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They Get Great Reception : ROSE BOWL SHOWDOWN / UCLA vs. USC : USC's Johnnie Morton Has Great Talent, but He Takes It a Step Beyond

November 19, 1993|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On football fields, USC's record-breaking receiver, Johnnie Morton, attracts crowds.

Sometimes, rarely, there is only one defender. But most often, two or even three are in the area if a pass intended for Morton is in the air.

Once, it wasn't like that. It was quite the opposite, in fact.

As a 10-year-old, he was shunned at a Japanese-American school in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo district.

Johnnie Morton, you see, is the son of a Japanese-American mother, Katsuko Morton, and a black father, John James Morton.

His mother, who wanted him to be more aware of his Japanese heritage, sent him to Japanese school on Saturdays, with a cousin who was also the son of a Japanese-American mother and a black father.

"Johnnie hated it," his mother recalled Thursday, laughing.

"It was all day on Saturdays, for one thing, but all the other kids were Japanese and he didn't feel he was accepted. He was more comfortable at school in Torrance, participating in sports with kids he knew."

Morton hasn't been comfortable this week. He has been ill since Saturday, when he played in USC's 22-17 victory at Washington, which set up Saturday's Rose Bowl showdown with UCLA at the Coliseum.

His mother says he has tonsillitis, but Morton worked out with the team Thursday.

"He went to the hospital Sunday night, and a doctor told him it was tonsillitis," Katsuko said. "Johnnie thinks he's getting better, though."

The Mortons have \o7 two\f7 sons playing college football and a third who hopes to.

Eric Morton is a freshman receiver and defensive back at Dartmouth. Youngest brother Chad is a South Torrance High junior receiver, tailback and kick returner.

Katsuko Morton says Johnnie grew up with a tape measure. Her son's No. 1 goal as a teen-ager was to be tall, she said.

"Johnnie was a very good basketball player, but he said he needed to be at least 6-6," she said.

"So he measured himself all the time, putting little pencil marks on the wall. When it became obvious he wasn't going to be 6-6 (he's 6 feet), he started concentrating on football."

Obviously, a good choice.

In the season's 12th week, the USC coaching staff has grown weary of reporters asking the same questions about Morton.

Mike Sanford, coach of the wide receivers, puts a slightly different spin on Morton's season. To Sanford, Morton is an athlete who achieved a high skill level, then took a step beyond.

"Some guys have great talent, and leave it at that," said Sanford, who projects Morton as a first-round pick in the NFL draft.

"Johnnie Morton has great talent, but he's worked very hard at getting every bit out of his talent he can. There's a big difference."

Morton, a 190-pounder, went to USC with some speed, but no one ever called him a \o7 burner, \f7 a football term applied to players with sprint speed.

Morton significantly increased his speed in the space of a year, however, and has said it made a major difference in his junior and senior seasons.

Last spring, he worked with USC track coaches Barbara Edmondson and Jim Bush. In the summer, he had a running coach, Danny Daniels.

Morton competed in two USC track meets last season, his best performance a third-place finish in the 100 meters in 10.92 seconds.

That's not Carl Lewis speed, but it's fast enough for a football receiver, Bush said.

"Johnnie runs so smoothly with the football now, you can't even tell he's carrying a football," Bush said, adding, "Anyone who runs the 100 under 11 seconds has very effective football speed.

"I've seen defensive backs chasing Johnnie this year, who, if they used their arms properly when running, might have caught (him)."

Last summer, Morton ran up hills and on a track for Daniels, who teaches strength first, then speed.

"You can't have speed unless you have a foundation of strength," said Daniels, explaining why Morton ran the hills of Kenneth Hahn Park much of last summer. On the Long Beach City College track, Morton and James Lofton, now with the Philadelphia Eagles, ran 800, 600 and 500-meter intervals, with three-minute breaks.

Morton, earlier this season, said of his summer on the run: "If I could give one piece of advice to any high school athlete, it would be to find a good running coach and learn how to run properly."

Morton caught 106 passes for 1,808 yards in his last two seasons at South Torrance and was recruited heavily by Stanford and USC.

"I wanted to go to a Pac-10 school that passed a lot," he said. "At the time, Rodney Peete had just finished up here and Todd Marinovich was coming in, so it seemed like the place for me to be."

He says he was nervous when John Robinson replaced Larry Smith as the Trojans' coach. With Robinson's reputation as a run-oriented coach, Morton feared he might spend his senior season blocking linebackers.

Surprise. Robinson stitched together what has become one of the country's most effective passing offenses. Quarterback Rob Johnson is completing 69.1% of his passes and about a third of them have been to Morton.

Morton is already the Pac-10 record-holder in reception yardage with 2,959, and the most productive single-season wide receiver with 1,278 yards. And if he catches five passes Saturday against UCLA, he will break the conference record for most receptions in a season.

He has a USC-record 74 catches, and the Pac-10 mark is 78, held by running backs Brad Muster of Stanford (1985) and Dave Montagne of Oregon State (1986).

Morton has set eight USC records, including one Robinson likes most: most touchdown catches in a season, 12.

Of course, UCLA's coach, Terry Donahue, has seen Morton score.

For many Southland football followers, their most vivid memory of Morton might be the 1990 USC-UCLA game, when his two acrobatic catches in the closing minutes resulted in a 45-42 USC victory.

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