Wedged between Massachusetts Avenue and A Street SE sits a little plot of land, not long enough for a 25-yard touchdown pass, not wide enough for a three-receiver set. It is technically a park, though it doesn’t draw visitors — folks with dogs and kids and beach towels and footballs — like Lincoln Park, only a block away. But Joshua Morgan can sit on the step of the house he grew up in, just across A Street, look at that tiny, afterthought of a park and remember the lessons learned.
There is the obvious: the receiver’s routes Morgan carried out there, before he had grown enough that he covered the entire length of the grass in four lanky strides. He ran slants from one side, then from the other, five-yard outs from the left, then five-yard outs from the right, first under the direction of his father, Dennis, and then long after his dad went back inside. Dennis Morgan so loved the neighborhood that he sent Joshua to Elliott Junior High, where he once went, and then implored him to go to Eastern High School, as he once did. “Our little triangle,” Dennis Morgan called the nameless, throwaway park where an NFL receiver received so much of his early education.
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“I don’t think he thought at that time that’s going to get my son to the NBA or the NFL,” Joshua Morgan said one day a few months ago, walking through his old neighborhood on the eastern edge of Capitol Hill. “But it is more like, ‘This is what’s going to keep my son’s grades good. This is what’s going to keep him out of trouble.’ ”
Washington has produced its share of NFL stars. Josh Cribbs quarterbacked Dunbar before becoming a standout return man in Cleveland and signing with Oakland. Vernon Davis caught passes and wreaked havoc on that same Dunbar team before playing in the Super Bowl for San Francisco. Marvin Austin was highly sought at Ballou before ending up with the New York Giants. Byron Leftwich threw passes at H.D. Woodson before shredding defenses for Jacksonville.
But there is no pro athlete — not in football or basketball, not in baseball or hockey — who is currently more of the District than Joshua Morgan, born at Washington Hospital Center 1985, graduated from H.D. Woodson High ’03, signed with the Washington Redskins in 2012. He owns a house in Leesburg, closer to the Redskins’ Ashburn headquarters. But he has the bars and stars of the District flag, the area code 202, the dome of the U.S. Capitol, the initials D.C. tattooed on his left forearm not for show, but because the city is as much a part of him as the skin underneath those images. He’s the one who can speak to groups of kids here — as he has dozens of times since he joined the Redskins — and truly, without risk of being labeled a poser or a fraud, say he has walked where they walk.
“I know where they’ve been,” he said. “I know what they’ve been through.”
What Morgan, 27, went through wasn’t just the idealized version of growing up in the city and then making it big, now playing home games less than 10 miles from that front porch. Morgan knows he didn’t always stay out of trouble. He knows, too, the strife that took place in the house on A Street, where his parents’ divorce caused him pain and confusion, where his father had to make choices between paying the mortgage and paying the electric bill, where his bedroom could have doubled as a closet, where his grandmother still lives.