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Tampa Bay Bucs coach Raheem Morris' story began in a hard place: Irvington, N.J.

Raheem Morris, the new Bucs coach, kisses Carol Houston, 43, who was one of his first little league football coaches, during Raheem Morris day at his hometown high school in Irvington, N.J.

JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times

Raheem Morris, the new Bucs coach, kisses Carol Houston, 43, who was one of his first little league football coaches, during Raheem Morris day at his hometown high school in Irvington, N.J.

IRVINGTON, N.J. Even on the day that was designed for him, Raheem Morris could not escape the storm. He stood in a puddle on a broken piece of track, looking out at the ragged football field of his youth. The sky was as gray as a bruise, and the rain beat against his umbrella in a steady hum. Over his shoulder, there was a scoreboard. This is where Raheem Morris grew up. This is where he made a few plays, and where he let a few slip away. Out there among the weeds and the clover, on a field jokingly referred to as "astrodirt,'' is where he made his closest friends, where he forged his fondest memories, where he shaped his personality.

Morris looked through the raindrops at Matthews Field, home of the Irvington High Blue Knights, and it was as if the years melted away. There was the spot where he caught a hitch pass against Westfield, then reversed his field and ran downfield for a touchdown. Over there was where he gave up the deep touchdown pass to Elizabeth High in his junior season. To his left are the metal stands where he spent his sophomore season after his parents pulled him from the team because of grades.

It was June 5, Raheem Morris Day. This was his place, and these were his people.

And if you want to get to know Raheem Morris, the new head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, this is where you begin.

So far, Tampa Bay doesn't know a lot about Morris. Yes, his players like him. Yes, he has some charisma. No, he isn't Jon Gruden. Except for that, however, Morris remains a mystery.

So who is Raheem Morris? And what made him that way?

The answer is in Irvington.

And to this day, much of Irvington is still in Morris.

It is a hard place, Irvington, a community of some 60,000 people not far from the runways of Newark International Airport.

Crime is high here, some eight times the average of the rest of New Jersey. There are empty, decaying buildings throughout town. These days, no one refers to it as the hometown of Jerry Lewis or Queen Latifah. These days, it is, as The New York Times once called it, "the place that prosperity forgot.''

The metal detector at the entrance suggests that Irvington High, too, has had its problems. In 2008, New Jersey Magazine ranked it 307th of the 316 high schools in the state. That was an improvement. Two years earlier, Irvington had been 316th, dead last.

To Morris, however, Irvington represented a better life when his family moved there when he was in the third grade. He had been born in nearby Newark, a town with its own problems.

"This was a chance to have a house, to have a better life,'' Morris says. "When we came to Irvington, we were moving up.''

A town such as this can give a man strength. It can teach him loyalty. It can make him tougher. It can make him competitive. Irvington gave all of that to Morris. It is in his DNA.

"This town is all over him,'' says Bam Richardson, a lifelong friend who is now Irvington's basketball coach. "Everyone knows Irvington is a tough town. It's a place that can make you, or it can break you. It's a cliche, but only the strong survive. If you're strong, you can go far. But if you're not, you can wake up in somebody's jail or in a predicament you can't get out.

"Raheem and I, we still carry that Irvington edge. We have that Irvington swagger.''

Morris may need it in the NFL. So far, he admits, his resume has more questions than answers. People are waiting to judge him, and they won't wait long.

"He's going to do well,'' said Kyle Steele, a teammate of Morris from his days in Pop Warner through those at Hofstra University. "I don't think the reason why is football-related. NFL coaches all know football. But Raheem has something that makes the next person believe he can do something. He has a way of bringing up the people around him.

"By the time he leaves, people are going to love him. They love Tony Dungy because he's so honorable. They're going to love Raheem because he's so likeable.''

• • •

To a man coming home, the streets always look the same.

Morris sits in the passenger seat of a blue rental car, retracing his mile-and-a-half walk home from school. He would cut over to Crescent Lake, the housing project where Bam and Moossey lived. He would keep going past the graveyard and over the bridge. Then a quick left and a right, and he was on Osborne Street.

It is a good street, with two-story houses pressed closely together and small, neat lawns. There is a faded yellow wall up the street, where the kids played wall ball, and an ATM that is in disrepair.

These days, Morris wears a tattoo on his left arm that says "Osb'' in memory of those days on Osborne. When the family first moved in, he would spend his days on the stoop, watching the kids of the neighborhood play football. One day, they needed another player to make the teams even, and Morris joined in.

The games went from telephone pole to telephone pole, or from manhole cover to manhole cover. Morris points to a street corner where his pass pattern one day was interrupted by a parked car. That cost him a chipped tooth.

Morris laughs when he tells the story. That, too, is something he took from Irvington, After all this time, he can still smile at the pain.

He could have gotten lost on these streets. Some people do. A childhood friend, Dwayne Youman, was shot and killed a half block away.

"A town like this will teach you to make the right decisions,'' Morris said. "It's easy to get into trouble and it's hard to get out. You can get into whatever you want to get into.''

So how did Morris succeed?

"I don't feel like I had a chance to lose,'' Morris said. "No matter how the odds are stacked against you, no matter what people think. That's why I had the ability to come out of Irvington.''

• • •

Morris stands in the dining room of his grandmother Lillian's house, flipping through old photo albums and cackling at the images of another time.

For most of his childhood, he lived here, along with his mother and an aunt and uncles. He shared a upstairs bedroom his cousin Quadir. There was a poster of Magic Johnson on the wall, another one of George Gervin.

He loved the Cowboys and the Lakers and The Cosby Show and pretzels and animals. His first job was as a caddy. His second job was at McDonald's. His first girlfriend was named Cherise.

Morris tells the stories quickly, the way he talks, like a runner in the open field. Finally, he gets the most important one of them all: The one about the Lost Year.

If you want to know, yeah, it still kind of stings.

Morris was a sophomore, and by his own admission, he was skating his way through school. There was a system at Irvington. If you were there for homeroom, no one paid much attention to you the rest of the day. So he would go to homeroom, then he would slip away and go to a friend's house and spend the day playing video games.

Sure enough, his grades began to slip. Nothing horrible, mind you, but suddenly, he wasn't making the grades he had made before. His parents weren't going to put up with it. They pulled him from the Irvington football team.

"He came home with a C,'' said Hilton Vaughn, Morris' father. "I asked him 'What are you going to do when they let the air out of the ball?' ''

Looking back, Morris says "It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I came back and I got a 3.0. I never would have gotten that without them taking away something I loved.''

That's what Morris says now. What he said then was, well, angrier. Even now, he and his mother, Valerie, go back and forth about it.

"I was (ticked),'' Morris said. "No one understood. I didn't at the time.''

"No, you didn't,'' Valerie says.

"I was still eligible,'' Raheem says.

"See! Eligible for who?'' Valerie said.

Raheem laughs. At 15, however, he wasn't very happy. His friends kept telling him his parents would change their minds, but they did not. For a season, he sat in the stands and fumed.

On Sunday afternoons, however, he kept stats for his old Pop Warner team. He started following around Ralph Steele, his old coach, and asking questions about play-calling. That was 1989, the year the Raiders made Art Shell the first African-American coach in the NFL in 61 years.

It was also the year Morris started to think about coaching.

• • •

Not far away, the boxes are stacked in the living room of Valerie Morris' second-floor apartment. She is moving to Tampa to watch her son coach. Of course she is.

Raheem Morris was born on Sept. 3, 1976, nine days before the Bucs played their first game. His father and mother would not marry until his sophomore year of college.

Still, both parents were always around. At one point, his father worked three jobs, went to school at Lincoln Tech and helped coach the Golden Knights (the Pop Warner team). Eventually, he became a mechanic with New Jersey Transit.

"For about two years, he was a zombie,'' Morris said. "I learned my work ethic from him. He always had great energy.''

From his mother, a clerk at Macy's for years, Raheem learned dependability.

"She was a rock,'' he said. "She made me know I could be better than I thought.''

In 2002, his first year with the Bucs, Raheem bought his mother her first car. Recently, he finally convinced his father to retire. When it comes to saying thanks, a man does what he can.

"I don't have any stories of looking for food,'' Raheem said, "because my parents always got it done.''

The days, the walls of Valerie's apartment walls are a testament to her only child. There is a photo of Raheem in an Irvington uniform, of him in a Hofstra uniform, of him with his high school prom date.

Nearby, on a book case, there a baseball cap with "Obama'' on the front. Not far away is a flag with the emblem of the Tampa Bay Bucs.

It is a changing world, is it not?

• • •

His old friends have him surrounded. From every possible direction, people are throwing memories at Morris.

He stands in the middle of the Irvington High auditorium, moments after the proclamations and the presentations that come with a having your own day. His friends are telling the same stories and laughing at the same memories. It is easy to feel the regard they have for him.

There is a particular sound to the laughter of old friends. There is no bond, no comfort level, that goes quite as deep as with those who watched you grow up. Even in the middle of his homecoming, he is still Raheem, and he is going to take his grief.

For instance, there is the play against Elizabeth, which has been debated a thousand times without resolution. Bam Robinson was playing safety. Morris was playing corner. The tight end and receiver both went long, and Morris was beaten for a touchdown.

To this day, Raheem argues that Bam should have called "ball'' to help him out. To this day, Bam argues back. For 16 years, the debate has continued.

"I'm right and he's wrong,'' Robinson says. And both men howl.

Morris was a good player. Ex-teammate Kyle Steele says that if Raheem had been the quarterback, the Blue Knights would have won the state title when he was a senior.

Even now, they talk about how Raheem ran in his years in Pop Warner, how his head would roll back until his eyes were looking at the sky, and how his knees and arms would pump, and how his braces would flash from inside his facemask.

There was a play, former Pop Warner coach Ralph Steele (Kyle's father) remembers, called Fake 25, 44 Bootleg. Eventually, it was shorted to "Touchdown on two,'' because Morris would always score on it. The first touchdown ever for the Irvington Pop Warner team? It was a 70-yard run by Morris.

"He was just as charismatic now as he was then,'' Ralph said. "Even then, you could tell he was a leader.''

• • •

How did Morris get out of Irvington High? Some days, he fought his way out.

By the time Morris was a senior in high school, there were problems between the Haitian immigrants and African-American football players. Almost every day, there was a fist fight. Some of those days, Raheem was involved.

"It was a fight-for-survival world,'' Morris said. "You had your friends and they had their friends, and it was either fight or get beat up. We didn't have gangs. That was before they called them gangs.''

On the peaceful days, Morris and his friends would linger on the corner, or at the bridge, or they would make their way down to Tasty's Chicken Shack. They would listen to Jay-Z or Tupac. They would argue about sports and talk about girls. They called themselves the P.Y.T.'s, after the Michael Jackson song. The Pretty Young Things.

He was Ra-Dog. Or Scoop.

"He has this round hook in the back of his head,'' said Kyle Steele. "Look at him. He looks like Snoopy.''

Once, Kyle tells you, he and Morris were walking toward Irvington Park on Mischief Night, the night before Halloween. Two kids jumped out and pelted Morris with eggs, coating Morris' new leather jacket.

"Raheem chased them down,'' Kyle said. "He was roughing up one of the guys, and he kept saying something I couldn't understand because he as taking so fast. About the eighth time, I finally understood. He was yelling "You're Going to Clean My Jacket.''

As Steele says it, the phrase comes out as a high pitched squeal: "You'regoingtocleanmyjacket.''

"Back in the day, fighting wasn't a bad deal,'' Morris said. "It was just a fight. You didn't have to worry about getting stabbed or shot. It was hand to hand. No one was afraid to get their backs dirty. Today, they want to shoot you. I don't understand that one yet.''

Fifteen years after he graduated, Morris walks through the halls of his old high school, and heads turn as he passes. Irvington is 82 perent African-American. The school is 96 percent.

A lot of young faces look the way Morris' used to look. A lot of young lives began the same way.

• • •

Raheem Morris almost didn't have to coach his way to the NFL. According to those who know him best, he could have made it as a player.

His senior season at Hofstra, Morris was having a fine year at safety, and the Pride was ranked 14th in the country. But when a teammate was injured, Morris volunteered to move to cornerback. Kyle Steele, his college roommate, says it cost him a shot at the pros.

"If he had stayed at safety, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that he would have played in the league,'' said Steele. "No doubt.''

Instead, Raheem became a coach, making $5,000 a year to break down tape, starting a journey that would lead him from Hofstra to Cornell to the Jets to the Bucs to Kansas State. And then back to the Bucs.

Going to the Bucs, Morris said, "was like going to Princeton.'' There, he learned from Mike Tomlin, and from Rod Marinelli, and from Joe Barry, and from Monte Kiffin, and from Gruden.

These days, Raheem is the biggest question mark in town. He is only 32, and he has never been a head coach, and the defense faded badly last year, and the schedule is imposing. Tampa Bay has its own storm clouds on the horizon.

"You're talking about the odds against him,'' Bam said. "I don't think he would have it any other way. I think he's going to thrive under the pressure.''

Why not? The crumbling buildings and pockmarked streets suggest Morris already has survived other pressures. What were the odds against him on Osborne? What were the expectations in the hallways of Irvington?

After enduring all of that, do you expect Morris to lack confidence?

He smiles again.

"Self-confidence,'' Morris says, "has never been one of my problems.''

"This town is all over him. Everyone knows Irvington is a tough town. It's a place that can make you, or it can break you. It's a cliche, but only the strong survive. If you're strong, you can go far. But if you're not, you can wake up in somebody's jail or in a predicament you can't get out.

"Raheem and I, we still carry that Irvington edge. We have that Irvington swagger.''

Bam Richardson, a lifelong friend

Tampa Bay Bucs coach Raheem Morris' story began in a hard place: Irvington, N.J. 06/12/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 17, 2009 1:50pm]
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