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Jim Murray

A Far Cry From What They Expected

September 10, 1987|Jim Murray

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — They said he was too small, too light. They thought maybe he was just a track man. He could run over a hurdle but not over Ohio State. One of the coaches thought maybe he could run back kicks. But that's all. He was just a white-chipper at best.

What nobody reckoned on was the depths of Jamie Morris' commitment to University of Michigan football.

It went back to the raw New Year's Day in 1979. In the living room of the Morris family home in Ayer, Mass., the baby of the family, 14-year-old Jamie, was sitting in front of the TV watching a story so sad he couldn't hold back the sobs.

As The World Turns? Days Of Our Lives? All My Children?

No, Jamie was watching a different heart-breaker, another in the continuing saga of How-I-Lost-Another-Rose-Bowl, starring Bo Schembechler and a Michigan Wolverines all-star cast of football players.

It was a four-handkerchief production, a disaster picture. There, on the screen, in the second quarter of the game in Pasadena between Michigan and USC, the Trojan tailback grabbed the ball and lunged toward the end zone from the 3-yard line.

Charles White arrived in the end zone. But the ball didn't. When the pileup cleared, a Michigan linebacker was sitting on the ball.

Not to worry. An eagle-eyed line judge ruled Charles White had crossed the goal line before dropping the ball. USC went ahead, 14-3, and stayed there. Michigan lost again.

Back in Ayer, Jamie Morris rushed to the bathroom and locked himself in the shower so he could cry his heart out without being seen.

Nobody knows why, not even Jamie, but from early childhood, he had become a fan of Michigan football. He knew all the legends of Tom Harmon, he knew what a Wolverine was, he even knew the state bird.

Now, Big Ten football coaches don't ordinarily look for football players in the far reaches of New England. And they certainly don't look for 5-6, 150-pounders anywhere.

If Jamie Morris was an exception it was not because he was the scourge of prep football in the Fitchburg-Athol-Ayer triangle or a 12-letter winner or the state champion in the 100 meters. It was because his older brother Joe was a star running back for the New York Giants, no less.

Syracuse was ready with a scholarship because that's where his brothers had gone.

"You know the bad and good here," they hinted. "If you go somewhere else they'll only tell you the good." Boston College was willing to take a chance on him. So was the University of Massachusetts.

Even though Michigan only wanted him to catch kicks and try to stay alive, it was no contest. Jamie Morris even loved the kookie helmets.

"I got to the point where, when I cried when they lost that Rose Bowl game, I promised myself that some day I'd get even for them."

That dream didn't come true.


Jamie Morris seemed to succumb to what was for him a so-so performance in this year's Rose Bowl--16 rushes for 47 yards, and 4 receptions for 47 yards. This didn't prevent him from scoring the first touchdown of the game on an 18-yard smash, breaking three tackles on the second play of the game, won by Arizona State, 22-15.

But, Jamie still feels the Rose Bowl owes him--and Michigan--one.

This year, the player that Michigan didn't want has a chance to win the Heisman Trophy.

He is such a sunny cheerful character, they think he might even become the only player from there other than Gerald Ford ever to become President. Jamie Morris not only returned kicks for Michigan (second-most kickoff return gains in school history), he could become the school's all-time rushing leader if he has his typical 1,000-yarder this year for the third time in a row.

Morris is also the sixth-leading all-time pass receiver in Michigan history with 80 career catches.

Most Heisman Trophy candidates are in the uniforms they're in because the offers were too good to refuse, the perks too great. Jamie Morris is in maize and blue because he dreamed of it since he was a kid.

Some kids want a cowboy suit or Superman costume for Christmas. Jamie just wanted a corn-colored striped helmet. Michigan could have gotten him for a bus ticket.

He won't make the world forget Old 98, he'll make it remember him. If he wins the Heisman, it'll be the first for Ann Arbor since the legendary Harmon.

Jamie will also be the shortest winner since Doug Flutie. Michigan delights in posing Jamie standing on a chair next to an offensive lineman and this year's brochure cover of him and tackle John Elliott (6-7, 306) makes him look like something that fell out of Elliott's pocket.

If he wins it, he might be the first running back to make the Heisman look life-sized.

He and brother Joe both played in the Rose Bowl in separate championship games last season, Jamie in the collegiate game and Joe in the Super Bowl.

But he has no yen to join brother Joe in the Giants backfield next year. If you ask Jamie where he wants to play pro ball, he grins and says, "Somewhere warm."

He opens his Heisman drive against Notre Dame in Michigan Stadium Saturday, where he will be showcased against another trophy front-runner, Tim Brown.

Morris admits that he louses up the color scheme of the Heisman chase which, like a Technicolor movie is a three-color process to date--a Green (Gaston of UCLA), a White (Lorenzo of Michigan State) and a Brown (Tim of Notre Dame).

But, as much as Jamie would like a Heisman--"It would be a great honor to follow a great like Tom Harmon"--he has another priority first.

He would like to make good on a promise he made to a heart-broken kid in a shower in Ayer, Mass., nine years ago. He'd like to finally dry his tears.

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