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Morgan Channels Tragedy Into Giving Back

Posted Dec 6, 2012

Redskins WR Joshua Morgan says he was able to escape tragedy on the streets of Southeast D.C. by focusing on sports and listening to his grandmother.

The mind of a child is a beautiful thing.

An oversized cardboard box or a couple cushions from a sofa provide ample opportunity for a week's worth of entertainment. In most cases, if someone asks you what you want to be when you grow up and you don't know, you've got all the time in the world to figure it out.

Unfortunately though, that isn't the case for everyone.

Take, for example, Washington Redskins receiver Joshua Morgan, who was forced to grow up much faster than he probably should have had to because of the tough Southeast D.C., neighborhood his family lived in.

If it was up to Morgan, he would have spent every waking moment of his childhood playing basketball, going to school and hanging out with friends.

"Don't get me wrong, I had a lot of fun as a child and I was a straight A student, but growing up where I did in D.C. was just a rough situation," he said. "I was forced to experience things like death sooner than you would have liked. Like having to go to my friend's funeral when I was 12 or the fact that I lost three or four of my friends to gun violence before I even got to ninth grade. That stuff makes you grow up fast."

How was Morgan able to avoid the same pitfalls and mistakes that too many of his neighborhood friends could not?

"Sports and my grandmother," Morgan said. "My grandmother was the type of person who was always involved and always in my ear. We were in church every day of the week and she kept me out of trouble. Honestly, I had a lot of people who saw something in me even before I did and they worked hard to keep me out of that element. I had so many people looking out for me and I tried to learn from other people's mistakes.

"I had such a strong inner circle around me -- starting with my grandmother, who was my main prayer warrior -- and everyone had a hand in helping me out," he continued. "Even the ones who were out there hustling on the corners in my neighborhood would tell me, 'Man, you're going to be the one to make it out of here. We're going to keep you out of this and we're going to keep you out of that. You don't need to be out here doing none of this. Stay on that basketball court and you're gonna get out of here. Just watch.' I was blessed to have so many people in my circle."

Anyone who saw him play back in the day had to admit that Morgan was talented on the basketball court. He was a slasher who thrived with the ball in his hands, in the mold of Miami shooting guard Dwayne Wade, and the 27-year-old readily admits he was convinced he'd be the next Michael Jordan -- until he stopped growing at 6-foot-1.

"I could take a game over whenever I needed to," Morgan said. "To this day, there are still people who believe I was always a better basketball player than a football player. I mean, everybody's got their own opinion, but obviously I made the right decision by sticking with football."

While Morgan's first love was clearly hoops, it turned out he was pretty good on the gridiron as well. By the time he got to H.D. Woodson High School, he had learned to channel his explosiveness and passion from basketball into football.

"Once I saw what guys like Jerry Rice and Randy Moss were able to do at the wide receiver position, I knew that's what I wanted to be," he said.

Morgan was a diehard Redskins fan growing up -- Art Monk, Doug Williams and John Riggins were his favorite players from the glory days -- but he wasn't able to go to games very often.

"We barely had enough money for groceries or to keep the water or heat on in the house, so I didn't get to go to a lot of games. But I got to hear a lot of them on the radio and I tried to sneak in to a couple of them when I could," Morgan said with a laugh.

Because Redskins game were such a rarity, football was more of a hobby or a way to hang out with friends than a possible career choice for Morgan. In fact, it wasn't until his freshman year at Virginia Tech, when he had a breakout game in the 2005 Sugar Bowl against Auburn, that Morgan began to believe he truly had a shot at playing in the NFL.

The Hokies trailed the Tigers 16-0 at the start of the fourth quarter, when Morgan decided to take matters into his own hands.

"I don't know what happened, but we were losing the whole game and then, next thing you know, I scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter and we almost came back and won," he said.

Although his team fell short in the Louisiana Superdome that evening, Morgan finished the game with a Virginia Tech bowl game record 126 receiving yards and two touchdowns.

"After that game, I knew this is what I wanted to do," Morgan said. "Before then, I was still going back and forth with the coaches about trying to convince them to let me play both football and basketball. But I look back now and there were so many talented NFL players in that game. I was just a freshman, so to do what I did against a great team with so many future NFL players like Carlos Rogers, Jason Campbell, Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown -- that just made me put everything I had into it."

While countless sports fans across the country tuned in to watch Virginia Tech and Auburn square off, one thing most people don't know about that game is Morgan actually played the entire second half with a dislocated shoulder.

"Right before halftime I caught a pass across the middle and I fell on my shoulder," he said. "At halftime, I was in so much pain that I was crying. They had to give me a shot in my shoulder and tape me up just so I could go back out there. After that, I don't know what happened, but I really felt like because I was playing hurt I could focus more. Everything slowed down and I channeled my energy and was able to take my game to a whole other level. I'm such a competitor that I still wanted to play and thought we could come back and every catch I made after the injury was a touchdown."

Even though it was radically different from anything he experienced growing up in Washington, D.C., Morgan cherished his time at Virginia Tech. He won a bunch of football games, built a bond with many of his teammates that remains strong today and even discovered what career path he wanted to follow.

But once again, senseless violence and tragedy struck when a student opened fire on campus, killing 32 people and injuring 15 others before taking his own life prior to Morgan's senior year.

"That was obviously the most devastating thing to happen during my college career," Morgan said. "It was really tough for everyone.

"The season that we were able to put together meant everything to so many people there," he continued. "We really felt like God had his hands all over our team and every game after the massacre was like a healing process for Virginia Tech. Even our losses felt good because we played so hard and with so much determination and focus. We were in every game and it felt great to see so many people come together like that."

In the face of tragedy, sports have always been there to help Morgan through tough times. Whether they created a distraction to keep him away from hustling on a street corner in Southeast D.C., or helped the healing process for an entire university dealing with a worst-possible scenario, sports have always played a huge role in Morgan's life.

Which is why he is always one of the first Redskins players to volunteer whenever the organization is looking for people to participate in community outreach events.

"I just think back to my childhood and can't help but believe if we had a professional athlete or someone successful come back and talk to us, maybe that could have been enough to save my best friend's life or keep my other friend out of jail and prevented him from becoming a crackhead before we even got to high school," he said. "That's what makes me do what I do as far as giving back to the community."

While Morgan was forced to bypass a few years of his childhood, he's doing everything within his power to ensure his sacrifices aren't for naught.

"I had a great support circle growing up, and basically, now it's my time to pay it back to the community," Morgan said. "My grandmother always told me, 'You've been through a whole lot, you've seen a whole lot and you've overcome a whole lot. By you telling your story and being the person you are, you never know how many lives you could save or how many people you could help.' And she's right. You never know how many lives you can impact just by taking the time to give back."

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