He couldn't eat, wouldn't unwind and dared not sleep, lest the
cruel concrete walls close in and the nightmare begin again.
Byron (Bam) Morris had been out of jail for three days on April
14, yet his mind had not yet departed Cell Block 5 of the
Rockwall County Detention Center, east of Dallas.
This isn't really happening, the former Baltimore Ravens and
Pittsburgh Steelers running back kept telling himself. If I fall
asleep, I'll get awakened at 4 a.m. by a guard saying, 'Morris,
time to serve breakfast,' and I'll be back in that cell smelling
the urine from the leaky toilet. I'll find out that this is all
a dream, that I'm not really home, that they made a mistake and
released the wrong Byron Morris.
So Morris lay in bed at the home he had bought for his parents
in Cooper, Texas, 60 miles from his jail cell, and tried to get
a grip. He squeezed his wife, Stephanie, to make sure she was
real. He reached down and grabbed his legs, the thick-as-lumber
limbs that had run wild in the second half of Super Bowl XXX. He
thought about the downturn his life had taken since then, a
two-year spiral that had begun with a marijuana bust in March
1996 and ended with him wearing a tangerine jumpsuit and serving
pork and beans on aluminum trays to sneering inmates who said,
"Nice handoff, Mr. Superstar."
Scared straight? Damn straight--or so Morris hopes. Once one of
the NFL's most fun-loving players, Morris, who spent his 26th
birthday in jail, believes his 90-day stay at Rockwall for
probation violations was a sobering experience on more than one
level. Whether he plays football again is the least of his
worries; if he has so much as a single beer during a probation
period that could last 10 years, Morris could face a decade-long
incarceration. He carries a key to a jail cell as a reminder
that he is one mistake away from a fate he doesn't want to
endure. "I'd rather fight Mike Tyson than go to jail, even for
another 90 days," Morris says. "I'd rather get knocked out by
Tyson, get my ear bit off, whatever."
May 3, 1998
This fear was the cause of Morris's five-day stretch of
sleeplessness following his release from Rockwall, sleeplessness
that did not end until he and Stephanie flew to Cozumel, Mexico,
and crashed together on a hammock, shaded by palm trees and
caressed by Caribbean breezes. Until then Morris's nights were
almost as horrifying as they had been during his incarceration,
when he was tormented by migraine headaches and often dreamed
that he was beside his wife, only to wake up in his bunk bed
clutching his pillow. Then he would stare into the darkness, his
body covered in sweat, his head pulsating, his nickname
reverberating over and over. Bam...Bam....
Bam! The sound of a hand hitting a windshield, a shattered
football career amid the shattered glass....
Bam! The sound of a steel door slamming and echoing off the
mold-stained cement walls....
Bam! The sound he dreaded most in the darkness of his cell,
consumed by his fears of the most brutal of jail cliches.
"Yeah, I was scared as hell someone would try to mess with me,"
Morris says. "As soon as we found out I was going in, my
brothers started with the jokes: 'We're going to get you a gift,
soap on a rope, so you don't have to bend over to pick it up.' I
slept with one eye open and one eye closed. If anybody stirred
in the middle of the night or got up to use the commode, I was
Aside from a couple of suggestive comments, the six-foot Morris,
who had ballooned to 40 pounds more than his playing weight of
245, was left alone. At the start of his stay he was made a
trustee--an inmate who, in exchange for working in the kitchen
and laundry room, enjoys increased freedom of mobility. "Maybe
in some of the other tanks [cells] you had people who were into
that physical stuff," he says, "but luckily in our tank everyone
respected each other's space. The first five days I was there I
didn't shower, because I wanted to check everything out and see
how everyone acted. Finally, the head trustee said to me, 'One
of the requirements of being a trustee is that you have to
shower every day.' I went like this," Morris says, smelling each
underarm, "and said, 'Really, man, I'm fine.'"
When Morris finally hit the showers, he received another
reminder of how he had taken his previous life for granted. "You
shower in an NFL locker room and you have all that space," he
says. "They give you those Nike flip-flops and big, fluffy
towels. In jail you'd have this tiny cubicle with a moldy
curtain hanging down, and the water was either way too hot or
way too cold."
After being released one minute past midnight on the morning
before Easter, Morris rode home to Cooper and got into the
shower, where Stephanie "scrubbed me down with everything but
Lysol." There was no point in trying to wash away the memories
of his time in jail: the shame Bam felt when his mother, Marie,
came to visit; the nights he lay awake with tears in his eyes
wondering if Stephanie would stand by him; the days when the
jail's rust-tinged tap water and industrial soap conspired to
make Bam's face and body break out in hives. When Stephanie's
grandmother died in February, Bam, who'd been close to her,
missed the funeral. He washed dishes during the Denver Broncos'
Super Bowl victory over the Green Bay Packers, keeping tabs
occasionally by peering at a small television set inside an
adjacent storage room.
Two Super Sundays earlier in Tempe, Ariz., Morris had run for 73
yards and a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys and had sparked
the Steelers' second-half comeback. Pittsburgh fell short by a
27-17 score, but Morris, an emerging star after two NFL seasons,
felt like a winner. He had started celebrating his good fortune
in the days leading up to the '96 Super Bowl, and he kicked his
partying into another gear in the weeks following the game.
"Something changed," Stephanie recalls. "He got cocky. He was
the Man. I didn't know him, and pretty soon I didn't like him."
Bam and Stephanie had planned to marry in Jamaica that February,
but Stephanie called off the wedding. Undaunted, Bam kept
indulging in alcohol and marijuana and acting as though nothing
could bring him down.
On March 23, 1996, Morris was stopped for swerving while driving
just outside of Rockwall. He allowed an officer to search his
trunk, which contained more than five pounds of marijuana. "It
didn't surprise me that he got into trouble--we could all see
that coming--but the amount of marijuana was staggering," says
former Pittsburgh tackle James Parrish.
Morris initially told authorities that the marijuana was not
his, but three months later he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor
marijuana possession and received six years' probation, 200
hours of community service and a $7,000 fine. The Steelers
released him a few days later, and the NFL suspended him for the
first four games of the '96 season.
Morris cleaned up his act somewhat after his guilty plea, and he
began to look like a steal for the Ravens, who signed him to a
two-year, $1.8 million contract. In the final seven games of the
'96 season he ran for 618 yards, second only to Barry Sanders
among NFL backs during that span. But last summer, in one of the
random tests the league had required him to take for violating
its drug policy, he tested positive for alcohol, and the NFL
slapped him with another four-game suspension to start the
season. Still, Morris finished '97 as Baltimore's leading
rusher, with 774 yards.
An almost universally well liked player, Morris has now pushed
his career to the brink of extinction. The Ravens gave up on him
in January, and as he tries to hook on with another team--the
Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles
and St. Louis Rams are possibilities--Morris must reckon with
the consequences of the reputation he has earned. I fear the
next mishap," says Baltimore owner Art Modell, "because it'll
probably be the last one." To avoid that bleak scenario, Morris
knows he will have to curb the fun-seeking, all-trusting
tendencies that helped put him in this mess. "There are some bad
kids in this league," Modell says, "but Bam is not one of them."
"Even as a baby, Bam couldn't sleep," Marie Morris says. "I'd
put him on my chest, and if I moved, he'd wake up. He was so
rambunctious, so full of life."
Marie and her husband of 45 years, Herman, had 10 children. Bam
was the baby, and more than just chronologically. One of his
five brothers, Ronnie, was a Chicago Bears receiver from 1987 to
'92, but it was Bam who emerged as the pride of Cooper, a town
of 2,153 in northeast Texas near the Oklahoma and Arkansas
borders. "This town has babied Bam from the start," Horace
Jeffery of Cooper Auto Sales said last Thursday as he looked at
the billboard along Highway 24 that celebrates Cooper as the
boyhood home of Ronnie and Bam.
As Bam grew into a full-sized adult, starring at Texas Tech and
then rushing for 836 yards as a Steelers rookie in 1994, he
continued to harbor a childlike affection for Marie. "I met him
at the end of that season," says Stephanie, who married him in
November '96, "and one thing that attracted me was his love for
his mother. I thought, Wow, I've never seen a man like this. He
loves the ground she walks on, and she's all he talks about.
This is kind of weird."
This was not the only manifestation of Morris's childishness,
which was maddening not only to Stephanie but also to his
teammates and coaches. "Everyone pretty much looked at him as a
big kid," Parrish says. "He'd parade around the locker room,
cackling up a storm, and then he'd go off chasing fun."
At one point Morris even dated actress Vivica Fox (Independence
Day, Booty Call), but he didn't restrict his socializing to
Hollywood types. "He was the sweetest guy in the world, but he
was crazy," says Erric Pegram, who split time at halfback with
Morris after joining Pittsburgh in '95. "Our first night out, I
put on a suit and was ready to go somewhere nice, and he takes
me to this juke joint. It was a bad scene. People talk about
keeping it real, but if you hang around dirt long enough, you're
going to get filthy."
The filth hit the fan in Texas after Bam's positive test for
alcohol last summer. Alcohol was not allowed under the terms of
his probation. When the Rockwall County district attorney's
office petitioned the NFL for the results of the test, the NFL
refused, citing a confidentiality clause in the
collective-bargaining agreement. "It angered the Rockwall
authorities," Josh Kaufmann, Morris's agent, claims. "After
that, there seemed to be a vendetta against Bam. He had been
given clearance to miss some meetings with his probation officer
and had been late to others, but [suddenly] they went after him
for missed meetings." (Rockwall County district attorney Ray
Sumrow denies that Morris was given permission to miss sessions
with his officer and insists there was no vendetta, adding that
the NFL's refusal to grant the test results "did not enter into
the situation whatsoever. We didn't need those to make the
case.") In January, Morris pleaded guilty to violating terms of
his probation and accepted a sentence that included 120 days in
jail and a $2,000 fine as well as a warning from state district
judge Sue Pirtle that any involvement with drugs or
alcohol--much less a violation of the law--would mean a 10-year
Morris's image had also suffered last November, when a scuffle
involving his wife and April Brittain, a woman he had dated
years earlier, broke out at a birthday party near Baltimore for
Ravens tackle Orlando Brown. Morris says that he knew Brittain
was in town and had hoped to avoid her. Furthermore, he had been
assured that she would not be at the party. When she showed up,
he told Stephanie he wanted to leave, but his wife and Brittain
exchanged words and ultimately came to blows. Brittain filed a
complaint with police, claiming that Morris had choked her, and
police charged him with second-degree assault; Stephanie, who
ended up with a black eye, countered with a similar claim
against Brittain, who was charged with the same offense. The
Baltimore County district attorney's office declined to pursue
either case, but Bam knew instantly that the incident would seal
his departure from the Ravens. "We went back to the car,"
Stephanie recalls, "and he sat there screaming, 'I can't believe
this is happening to me!' Then he took his fist and punched the
windshield, and it shattered."
It's far too early to paint a rosy picture of Morris's current
circumstances, but there are positive signs. In jail he was a
model citizen, working 16- to 18-hour days, helping another
inmate learn to read and getting out 30 days early because of
good behavior. "He didn't act all high and mighty," says Joel
Garza, one of Morris's cellmates. Adds Sgt. Trevor Hurst, a
guard who supervised Morris, "I think he has learned his lesson.
He's a very caring person. One of my officers nearly collapsed
in the hallway and had to be rushed to the hospital, and he was
the one who helped her."
Morris spent a good amount of time reading Bible verses and
wrote the first love letters of his life, to Stephanie. "They
were mushy," she says. "He told me that he recognized his
mistakes and that he realized he wasn't the husband that he
should've been. We've had a rocky relationship, but we're past
Both Bam and Stephanie are tempted to blame others, especially
Brittain, for their predicament. Brittain showed up at Bam's
sentencing hearing in January and later made several
unsuccessful attempts to visit him in jail. The Morrises say
that after the confrontation between Stephanie and Brittain, a
player then with the Ravens handed Brittain his cellular phone
and urged her to call the police. "Some player invited her to
that party, and he knows who he is," Stephanie says. "You look
at it now, and you think it was all planned. When you're down
and out, you find out who your friends are, and there aren't
many now that Bam's not out there scoring touchdowns."
"We've just withdrawn from society," Bam says. "It's just us and
our family now; that's what it always should have been about. I
won't make excuses. I've got a dark cloud over me, but my
mistakes brought it on."
Morris has been working out and dieting, and hopes to sign with
a team by June 1. "If it's meant to be, it'll happen," he says.
"Before all of this, the thought of not playing football would
have been devastating. Now I'm thinking of my family. The last
two years have aged my mom 10 years, and she deserves better.
I'm just taking it step by step, and it's going to be a long
Bam smiles as his 10-year-old stepdaughter,
Courtney--Stephanie's child from a previous
relationship--unveils a silly hairdo that is spiked straight
upward. He clenches Stephanie's hand as the blood-orange sun
prepares to set on the Texas plains. "A few months ago there
were people telling me to leave him, saying, 'He's a bum,'"
Stephanie says. "But I know in my heart that he is evolving into
a great man, and when he reaches that, it will be awesome."
As the sunlight fades, Bam tilts his head back and closes his
eyes. Tonight his sleep will be peaceful, and that's a start.
"I'd rather fight Mike Tyson than go back to jail ... get
knocked out, my ear bit off, whatever."
"It didn't surprise me that he got into trouble," says Parrish.
"We could see that coming."
Morris has been working out and dieting, and hopes to sign with
a team by June 1.