — Williams isn’t about to deny their relationship had an impact — but to this day, he still thinks Morgan was committed to more than the personnel on staff.
Any time there’s a coaching change and recruiting classes start to fall apart, the “commit to the school, not the coach” cries spring up like wildfire. Morgan was different.
“He fell in love with the city of Lincoln along with the university along with the staff that recruited him,” Williams said. “He was emotionally invested in Nebraska wholeheartedly.”
It was like someone turned on the faucet and just let it run. Not only was it raining entirely too much for entirely too long, but it was colder than should be allowed when raining. Morgan, apparently, didn’t care. He and then-senior wideout De’Mornay Pierson-El spent the majority of their warm-up in Happy Valley shirtless.
“Stan is a gorilla,” Williams says in the most affectionate way possible.
Nebraska was 4-6 and sliding. Penn State was trending in the other direction. It wasn’t supposed to be a close game and for the first half things went as scripted. But the second half was a different story. Husker fans can thank Morgan for that. He finished with 185 yards and a score on seven catches, with 155 coming in the second half. Simply put, he was a beast.
“I wasn’t thinking about leaving, but after the Penn State game it kind of put a little bit of pressure on me to even think about leaving,” Morgan said. “Just a sense of confidence, just in myself and how well I played in that game.”
Williams and Morgan talked a couple times after, nothing definite but more a bouncing of ideas off a mentor. Surface level stuff. They were close to season’s end as is; Williams said if Morgan was going to seriously consider the NFL, he’d need to talk about it soon.
The following week, in the season finale against Iowa, Morgan was the lone bright spot on a day that felt more like a wake than a college football game. He caught seven balls for 72 yards and two scores, bumping his season total to 986 yards and proving right what Fisher had told him when he was recruited: come to Nebraska, break everything. Morgan snatched Johnny “The Jet” Rodgers’ program record for yards in a season and finished a first down and change away from the program’s first 1,000-yard campaign.
“That meant everything to him, everything to the family,” Jason says.
After it happened, Jason called Fisher, now the head coach at Santa Margarita Catholic High School in California, to thank him.
“He told us that,” Jason said. “I called him and thanked him for seeing that in Stanley. That meant the world to us.”
But the season coming to an end meant Riley’s tenure was also. Morgan returning for his senior year would mean getting to know a third coaching staff. It also meant the end of Williams’ tenure in Lincoln. Morgan says he took a glass-half-full approach — the optimist in him spilling out. He saw an opportunity to learn a new set of skills from a new mind, but Jason felt the loss was hard, at least at first, on her son. She described Morgan as “caught up in the feelings” over losing Williams as a coach.
“It hit home more on a personal level,” she said.
Morgan knew (like everyone in Lincoln) who was coming to fill the empty coaching offices, but he still had a decision to make. He talked to his mom about what to do. She felt it was best for him to stay. She wanted her son to graduate and get his degree.
Over the course of the next month, Morgan thought about it and he leaned on Williams.
“I told him to think about it really hard, just him, don’t ask a whole bunch of people what they thought,” Williams said. “I told him basically in so many words that the NFL’s going to be there and I wouldn’t do it unless he felt he was going to be a really high round draft choice.”
We’re talking Day One of the NFL Draft, and neither felt the risk outweighed the desired result. The decision, as Williams framed it, was more something was going to have to draw Morgan away rather than persuade him to stay.
“He loves the University of Nebraska,” Williams said. “He feels like he has unfinished business as a team and as an individual … It was never really a hard decision.”
Morgan and Williams talked for about an hour on Jan. 3. Williams knew what he wanted to tell Morgan but he wanted to hear what the young man had to say first. He wanted Morgan to verbalize what he wanted, free from any influence.
Morgan told him he wasn’t leaving.
“I told him I thought that was the right decision,” Williams says.
At 11:40 that night, Morgan blew up Husker Twitter with his announcement.
Those close to him say Morgan is ecstatic to still call the 402 home. When Nebraska opened spring ball on a Friday before Spring Break, 150-plus college kids were asked to be ready to start a football practice at 6 a.m. Morgan was there at 4 a.m. — one of the first — and no, he’s not a morning person. Excitement to get started “helped a lot,” he says.
Jason says Morgan spent the winter bragging over the résumé of his new head coach. He cut fat, gained six pounds of muscle, and started to flex his abs a little more for the camera. Morgan’s taken to the new staff nicely. He and Scott Frost have started to take in Nebraska softball games together at Bowlin Stadium as they try and build a bond, both Frost and offensive coordinator Troy Walters have talked with Jason (they met face-to-face for the first time during the spring game) and Morgan has worked to take a leadership role in a room that is now undeniably his.
Still, he has no problems throwing his coach under the bus and he’s only known him for four months.
We’re walking through West Stadium and Morgan is talking highly of Frost. “He’s a smooth cat,” he says, “somebody you want to follow.” I ask him when he first talked with Frost and he says he sent him a text back in December, congratulating him on an American Conference title at UCF
“He didn’t text me back,” Morgan says as he cracks a smile, “I guess he was busy. Man, he had a lot of people texting him. He still hasn’t text me back, to this day.”
You’ve got to go get 1,000 yards first and then he’ll answer.
“Maybe so,” he says as the smile turns to a laugh.
Here’s the thing though, Morgan wants to go out on top but he’s not obsessed with numbers. He wants that goat emoji next to his name but he wants another title in his school’s trophy case too. Last season doesn’t work. If he gets 500 yards this year but helps the team win more, he’ll take it. His goal is to fix last year’s mistakes.
“I want to be the best,” and there’s a swagger to it as he says it. “Make sure I have everything right, catching every ball, make sure I’m running routes right, make sure my mental is right, make sure my assignment game is on point. I want to be a step ahead of the defense every play.”
If you ask Morgan, he should have already hit the 1,000-yard mark. He missed a game with a soft-tissue injury — his only missed game at Nebraska — and had a number of dropped balls that stuck out like a New Orleans Pelicans hat in the middle of Nebraska.
“He and I talked about that, he knows that,” Williams says. “If you asked him about the 1,000 yards he’d be more pissed off about the fact he could have had it last year than he is motivated by trying to get it this year.”
There are catches Morgan made last season that Williams still thinks about, catches only he could have made. Hell, the kid caught a game-winning touchdown on the road. And yet, none of it really surprised Williams. The thing that did was Morgan’s attitude in practice. “He practiced so hard,” Williams said. “I hadn’t seen it to that degree that I did last season, every day he just practiced so hard and took every practice serious leading up to each week.”
When Morgan first came back, Walters talked with him about the 2018 season. He told Morgan they needed that again, they needed a leader out of him, a tone-setter. Ask and you shall receive.
“He sets the tone with our group,” Walters said. “Every day he’s at work, he’s having fun and he’s got a smile on his face. When he steps on that field, he goes in beast mode. He’s a dog out there. He gets after it, he’s a competitor and he wants to win.”
Jason has seen Morgan suit up for the Huskers 10 times in person, counting last Saturday’s spring game. Last season, she and her family drove up to see the Ohio State game in October. You know, that game. But, they made a good time of it, as they always do. Jason’s aunt and uncle drive their RV to Lincoln, they camp out, rent a cabin and grill steaks, cook red beans, rice and hot sausage.
“You know we had to bring New Orleans for my big baby,” she says. “We do this every year.”
Jason and I talked on the phone for about 30 minutes. She shared stories of her son, spoke in awe of how far he’s gone and shared the praise for the person he’s become. (Fisher says Jason deserves more credit than she gives herself, she’s Morgan’s everything.) But she caught me off guard after our conversation ended. Within minutes of hanging up the phone, Jason called back. She had Morgan Sr. on the other line. She wanted him to be a part of the story, too.
Morgan Sr. hasn’t gotten to see any of his son’s college games. He hasn’t gotten to make that RV trip from New Orleans to Lincoln. But he still remembers moments with his son.
He remembered a hot, sticky summer day trying to play catch in the front yard with Stanley. “He didn’t want to throw the ball,” Morgan Sr. said. “I threw the football and he didn’t want to catch it, I’m like ‘Stan catch that rock, catch that ball,’ and then when he threw it back to me, the way he threw it, it was unbelievable, I had to really run and get that ball.”
He remembered Morgan’s first football game as a kid. He got the ball on the first play, immediately stretched it to the sideline and took off running. Morgan Sr. took off with him.
“I was running with him the whole time,” he said, “and I was like, ‘Go, go man, go!’”
Morgan Jr. scored a touchdown on his first touch.
“That’s my son,” Morgan Sr. said. “That’s my son.”
He got a little emotional as he thought back on old memories. Regardless of circumstance, Dad is proud of Son for staying to get his degree and he’s proud of the man he’s become. Imagining Morgan Jr. going off to play in the NFL is “beyond my wildest dreams right now,” he said, but to say those around Morgan didn’t know he was special would be a lie.
Jason has seen it Morgan’s entire life. Fisher saw it the second he got to know Morgan; he wasn’t surprised at all Morgan stayed, “he’s not an excuse-maker, he’s a doer,” Fisher says. Williams has seen the talent since he met Morgan. The new Husker staff is starting to see it now.
Instead of fitting in, Morgan shows up to a photoshoot wearing camo shorts and a jean jacket adorned with roses on the sleeves, and he rocks the hell out of it. When those around him zig, he zags. He’s a back-to-the-basket center in a world of Stephen Currys. He’s a senior star in a game of young guys. When the game is on the line, he wants the pressure.
“Not everybody has that, some people shy away from the moment,” Fisher says. “ He’s made a lot of moments.”
He came back to make a few more.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.