Catcher on the Fly

Carl Morris is Harvard's (perhaps the Ivy's) finest pass receiver - ever.

The game's turning point—and perhaps the play that locked up last year's Ivy football title—came with 6:57 left in the third period against Pennsylvania. That day, Harvard and Penn had something important to settle in the Stadium, since both entered with 7-0 records. With the score tied 14-14, Crimson quarterback Neil Rose '02 ('03) lofted a pass 30 yards in the air to wide receiver Carl Morris '03. But the ball was overthrown and, to catch up to it, "I had to get on my horse," Morris recalls. With a mighty sprint and outstretched arms, hands, and fingers, Morris, falling forward, reeled in the toss near the opponents' sideline as Penn defensive back Stephen Faulk charged across at him. "I caught him out of the corner of my eye," Morris says. "I thought, just duck." Morris did more than duck; showing spectacular body control, he virtually stopped on a dime in mid stride, letting Faulk go hurtling past him out of bounds. Somehow keeping his balance, Morris then reversed field and loped untouched into the end zone to complete a 62-yard scoring play. The touchdown broke open the game; Harvard led the rest of the way in a 28-21 victory.

Typically, though, Morris points out something that happened before Rose threw the ball as essential to the play's success. "Neil was getting blitzed heavily," Morris says. "But [tailback] Nick Palazzo picked up one of their all-league linebackers and just stoned him, face to face—stopped him dead. Nick is five feet four—it was a great block; without it, Neil might not have gotten the pass off." Remarks like this go to the heart of what Morris loves about football. "It's so team oriented," he says. "One person can't do anything in football. If one thing breaks down, then the whole play comes apart."

Morris, on the other hand, makes plays come together. Last year's Ivy League Player of the Year, Carl Morris is surely the greatest pass catcher in Harvard history. Going into his senior year, he already holds eight of Harvard's nine major receiving records, including season (71) and career (155) receptions; season (993) and career (2,200) yards; and touchdown catches, again for both season (12) and career (20). The Sports Network named him the number-one wide receiver in all of Division I-AA; he's also a First Team Preseason All-American and has been selected for the East-West Shrine Game, to be held in San Francisco in January 2003. "He is, by far, the best player in our league," says head football coach Tim Murphy. "Carl is a 'once-in-every-20-years' athlete."

Any wide-out who does so much damage inevitably attracts double-teams and even triple coverage. Morris shrugs this off: "Double-teaming opens up our running game and gives the other receivers opportunities to have a big day," he says. He points out that after the best game of his career—against Brown as a sophomore, when he snaffled 10 passes for 220 yards, a Harvard record—the next week he had only one reception against Lafayette, for three yards. "We won both games," Morris says. "It really doesn't matter to me—10 catches or one catch." The veritas shield tattooed on his upper left arm suggests that he means it.

Another play last fall, against Dartmouth, deeply impressed Murphy. The play was a "fade ball"—a pass to the sideline between the cornerback and safety—that was overthrown and too high. Morris leaped and snared the football in the air, knowing he was about to be whacked. Sure enough, "The Dartmouth safety hit him as hard as a football player can get hit," says Murphy. "But Carl popped up off the ground so fast—and then patted the helmet of the guy who had drilled him. That play told me that this kid is a can't-miss at the NFL level." Morris remembers that hit: the two players clashed face masks in mid-air and Morris had x-rays the following week (negative) due to swelling of his neck and jaw. "You've got to like pain," he explains with a smile. "There are guys who are bigger, faster, stronger, and everyone can hit pretty well. You can't show them any pain."

To quarterback Neil Rose, Morris is "the most complete player out there. Carl may not be the tallest, the fastest, or the guy with the stickiest hands, but he does everything well. He breaks open plays after he catches the ball. Carl makes me a better quarterback." Morris also helps running backs because, as Rose notes, he "can crush people." The best blocking receiver in the league, Morris admits that a good downfield block is one of his favorite things to inflict. "I don't get many of them," he says. "So I try to take full advantage of the ones I get." The man can also throw the pigskin: last fall, Morris completed two passes, a 43-yarder against Princeton and a 35-yard touchdown pass that triggered a second-half comeback against Dartmouth. (Seventeen seconds afterwards, Morris hauled in a 32-yard touchdown pass.)

Such athletic versatility starts with some natural gifts. The six-foot, three-inch, 215-pound Morris "bends, twists, and contorts his body as if he were a guy who's five feet nine," says offensive coordinator Jay Mills. "Carl has excellent athleticism, good hands, and a very good vertical jump." As a high-school freshman, he could already dunk a basketball, and Morris is undefeated in the football squad's annual spring slam-dunk contest. "That competition is really for second place," says Mills, chuckling. More important, Morris exploits his jumping ability on the gridiron. Last fall, at the goal line against Brown, Harvard had called for a running play but Morris, who'd noticed a five-foot, six-inch cornerback, suggested going at that defender instead with a lofty pass. Result: another Morris touchdown.

In addition to good foot speed, "He's got a gear you can't measure when you time him in a 40-yard dash," says Murphy. Mills adds, "Before I coached Carl, I didn't see a difference between speed and football speed. I've seen him pull away from guys who would beat him in a footrace. He's got a nose for the goal line and his heart propels him faster to get there. When he has a chance to get into the end zone, I've never seen him caught."

But "the most impressive thing about Carl is that he is a tireless worker," Mills continues. "He is driven to achieve any and all goals he sets for himself. He has an outstanding character, an insatiable appetite for greatness." Ordinarily, Morris stays late at practice; he admires the great NFL receiver Jerry Rice for his achievements and for the fact that "No one ever finished a workout with him. Even in the prime of his career, he worked harder than anyone."

Morris plans on an NFL career himself, and is likely to have one. Scouts and agents have already expressed strong interest, although the pros are a rare destination for someone who started playing football in eleventh grade. Morris grew up outside Washington, D.C., the son of Vern and Jane Morris. His British mother met his American father in Italy while the latter was on duty with the U.S. Air Force. Partly due to his mom's English heritage, their son played soccer; he moved to the gridiron only after years on the pitch as a high-scoring center forward. At the private Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, he also excelled at basketball (shooting guard) and baseball (second base/shortstop), even attracting attention from the Florida Marlins and Baltimore Orioles.

But Morris, an economics concentrator, wanted to attend college. Cousin Mike Brooks '01, who played strong safety for the Crimson, influenced his choice of Harvard. The cousins played two seasons together, but in scrimmages, competition trumped blood. "Sometimes Mike and I went one-on-one in practice," Morris says, shaking his head and grinning. "I had to make him look bad."

This fall, count on Morris doing the same to Ivy League defenders. Harvard's offense is largely intact, with Rose returning at quarterback and tailback Nick Palazzo '03 again running the ball, both working behind a familiar offensive line. Receivers Rodney Burns '05, Kyle Cremarosa '03 ('04) and Sean Meeker '03 will provide more targets for Rose. On defense, the secondary has several new faces, though the line is experienced. Two-time all-Ivy selection Dante Balestracci '04 will anchor the linebackers. And at crunch time, look downfield for Carl Morris. "The best feeling for me comes in a tight game, a close game where it's going back and forth," Morris says. "There's a play coming up that can turn the game around. Everyone's all tense. That's when I sit back, relax, and get my chance to really be in the moment." And, quite often, in the end zone as well.

Read more articles by Craig Lambert

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