It was thanksgiving 1984, and in living rooms across America the biggest turkey of the day was Stanley Morgan. The New England Patriots wide receiver was putting on a truly awful performance on national television as the Patriots spent the holiday afternoon losing 20-17 to the Dallas Cowboys. Poor Stanley, an All-Pro fallen on hard times, had hit rock bottom. Oh, he did catch one pass in the game. It went for all of five yards—about one yard for each of the balls Morgan dropped. Around the nation, millions of viewers compounded their dyspepsia, shouting, "Geez, I could have had that one!"
It was, in a sad way, fitting that Morgan reached his NFL nadir on a day of national overeating. Among other personal and professional problems, Morgan had gotten a bit fat. He had been a scintillating split end for the Patriots, a former track star with a diamond cutter's hands, until his gifts began to fade and it appeared to be his turn to take a slide down the NFL's cold slope to oblivion. No big surprise, thought folks around the league. It had certainly happened to men younger than Morgan, who, though only 29, had never exactly knocked himself out in the off-season with anything resembling a conditioning program.
Once known as Stanley Steamer, he was downgraded to Tug Morgan by weight problems and hamstring pulls in 1984 and again in '85. When Tug reported to camp for the 1986 season, his 10th, there was talk it might be his last. "Let's face it," says Steve Grogan, the Patriots' timeless quarterback, "Stanley was washed-up around here."
So Morgan merely went out and had a career year. Responding to the urgings of a new Patriots coach, Hall of Fame wide receiver Raymond Berry, to prepare himself as he never had before, the Steamer shocked his captious critics by putting together a stunning season. Given surgical relief from excruciating pain in his injured left pinkie and made young again by his most arduous summer of exercise ever, the sleek new Morgan postponed his swan song indefinitely. The only things he ate up were defensive backs.
After Morgan was knocked cold in New England's opener against Indianapolis—popped as he came down on his head with a touchdown pass—Morgan spent the rest of the season exacting revenge from secondaries. When it was over, and the Patriots had been ushered from the playoffs in the first round by the Broncos 22-17 despite two Morgan touchdowns, he had chalked up the best season ever by a New England receiver—indeed, one of the best by any receiver, ever. He caught 84 passes, 10 for touchdowns, and his nine 100-yard-plus games were one shy of the NFL mark, set in 961 by Houston's Charley Hennigan. All the while Morgan embellished his spectacular career average of 20 yards per catch. It would have made a nice storybook ending—except that Morgan's story isn't finished, not by a long shot.
"Unprecedented," says Berry. "I have never heard of a wide receiver in his 10th year having that kind of season. I don't know that Stanley ever dropped a football last season."
Morgan's comeback is made more impressive by the fact that he had never been faced with much in the way of professional adversity. Not that anything was ever just handed to him. But as far as football is concerned, Morgan has led rather a charmed life—almost as charmed as his love life.
Early in his freshman year at Tennessee, Morgan and his teammates were honored at a football pep rally. He remembers stepping down off the platform flush with BMOC status. Emboldened, he introduced himself to a pretty stranger. Her name was Rholedia McGuire, and at that time Rholedia was under the impression that a split end was why you used conditioner after shampooing. She was not exactly wowed by Morgan's overtures.
"He was so silly, I just laughed at him," she says. But fortunately for Stanley, both happened to be friends of another couple, and he and Rholedia were thrown together on double dates. They were married in November of their sophomore year. Today Rholedia owns and manages a boutique in Germantown, Tenn., where the Morgans live in the off-season.
Nicknamed Roadrunner at Tennessee, Morgan ran indoor track and played three positions in football—split end, wingback and tailback. He was a first-round pick of the Patriots in 1977 and a starting wide receiver as a rookie. He made his first pro reception a good one—a diving touchdown catch of a 45-yard Grogan bomb. He also returned punts and made the Pro Bowl in 1980 and '81. With his roommate, Harold Jackson, lined up wide left, Russ Francis at tight end and Berry as the receivers coach, Morgan led a happy life with the pass-happy Pats.