The pile of recruiting mail mounted at Micah Mays's house during his senior year in high school. He was a fine student, a natural leader, a proven winner and the star quarterback at South Florida's Palm Beach Lakes High. He was in demand. His dream was to become an NFL quarterback or, if that didn't work out, an engineer. He talked to Baylor, Pitt and Tulane. He visited Purdue and Georgia Tech. Finally, he made an oral commitment to Central Florida because he felt he could become a starter there more quickly than at the other schools. The mail from only one school went unopened, and that was the mail from Morehouse.
Mays knew all about Morehouse, the all-male, academically elite, historically black liberal arts school in Atlanta. His lack of interest wasn't because the Morehouse football program is small-time, although it is. It wasn't because the Morehouse talent scouts didn't try to woo him, because they did. He wasn't put off by Morehouse's scholastic demands; in fact, those rigors appealed to Mays. His opposition to Morehouse was personal. Micah's father, Willie, had graduated from Morehouse, and he was absent for much of Micah's youth. In the years since then, father and son had patched things up. Still, Micah was not about to go to Morehouse and give everybody the impression he was honoring his father by following in his footsteps. No way.
Then one day Doug Williams called.
Yes, that Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to play in the Super Bowl, which he did in 1988, leading the Washington Redskins to a 42-10 win over the Denver Broncos. You could make the argument that no quarterback has had a better Super Bowl performance. Williams, then 32, threw for 340 yards and four touchdowns. He was named the game's MVP. For a brief while he was the center of the sporting universe. Two years later, his body ravaged, his playing career was finished.
Williams has had a half-dozen jobs since then. He was, among other things, an assistant coach at the U.S. Naval Academy for a season and offensive coordinator for the Scottish Claymores of the World League for another. He worked for the state of Louisiana, lecturing at schools about the dangers of drugs and the pleasures of sports. Then he spent 18 months as a scout for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Last January he signed a five-year contract to coach Morehouse, a Division II school that competes against other historically black institutions in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. As soon as he got the job, he began working the phones. One of his first calls was to Mays: "Micah, this is Doug Williams, the new coach at Morehouse."
Football at Morehouse is a modest business. The Maroon Tigers' stadium holds only 10,000. Last season, under coach Mo Hunt, Morehouse had a 2-9 record, and Hunt resigned. The Maroon Tigers' record over the past decade is 39-61-2. They haven't had a winning season since going 6-5 in 1992. In trying to persuade top players to go to Morehouse, a recruiter can't sell the big-time facilities, or the glamorous schedule, or the Maroon Tigers' history of success. So he sells something else.
Mays listened to Williams's resonant bass voice and rural Louisiana accent. "Micah, I know a lot of schools are interested in you, and I know you've made a verbal commitment to Central Florida, and I respect that," Williams said. "But I want you to know that if you're unsure at all of where you want to go, we'd love to have you. If there's anything I can ever do to persuade you to come to Morehouse, any question I can answer for you, just call me and let me know, because I've been where you are now, and maybe I can help you out." Williams held his breath. You can't turn around a football program without a good quarterback. If anybody knew that, Williams did.
"If you're really serious," Mays said, "come down and see me."
Williams hung up the phone and told his assistant coaches he was going to West Palm Beach. Not so fast, they told him. First, he needed to fill out a requisition form, in triplicate. Then the requisition would have to be approved by the school's business manager. Nothing happens quickly. "What you want, you have to apply for," Williams was told. "Everything here is by requisition." Football at Morehouse, the college that educated Martin Luther King, Vernon Jordan, Spike Lee, Edwin Moses and innumerable other prominent men, is an afterthought. Williams would like to change that. He says the Ivy League treats sports seriously but with a sense of balance. That's his model.
In all of football there are two jobs Williams would like more than the Morehouse job, and one of them he has already had. Williams would love to coach again at his old school, Chaneyville (now Northeast) High, in Zachary, La., the town of 10,380 where he grew up, where he owns a home, where his mother, Laura, his four brothers, his two sisters and other relatives live, where his father, Robert Sr., is buried. Williams was back home coaching football for the 1993 season, and he reveled in it, leading Northeast High to a 13-1 record. But the salary was $23,000 a year for coaching and teaching five periods of gym a day. When the Naval Academy called, Williams figured it was a promotion. Given the chance, he doubts he'd make the move again.