2014 Best Enterprise, by Kevin Armstrong

Comment by the judge: Well-crafted story about one of the top quarterback gurus in the country. Writer presents a lot of detail about a topic that is one of the new trends in college football as well as provides insight into the behind-the-scenes dealings and relationships.

By Kevin Armstrong

New York Daily News

MOBILE, Ala. — Half-hour to kickoff at St. Paul’s Episcopal School on a Friday in October, and there’s a caller on WNSP 105.5 FM claiming Mother Nature’s keeping Hurricane Karen at bay in order for a varsity football game to be played. The top-ranked Toros from Spanish Fort are in The Port City to march against the No. 8 Saints, and David Morris, the one-time Alabama state record holder for yards and touchdowns in a season, pulls his gray Yukon — the one with the smile-shaped crack across the windshield — into the packed lot, pays $4 to park and walks on past tailgaters. St. Paul’s Headmaster Marty Lester greets Morris, a tutor to St. Paul’s sophomore starting quarterback Miller Mosley.

kevin armstrong

Kevin Armstrong

“David, don’t you have the other quarterback tonight, too?” Lester asks.

Morris nods. Truth be told, Morris tinkers with the mechanics of the starters on both teams, as well as the backups. There is a pipeline at St. Paul’s for Morris to tap into and he does so regularly, having helped along the careers of past preps stars such as Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron and Florida State backup Jacob Coker.  All the better to the mothers and fathers whose children he instructs. As the private teacher and not a coach, Morris is undefeated on Friday nights and decides no controversies. Saints reserve Drew Wing’s father, Andrew, double checks with Morris on the next appointment.

“Nine thirty tomorrow morning, right?” Wing asks.

“Yessir,” Morris says.

Morris holds a unique position in Mobile’s quarterback boom. Once a three-year reserve behind Eli Manning at Ole Miss, Morris left the game after graduation, burnt out from being one snap away for three seasons behind the immovable Manning. Morris fought depression, took a job at his father’s real estate agency and moonlighted as a throwing instructor with teenagers in town upon request. Now 33, Morris is all in on growing his program — “Quarterback Country” — into a year-round, nationwide business. His experiences range from pushing Manning through the paces in the offseason to working with Tim Tebow to readying now-Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Matt Barkley for the NFL draft. Top prospects — including University of Miami recruit Malik Rosier — tout Morris’ ability to boost their confidence and identify flaws.

“So many people use you. I’ve even had family members use me in a negative way just to benefit themselves,” McCarron says. “That bumps (Morris) up even more. He’s not trying to get interviews or TV shows. He’s just been loyal to me the whole time.”

No one’s proven more loyal to Morris than Manning. Morris walked on under coach Tommy Tuberville and earned one start with Ole Miss — at night on ESPN against rival Mississippi State — before Manning arrived a year behind him with new coach David Cutcliffe. Morris’ capable arm allowed Cutcliffe to redshirt Eli, giving Manning the opportunity to strengthen his legs before playing. On road trips and in hotels the night before games, Manning and Morris sat on the edge of beds across from each other, testing signals and play calls. Manning won every time, but competition morphed into camaraderie. Morris was at Giants Stadium for Manning’s first start. He was in Manning’s wedding in Cabo and counts lessons learned together as his most important.

“I’m happy for David that he’s doing something he truly loves,” Manning says. “I’ve had him train me, and I give him some drill work that we do. I like that he films it; I can watch it on my own. He’s a guy who watched me throw the last 14 years. With David I can call out an old college play, and he knows the read, progressions. He’s someone I’m comfortable with.”

Morris once attempted to put football in his rearview mirror, but now finds energy in teaching leverage positions and escape scenarios. Once Spanish Fort took command of the game against St. Paul’s, he left quietly in the fourth quarter. There was footwork, weight transfers and transition points to harp on in the morning. Morris looked at the field through the cracked windshield, offering his perspective on his prospects’ path ahead.

“The only exposure they need right now is to a farm,” Morris says. “They need to get tough, be ready for the BS that comes with all of it.”

Morris maintains a workspace in the back of his father Skeeter’s real estate office, a single-story, brown-brick building on Dauphin St. in Mobile. There is no name on his door, but hints of a career in transition dot the room. Section maps of Mobile line a wall across the hallway; a metal filing cabinet is covered with a master schedule of every SEC game scheduled for the 2011 season. Atop a pile of papers is a glossy photograph of Eli Manning playing in his first Super Bowl. Manning gave the photograph to Morris as a gift for being in his wedding. There is a note scribbled in black marker across the print.

To Dave, “D-Mo”

Thanks for all the signal tests. You’re the best backup QB ever!

Morris acknowledges Manning’s readiness to needle him, but the old backup developed thick skin over the years. His understated nature and relatively compact size — 6-feet, 180 pounds — caused McCarron’s father, Tony, to question whether he had found the right tutor for his son when he first met Morris nine years ago. When Tony and AJ arrived for their first session, Tony eyed Morris on the soccer field at Spring Hill College. He took the measure of Morris, then turned to A.J.

“Looks like I could out-throw him,” Tony said. “He’s an itty-bitty guy.”

Pleasantries exchanged, Morris tossed a ball hard and deep. A.J. turned to his dad.

“That’s gonna be tough to beat,” AJ said.

“Yeah,” Tony said. “Maybe back in my day.”

McCarron sent his son to Morris once or twice a week, and on weekends, too, when he could afford to. Morris worked with McCarron on rates then, but his business has grown in the years since. He studied the progress of quarterback gurus like George Whitfield, the quarterback whisperer now featured weekly on ESPN’s “College Gameday,” and read up on the likes of Tom Martinez, the late mentor to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. He reached out to his high school coach, Paul Crane, the former Jet, and Crane agreed that a quarterback teacher could thrive in the Mobile area.

“There was a woman in town who ran a camp for punt snappers a few years back,” Crane says. “I wasn’t impressed. I’m not sure what the market is for that, but parents want the best for their kids and there is always interest in skill positions.”

Morris phoned Cutcliffe, as well, running ideas by his former coach, now the head man at Duke. Morris worked camps at Duke and served as a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy each summer. Cutcliffe, having come across his share of charlatans over time, cautioned Morris to make sure there was substance to his program.

“You can put players through drills and learn terminology, but there needs to be a substance check at some point,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s hard to evaluate it because they don’t have a scoreboard. You have to be careful who you involve yourself with. David has a program and that’s what can set him apart.”

Finding a facility was difficult at first. They bounced around from his alma mater, McGill-Toolen Catholic High, on some days, then to Spring Hill College and sometimes Sage Park. Details fell though the cracks when the schedule changed, but the marriage of Quarterback Country to D1 Sports, a training company with 22 locations in 16 states, opened a new door. It was another Manning connection that came in handy. D1 Sports was founded by Will Bartholomew, a former fullback who blocked for Peyton Manning at the University of Tennessee. Morris met Bartholomew at the Manning Passing Academy, and Morris monitored the growth of Bartholomew’s business, which NFL stars such as Philip Rivers, Peyton and Tebow invested in. Bartholomew calls Peyton’s backing “invaluable.” Now, as Morris says, “Our growth model is directly linked to D1.”

The arrangement proved to be mutually beneficial. The facility gets a scripted program to run from Morris, and the quarterbacks get a place to work out. Georgia coach Mark Richt’s son, Jon, will head the quarterbacks operation in Nashville. Morris acknowledged the need to be specific in what he is searching for in the coaches. “You want guys who have common sense with people’s skills,” Morris says. “So much ego in football.”

Group work with youth players and high school quarterbacks is the main flow of business, and one-on-one sessions go for $175 per hour. Clients come from a variety of avenues. Tebow was the product of a connection with Tebow’s agent, Jimmy Sexton. Barkley, then recovering from a shoulder operation before the NFL draft, was under the care of famed orthopedist Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham when he wanted to better his footwork. He connected with Morris in Alabama and trained with him.

“We still trade text messages with Bible scriptures,” Barkley says. “When the rest of the world is just worried about your quarterback rating, he offers a different thought.”

There are delicate balances throughout Morris’ business, especially at the high school level. The prep stars and backups are listening to him while also taking instruction from their school coaches. No matter what offense the high school runs — spread, read option or pro sets — Morris focuses on development of the quarterbacks with under-center principles. His first conversation with players is blunt about their coaching.

“Whatever we do, if it is in conflict with what your coach does, you have to do it his way,” Morris says. “I’m just a piece of the puzzle.”

Morris cues up a clip of working out with Eli Manning on his screen. It was from last April inside the practice facility at Ole Miss. Manning, in loose sweatpants and T-shirt, performed drills at Morris’ order for an hour. Manning sprinted up and down the field, throwing in the direction that Morris called out. On his last pass, Morris called for Manning to throw right; Manning cocked his arm back as if going to the usual motion. Instead of releasing, though, Manning faked right and pegged Morris in the back. Morris winces watching the moving image, laughing at the relationship’s lopsided nature.

“That’s the d— in him,” Morris says. “Still treating me like a backup.”

 Down on Mobile Bay, Skeeter and Stephanie Morris raised a brood of six children — five boys, one girl — in a wooden, one-story house with a screened-in porch. Sunrises and sunsets colored their experiences; football filled the time in between. To practice his accuracy, David threw rocks at squirrels jumping from limb to limb in the woods. He was tough to draw, though, as his mother, a portrait artist, asked him to sit for her. She captured him once as an 8-year-old in uniform for St. Ignatius. David was No. 11 in green. He held a football in his right hand. Stephanie hung the frame in her dining room.

“I see a boy growing into his teeth,” she says.

Morris reconnected with his football roots back in 2008. The housing market was struggling and Morris read “Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Your Vocation.” Muscle memory from his days throwing hard and deep came back. He competed in local flag-football leagues and altogether reflected on his ebbs and flows.

“You experience a lot of pain, but few want to talk about your disappointments,” he says. “I can communicate about scholarships and second-string moments.”

He relates the lesson of being unable to jump Manning, an ironman who has started 158 consecutive games for the Giants, on the Ole Miss depth chart. The closest Morris ever came was running the first-team offense for a full week when Manning fought through a shoulder injury as a junior. Manning recovered by game time to start.

“Eli and Peyton don’t get hurt, and the reason has a lot to do with their natural clock,” Morris says, snapping his fingers three times. “One of Cutcliffe’s golden rules is, ‘If you hold onto the ball, you’re wrong.’ What do you do? You get rid of the ball quick. If there’s not an answer, you throw it away or tuck it. He ingrains that in you, so you don’t take sacks. So therefore, you stay healthy. Cutcliffe wants you to think that there’s no worse feeling than waiting. There should be a natural antsiness.”

Manning is the masterpiece Morris observed up close, watching each stroke from broad swipes to fine details. For Manning’s wedding, Stephanie Morris decided an oil painting fit the occasion best. Stephanie never worked on an action image before, but she loved what she saw in Manning escaping the grasp of Patriots defenders before making his Super Bowl throw to wideout David Tyree. Manning hangs the painting on a wall in his workout room back in Oxford, Miss. Morris keeps a copy on his office wall, too.

“I love it,” Morris says. “Such resilience.”

KEVIN ARMSTRONG, New York Daily News

Age: 30

College: Boston College

Background: From the Bayous to The Badlands, Armstrong has tracked football across the country for over a decade. The college game has taken him into a NASCAR stock car whirling around the Charlotte Motor Speedway, down to the Manning Passing Academy for Bikram throwing sessions and out west to Oahu, Hawaii to write about Manti Te’o and his lady friend. He witnessed the rise of Matt Ryan at Boston College and later found Jeff Jagodzinski living in Omaha, Neb., with nothing but beer in his refrigerator. He served as sports editor of The Heights in college and has written for the Boston Globe, Sports Illustrated and The New York Times. The FWAA recognized previous features on linebacker Mark Herzlich and Tom Coughlin’ lost safety, Jay McGillis. He was born in Nanuet, N.Y., a hamlet in the Hudson Valley, and lives in New York City, where he enjoys BBQ and the world’s best cornbread at John Brown’s Smokehouse. His roommate, a Miami (Fla.) fan, is still reeling from the fact that Duke has played for an ACC championship before his Hurricanes.

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