It was thanksgiving 1984, and in living rooms across America the biggest turkey of the day was Stanley Morgan. The New England Patriots wide receiver was putting on a truly awful performance on national television as the Patriots spent the holiday afternoon losing 20-17 to the Dallas Cowboys. Poor Stanley, an All-Pro fallen on hard times, had hit rock bottom. Oh, he did catch one pass in the game. It went for all of five yards—about one yard for each of the balls Morgan dropped. Around the nation, millions of viewers compounded their dyspepsia, shouting, "Geez, I could have had that one!"
It was, in a sad way, fitting that Morgan reached his NFL nadir on a day of national overeating. Among other personal and professional problems, Morgan had gotten a bit fat. He had been a scintillating split end for the Patriots, a former track star with a diamond cutter's hands, until his gifts began to fade and it appeared to be his turn to take a slide down the NFL's cold slope to oblivion. No big surprise, thought folks around the league. It had certainly happened to men younger than Morgan, who, though only 29, had never exactly knocked himself out in the off-season with anything resembling a conditioning program.
Once known as Stanley Steamer, he was downgraded to Tug Morgan by weight problems and hamstring pulls in 1984 and again in '85. When Tug reported to camp for the 1986 season, his 10th, there was talk it might be his last. "Let's face it," says Steve Grogan, the Patriots' timeless quarterback, "Stanley was washed-up around here."
So Morgan merely went out and had a career year. Responding to the urgings of a new Patriots coach, Hall of Fame wide receiver Raymond Berry, to prepare himself as he never had before, the Steamer shocked his captious critics by putting together a stunning season. Given surgical relief from excruciating pain in his injured left pinkie and made young again by his most arduous summer of exercise ever, the sleek new Morgan postponed his swan song indefinitely. The only things he ate up were defensive backs.
After Morgan was knocked cold in New England's opener against Indianapolis—popped as he came down on his head with a touchdown pass—Morgan spent the rest of the season exacting revenge from secondaries. When it was over, and the Patriots had been ushered from the playoffs in the first round by the Broncos 22-17 despite two Morgan touchdowns, he had chalked up the best season ever by a New England receiver—indeed, one of the best by any receiver, ever. He caught 84 passes, 10 for touchdowns, and his nine 100-yard-plus games were one shy of the NFL mark, set in 961 by Houston's Charley Hennigan. All the while Morgan embellished his spectacular career average of 20 yards per catch. It would have made a nice storybook ending—except that Morgan's story isn't finished, not by a long shot.
"Unprecedented," says Berry. "I have never heard of a wide receiver in his 10th year having that kind of season. I don't know that Stanley ever dropped a football last season."
Morgan's comeback is made more impressive by the fact that he had never been faced with much in the way of professional adversity. Not that anything was ever just handed to him. But as far as football is concerned, Morgan has led rather a charmed life—almost as charmed as his love life.
Early in his freshman year at Tennessee, Morgan and his teammates were honored at a football pep rally. He remembers stepping down off the platform flush with BMOC status. Emboldened, he introduced himself to a pretty stranger. Her name was Rholedia McGuire, and at that time Rholedia was under the impression that a split end was why you used conditioner after shampooing. She was not exactly wowed by Morgan's overtures.
"He was so silly, I just laughed at him," she says. But fortunately for Stanley, both happened to be friends of another couple, and he and Rholedia were thrown together on double dates. They were married in November of their sophomore year. Today Rholedia owns and manages a boutique in Germantown, Tenn., where the Morgans live in the off-season.
Nicknamed Roadrunner at Tennessee, Morgan ran indoor track and played three positions in football—split end, wingback and tailback. He was a first-round pick of the Patriots in 1977 and a starting wide receiver as a rookie. He made his first pro reception a good one—a diving touchdown catch of a 45-yard Grogan bomb. He also returned punts and made the Pro Bowl in 1980 and '81. With his roommate, Harold Jackson, lined up wide left, Russ Francis at tight end and Berry as the receivers coach, Morgan led a happy life with the pass-happy Pats.
In season, Morgan worked like a fiend at his job. Come February, though, his time was his own—and it wasn't spent on workouts. By 1981, he and Rholedia had two children, Sanitra, now 11, and Monique, 7. Morgan is quick to tell you that he is first and foremost a father; his off-season priorities favored his girls, not his girth. "Stanley used to do very little in the off-season," says Berry. "I think some years he came to camp after a six-month rest."
Berry was purged along with Pats head coach Ron Erhardt after New England's disastrous 2-14 season in 1981, and into their stead marched Ron Meyer. He arrived in Foxboro via Southern Methodist, where he had just engineered a 10-1 season, largely by ordering his quarterback to hand the ball to Eric Dickerson and Craig James. At New England, Meyer tore down the existing offense and rebuilt it around the run. It was the advent of stormy weather for the Steamer.
Meyer and his staff bent off Morgan's deep routes, changed his stance from a standing 2-point to a crouched 3-point and showed a clear lack of interest in any feedback from him. "That just blew me away," recalls Morgan. "They had some good ideas, but there are better ways to incorporate them than saying, 'This is my way, and from now on it's going to be my way or the highway.' You don't talk to a grown man the way you talk to a little kid."
Without Berry, the technician, to watch over him, Morgan admits that he "got lazy and got into some bad habits." Worse, Meyer's arrival coincided with a point in Morgan's life when his metabolism slowed but his appetite didn't. Desserts, late snacks and fourth meals began sticking to his middle. "Stanley had always been able to eat whatever he wanted and not gain an ounce," recalls Rholedia. "But the time came when, if he ate a gallon of ice cream—Stanley's an ice cream man—you could look at him and say, 'He just ate a gallon of ice cream.' "
After playing a career at 175 pounds, Morgan now weighed in at a pudgier 183. "In my glutes, that's mostly where it was," he says, patting his buttocks. But where it hurt him was in the hamstrings, which often tightened from hauling the surplus freight. Meanwhile, a mangled joint in his left pinkie, battered over the years, got worse—and Morgan dropped passes he shouldn't have.
Meyer started calling his number less frequently, and Morgan took to sulking. When a running play was called to the other side of the field, Morgan would jog a few desultory steps and then walk back to the huddle—overweight, underappreciated and desperately unhappy. "He called me just about every week," recalls Jackson, who had by then been traded to the Seahawks. "He would say, 'Man, I hate it here. I do not want to be here.' "
Morgan was no treat to be with on the home front, either. "Stanley is quiet, but in a joyous way," says Rholedia. "But there was nothing joyful about the way things were going with Coach Meyer. After it got to a certain point I just said, 'Stanley, either get yourself traded or get out of this game.' "
Meyer was trying to unload Morgan. He had rookie Irving Fryar and second-year man Stephen Starring who were just as fast, and they would catch the ball when it came to them. But the Patriots' owners, the Sullivans, knew what a healthy Morgan could do and said no to a trade. Midway through the '85 season, they opted to jettison Meyer instead. Morgan could not suppress his glee. "Stanley, is that you, smiling?" asked teammate Julius Adams. "I didn't know you had teeth!"
The Sullivans brought in Berry as head coach, but Morgan did not immediately come around. The spate of dropped balls had taken its toll. "If you're asking yourself, Am I going to catch this ball or miss it? you've got problems," says Jackson, who was brought back to New England as receivers coach two years ago. "Stanley had problems."
But his hands gradually regained their touch, and Berry kept Morgan on a steady course of self-improvement. In 1985, Morgan struggled early but then came around—as did the Patriots. They landed in the Super Bowl, where Morgan caught seven passes.
In the off-season, Morgan finally had the pinkie fixed. "They fused it," he says, holding up a digit with a zipperlike, vertical scar. Doctors bent the finger slightly, simulating a football's contour, then fused it that way, making it look like a third thumb. "I'll never be able to bend it again, but so what? It feels great." Berry challenged Morgan to show up for the following summer training camp in the best shape of his career. Morgan responded.
"I was excited about playing football again," he says. His daily regimen began with a morning jog. At noon he would drive to the Memphis State campus, where, in the teeth of midday heat, he would run sprints on the university's track. Morgan played racquetball, he lifted weights—concentrating on strengthening his hams—and reported to camp at 174 pounds, his weight as a rookie.
In the first game of the season Morgan had seven catches against the Colts, the seventh a 43-yard touchdown on which he was knocked senseless. The game ensured that he would be mostly double-covered for the rest of the season, but it didn't seem to matter. He had seven catches for 161 yards and three touchdowns against the Seahawks. On what might have been a fourth, Seahawks cornerback Dave Brown, the burnee on those three scores, hit Morgan so hard the Steamer's helmet flew off. Undaunted, Morgan came back with 6 catches for 125 yards against Miami, 7 for 162 against the Jets, 5 for 107 against the Bengals and 8 for 121 against the 49ers.
Ernest Gibson, a Patriots defensive back, empathizes with Morgan's victims. "I cover Stanley in practice. You give him a cushion, but he eats it up. He's got a deceptive stride. Maybe people don't think he's that fast." Morgan ran a scorching 4.36 40 in college. In the intervening decade he has "slowed" to 4.5.
Morgan's triumphant moment last season came in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 22. Like the Turkey Day debacle in 1984, this game was nationally televised: Pats-Dolphins on Monday night for the AFC East title. New England and Miami were tied with :44 to play, and the Pats had the ball on the Dolphins' 30, first-and-10. Grogan, disdaining a series of careful running plays to set up the field goal, asked Morgan in the huddle if he could get open. "Sure," said the Steamer. Morgan split wide right. "The d-back was in a bump-and-run. All I had to do was beat him at the line," Morgan says. He did, blazing up the right sideline as Grogan arched a 30-yard pass onto his fingertips. "Nothing wrong with that coverage," says Berry. "Stanley just ran a perfect route."
There are plenty more where those came from, figures Morgan. "Who's to say how old you should be when you start slowing down?" he asks. "I don't believe in this numbers thing. I think I have a long time to play."
Can Morgan, 32 this season, come up with an encore to last year's remarkable act? Well, he was at the Memphis State track over the summer, four or five days a week. "In the dead afternoon," he says, "when the sun is blazing and you know you're getting a workout." Will the Steamer be ready? Bet your glutes on it.