Receiver Became the UW's 'Rudy,' Beating Long Odds to Get on the Field in 1984
He slept on dormitory floors. Borrowed a meal card. Showed a lot of heart. And he played in exactly one game.
Donnie Morehead made all of his college football dreams come true.
In his long-odds experience with the Washington Huskies, he did everything that a certain underdog at Notre Dame accomplished except have his amazing story turn into a major motion picture.
"I was the black Rudy," Morehead said.
Nine years after the irrepressible Rudy Ruettiger received his cameo game appearance for the Fighting Irish and nine years before the guy's movie hit the theaters, Morehead joined the 1984 Husky football team and tried to fit in.
He was a speedy wide receiver whose quest for playing time in Montlake came with a slightly different twist.
Morehead wasn't lacking for size or talent, just time. He actually had and gave up a UW track scholarship to play football in Montlake. All of it was worth it to him.
"It was exactly like I dreamed," he said. "Everybody around me was awesome. It was like heaven walking down the tunnel and listening to Don James. They were the people I wanted to be around my whole life."
He took on the ultimate college football challenge. These particular Huskies played in the Orange Bowl and finished with victories over Michigan and Oklahoma, an 11-1 record and a No. 2 ranking in the final polls.
There was no shortage of talent at any position, especially at wide receiver. Playing time came at a high premium.
Yet Morehead pictured himself as a UW football player all along. Bad luck just forced him to take a different path.
As a senior at Sammamish High School in Seattle's suburbs, he got hurt in his first game. A college football scholarship wasn't forthcoming for someone who was damaged goods.
Blessed with great speed, Morehead recovered by running track, first for Bellevue Community College and then for the UW, on scholarship. Secretly, he did this to play the sport he loved more.
"I devised a plan to not only play college football, but also for the Huskies," he said.
Morehead clocked a 52-second 400-meter dash. He won multiple events for the UW. He settled for fourth in the 110-meter hurdles at the Pac-10 championship meet only after he clipped a hurdle.
All along, he still viewed himself as a football player. Track teammates Sterling Hinds, Dennis Brown and Vestee Jackson also were Husky running backs or defensive backs. Why not him?
"I said, 'You know, guys, I can play football, too,' " Morehead said. "It was the first time I let it out. They said, 'Whatever.' "
After completing his track eligibility, he informed everyone that he was turning out for Husky football. His family looked at him like he was crazy. As a walk-on, he had to give up his scholarship. There were other obstacles.
UW receivers coach Jeff Woodruff, who was James' son-in-law, tried to discourage him. He explained how they had All-American candidates at the position. Playing time would be difficult to come by.
Morehead pressed on. Paying his own way, he slept on the floor of friends' dorm rooms to keep his expenses down. A track teammate regularly loaned him his campus meal card.
"It was more pathetic than Rudy," he said.
Morehead played on the UW junior-varsity team and caught several scoring passes. The other Huskies came out to watch him play. He kept the first-team secondary honest in practice. He surprised his teammates in the weight room by bench-pressing 375 pounds.
"All right man, you're on the juice," said an amazed Ron Holmes, a UW defensive tackle, a future NFL player and now deceased, half-heartedly referring to performance-enhancing drugs.
In the ninth game of what was then an unbeaten season, Morehead got his chance. He played on game day at Husky Stadium. At the end of a 44-14 victory over California, he was summoned. He drew a half-dozen snaps.
In the huddle, quarterback Hugh Millen called the play and he said was going to throw it deep. While Rudy Ruettiger got a sack to end his abbreviated Notre Dame career, Morehead envisioned closing out his with a touchdown. Millen audibled to a draw.
"I was open by 10 yards," Morehead said. "I would have scored."
He watched as the Huskies polished off Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl to complete a magical season, but his dream wasn't quite over.
Morehead won the team's Bob Jarvis Award, given to the most inspirational walk-on. He also was asked to portray a hurdler for a TV commercial filmed at Husky Stadium; he received $65,000 that more than covered his expenses without a scholarship. There was more.
Amazingly, he received a free-agent contract from the San Francisco 49ers, the reigning Super Bowl champs.
There wasn't any game film on him, but the NFL team obviously was impressed with his speed. He spent a month in mini-camp and regular camp. He ran routes with fellow rookie Jerry Rice and fellow hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah, the 110-meter world record holder. He caught a lot of passes from Joe Montana.
The 49ers paid him a lot of compliments but they cut him, going with five other guys.
Today, Morehead works in the insurance industry and lives in Pasadena, California, close enough that he can walk to the Rose Bowl. He shares his memories with his teenaged son. He still works out. He's returned for reunions, gone to Husky games, kept up on teammates through social media.
While the former wide receiver drew just a half-dozen plays three decades ago, it was enough to make a long-lasting UW football connection.
"I'm a Husky for life," he said.
In the end, Morehead didn't have a Hollywood movie made about him — but he should have.
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