For Saints’ Joe Morgan, tough year gives way to brighter outlook

While his teammates forged their way to the playoffs this season, Saints wide receiver Joseph Morgan rehabbed the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and dealt with the consequences of a Memorial Day weekend DWI arrest.

Some athletes might consider that kind of year a hardship. Morgan, 25, isn’t one of them.

That’s because he was barely old enough for preschool when he was forced to overcome an actual hardship: The violent death of his father.

A football injury and a moment of poor judgment, on the other hand, are opportunities to improve as a player and a person, Morgan and his loved ones say.

Joseph Christopher Wayne Morgan was 4 when his father, 25-year-old Joseph S. Morgan, got into an argument at a bar in their hometown of Canton, Ohio, after 1 a.m. Friday, Oct. 1, 1992.

The man arguing with the elder Morgan drew a handgun. He shot Morgan once in the neck, according to accounts published in the Canton Repository newspaper.

Morgan — who had served four years in the U.S. Army — was rushed to the hospital. Paralyzed, he remained there for a month, but he died Nov. 1, leaving behind his son and two daughters.

“The day he died, when I came home, I sat all three of (the children) down and explained to them (their father) was not going to come back home — he’s not going to make it,” said the Morgan kids’ mother, Marian. “It’s the hardest thing in the world to tell your children they’re never going to see their father again.”

Morgan’s killer, a man named Nate Cooks, ultimately pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. He served almost eight years in prison, an official with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said.

Meanwhile, though she eventually remarried, Marian Morgan for the most part raised her two children with the help of her dad and sister. One of the girls, Destanie, grew up wanting to become a nurse, and she’s studying physical therapy. The other, Anaisha, modeled for a bit before landing work on oil platforms.

Young Joseph — whose mother calls him “Christopher” to distinguish him from his dad — dreamed about playing pro football. He’d often repeat that fact to his family, especially after going on school trips to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, about four miles from his parents’ address.

“I’m going to play football on Sundays,” he’d tell Marian and Destanie Morgan. “I’m going to the NFL.”

Christopher, of course, fulfilled that guarantee. They don’t want to make excuses for him, but Marian and Destanie Morgan only wonder if his journey to and in the NFL would’ve been less turbulent had his dad been able to accompany him on it.

“Coaches, the fathers of teammates ... he had people there to push him and keep him going,” Destanie Morgan remarked.

“(But) it’s not the same,” she also said. “Growing up, everybody wants their dad — especially a young boy.”

Series of troubles

Morgan’s accomplishments as a prep, collegiate and pro athlete have been well-documented. So have his ill-timed injuries and disciplinary problems.

He set himself apart as a phenomenal athlete in prep school. As a senior at Canton McKinley High, he set school records for receiving yards and touchdowns, and he earned Associated Press first-team All-Ohio honors. The speedster who could run a 4.4 40-yard dash averaged 26.1 yards per catch that year, and nine of his 13 scores were from 45 yards out or farther.

Morgan also participated in track, and he captured the state title in the long jump. Illinois snatched him for its football team.

But he lasted just two seasons. Following three disciplinary infractions, the program dismissed him in the spring of 2008.

Morgan finished out his college athletic career at an NAIA school, Walsh University, catching a respectable 79 passes for 1,317 yards and nine touchdowns over two seasons (he also won a long jump national title for the track team there). But when he entered the 2011 NFL draft, no one was willing to use a pick on him.

The Saints signed Morgan as a free agent. No. 13 tantalized fans in the preseason, returning a punt for a 78-yard touchdown and hauling in a 56-yard score; but then he hurt his knee and was placed on year-ending injured reserve.

Morgan was back in 2012, and that appeared to be be the year he’d leave his troubles in the past. He caught 10 passes for 379 yards and three touchdowns. His breathtaking 37.9 yards per catch was far and a way a best on the 7-9 team, and observers penciled him into the No. 3 wide receiver spot for 2013.

Then, on May 25, a State Police trooper found Morgan sleeping in his car, which was on the side of the road in Metairie with a flat tire. Morgan failed a field sobriety test and was charged with driving while intoxicated and having no driver’s license.

The case is pending, and Morgan has pleaded not guilty. He enrolled in Stage 1 of the league’s substance-abuse program, and he reported to the Saints’ 2013 training camp hoping to atone for his arrest with strong on-field performances.

But a routine tackle by rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro during a scrimmage in August resulted in a torn ACL for Morgan.

He’d require surgery, and he’d need to miss the second season of his three-year NFL career. With Morgan sidelined, the Saints won 12 of the 18 games they played, advancing to the divisional round of the playoffs.

‘He can overcome this’

Morgan didn’t immediately realize that he could benefit from a lost 2013.

“I was ready to play this year, I was ready to do so many things, and for it all to be taken away in training camp ... it’s hard,” he said.

Instead, he watched rookie wide receiver Kenny Stills make five touchdown receptions for the Saints and lead the NFL with 20 yards per catch (Morgan couldn’t qualify for the league lead the previous year because he didn’t make the minimum number of catches necessary).

But Morgan was eventually able to appreciate the benefits of being on IR for 2013, beyond simply rehabilitating his knee. Relieved of having to travel to games or attend daily practices, he made his participation in the substance-abuse program one of his main focuses outside of healing his body.

“It made me realize, ‘Be better, be positive, they put us especially as football players to these high standards, to be huge role models,’ ” Morgan said. “It was really a big year for my personal growth. ... It helped me mature.”

Another main focus was simply spending more time with his daughter, Justice. He otherwise may not have gotten to see so much of her, and she is as old as he was when his dad was slain.

Among their favorite activities: shopping, playing video games, singing along to R&B songs and jumping around on piles of leaves he dutifully rakes up.

“For him to grow up not knowing what a dad is supposed to do in a relationship with a child, he has it down perfectly,” said Destanie Morgan, 27. “I applaud him for that.”

Joseph Morgan says his doctors are optimistic about a full recovery, and he believes there’s still room for him on the Saints if and when that happens. In March, he will be a restricted free agent — he can be approached by other teams, but the Saints would have the opportunity to match any offers.

Many agree Morgan could again be vital for the Saints. Despite Stills’ sensational season, the receiving corps didn’t seem to present the same downfield threat it had in prior years.

“As a guy with true speed, you make a defense respect you,” Morgan said. “I’m not going to get the ball every play, but that opens up guys ... underneath.”

However, no matter what happens on the gridiron from here, in one respect, Morgan’s 2013 season may prove to be the most crucial in his life.

“A lot of it was that Christopher needed to find himself, and a lot of times ... people don’t find themselves until they’re older,” said Marian Morgan, a Time Warner Cable dispatcher in Canton. “They get in these troubles and do this crazy stuff until they find out who they are.

“He has already gone through so much. He knows he can overcome this.”