EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — You might say Joe Morris is a rookie again -- a rookie in spirit and anticipation. He is the possessor of a burning desire to prove to everyone that he still belongs among the National Football League's elite running backs.
In less than a month, the New York Giants will open training camp at Farleigh Dickinson-Madison, and Morris, who missed all of last season with a broken right foot, faces the unfamiliar task of having to fight for a roster spot.
"There is not a lot I can do about what's gone on in the past," Morris said recently. "Right now, I live for each day. When I train I live for that. I look forward to every day of training camp. Every day will be a new challenge. I'm ready for those challenges."
Just four years since leading the Giants to the Super Bowl XXI championship, Morris' career is in a precarious state. Here are some reasons why the club's all-time leading rusher (5,296 career yards) may not be on the Giants' opening day roster:
--His health. The Giants want to see how soundly the foot has mended, though Morris has been running full speed since November. Experience has made the club cautious. George Adams missed the 1986 season with a chipped pelvis and never was productive again. Karl Nelson missed the 1987 season with Hodgkins disease and was never the right tackle he was in 1986. Morris says he is fine, but the Giants will not be convinced until they see him in full gear.
--The competition. Rodney Hampton, the third-most productive runner ever at Georgia, was the Giants' first selection in April's NFL draft. He is one of nine running backs on the roster. Only five or six figure to make the team. Morris will likely have to unseat Ottis Anderson (1,023 yards in 1989), a favorite of Coach Bill Parcells, or versatile Lee Rouson for a spot.
--The Cold War. This may be the biggest obstacle Morris must overcome. During his previous eight seasons with the Giants, Morris has had a love-hate relationship with Parcells and the club's brass. In 1986, he held out of training camp in a sometimes bitter contract dispute that did not end until he signed the day of the season opener at Dallas. In 1987, he was one of the more vocal supporters of the players' strike and was angry when the players returned to work without a contract.
Morris and Parcells are hardly speaking after the events of the past year. First, Morris was placed on injured reserve for the season after failing to convince Parcells he would heal from the broken foot in six to eight weeks. In February, Morris was left unprotected during Plan B, an indication the Giants did not have him in their plans for 1990. More recently, Morris grudgingly agreed to a one-year contract for about $500,000, the same salary he made in 1989. There was no raise even though he is the club's all-time rushing leader and gained at least 1,000 yards in three of the last four years he is played.
There is also the matter of those rumors. Morris was not actively pursued during Plan B in part because most teams thought he wanted $1 million and because, according to Morris, the Giants spread rumors about him being a "psychotic" and "paranoid." The Giants have denied making such remarks.
Morris, who turns 30 in September, would like to believe his clashes with the Giants will not have any bearing on whether the club decides to release him, trade him or start him this fall. "I'm not a yes man. I have my own opinions and own thoughts," he said. "But I've never been disruptive. I've always been supportive. Basically, I'm a good person. But when it affects me from a business standpoint, I'm going to do what's smart for Joe Morris. And I'll always say what I believe to be the truth. I think people have to respect you. I respect them (Giants brass) and I think they should respect me for my views and my thoughts."
Respect and loyalty, according to former Giants linebacker Harry Carson, are two words that have little meaning in the business world of the NFL. In fact, he says Morris' past run-ins with the club have made a comeback this year improbable.
"I know it did not go over very well with him holding out of camp (in 1986). Then during the players' strike, Joe Morris was very militant," Carson said. "If you make the team look bad, and sometimes that's what contract situations do, the team has a very long memory."
"Quite frankly, I'm surprised that he is still there. My own personal opinion is that Joe Morris probably will not be a Giant this year. He'll probably be in some other uniform. I think they (Giants) signed him and I think they're going to try to get something for him, probably a draft pick or something. I hope I'm wrong. I hope he can finish out his career with the team he started with, but when you look at things that have happened with the veteran ballplayers on that team, you cannot help but think that Joe's next in line."