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.
“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.
But he also knows how much good happened not just inside those walls, but in the neighborhood that surrounds them. If Josh were late for school, the janitor, a neighbor — someone — would inevitably get word back to the Morgans. A group of kids, perhaps 70 or 80 strong, ran those streets, balls flying this way and that, some able to resist the pull of what was out there, others sucked in by it, the neighborhood watching them all.
It’s why he came back to Washington as soon as the Redskins showed even scant interest last offseason. It’s why he comes back still, back each week, to visit his people. It’s why some of his closest advisers worry, because, as his godmother Sonja Strickland-Gaither said, “Can you handle all the tugging and pulling?”
When Morgan walked through his old neighborhood in January, the calls came out. “What you doin’, man?” a man yelled. “You playing ball?”
He is, and he will, for himself and for them.
“To impact those people the same place you grew up — the same people,” Morgan said, and he nodded across the street. “The people who watched me right there in that park come to the games. The same people that came to my junior high games, that said, ‘You’re special.’ I didn’t even know what they were talking about.”
Those early days, Dennis and Lawanda Morgan wanted their three sons to take advantage of where they grew up: 13 blocks from the U.S. Capitol, just up the Hill from the museums of the Smithsonian. When Joshua walked to and from Maury Elementary School, he was defined by the bag of books on his back and the basketball bouncing off his fingertips or the football tossed to himself. But Dennis Morgan didn’t want that to be his son’s identity.
“I didn’t want him to be pigeon-holed or stereotyped,” Dennis said. “I dragged him to the zoo. I dragged him to the opera. I dragged him to the ballet.”
The family would ride bikes to museums. The boys had their library cards. They would read an inspirational quote each day. Josh said he found schoolwork easy. “Too easy,” he said. Home, though?
“My parents made me work so hard in school at such a young age,” Joshua said. “I never understood why I was reading the biography of Malcolm X, and it was never mentioned in school. I was like, ‘Come on, man.’ They’d make me sit in the house. ‘Sit in the house and write this. Sit in the house and read this.’ I’m like, ‘Man, I’m in elementary school. The biography of Dr. King? Reading about Frederick Douglass?’ He had me in there playing chess. It’s like, ‘Dad, what are you doing?’ ”
What the Morgans were doing, they believed, was preparing their boys to be in position to resist what they knew existed on the street. But they couldn’t shelter them entirely.
There were, too, the bruises that come from a family falling apart. When Dennis and Lawanda divorced — Lawanda is remarried and goes by Lawanda Ware-Brown — the two younger Morgan boys went to live with their mother in Upper Marlboro. Joshua, already in high school — during which he would transfer from Eastern to Woodson, and switch from quarterback to wide receiver, for his senior year — stayed with his father in the District. But he grew ashamed of his circumstances. His father was always employed, and his mother works for the Navy and also is a Navy reservist, but Joshua often went without. His room had holes in the wall, he said, holes for rats to climb through. If the electricity was turned off, he’d get warm by the oven. He had no cable TV, so when friends spoke of watching “Martin” at school, he’d pretend he knew the plot, the characters, the jokes.
“I tried to disguise the fact that I probably had seven outfits that I rotated throughout the whole year, or three pairs of shoes that I just tried to shine and clean as best I can to make it look like I had some fresh shoes on,” he said. “With my pride, it just made me angrier.”
He was, all involved admit, angry at his parents. “I think he holds it against me,” Ware-Brown said. “He had some anger,” Dennis Morgan said.
“I was furious,” Joshua said. “I just didn’t get it. I wanted to understand everything, and for me, just not being able to understand why we were living like that, it drove me crazy.”
He formed a deep bond with Patrick Gaither, his basketball coach on a team called Clutch Performance, and Gaither’s wife Sonja Strickland-Gaither. He now calls them his godparents, and he grew to trust them, even though he would walk to meet Patrick for rides to practice, lest Patrick ask to see inside his home.
It was through all of it that Joshua Morgan, child of the District, put himself in position to help the District as an adult.
“It’s not about you,” Strickland-Gaither would tell him, she said. “Sometimes we get selfish, and we want to do things, but it’s really not about you. It’s about how can you make somebody else’s life better.”
In the NFL, Sundays conclude a weeklong crescendo, the physical violence and emotional drain of a game crashing to an end. Mondays are about recovery, about reviewing what happened and correcting mistakes. Tuesdays are for rest, the one day players have off. They are sacred. And each Tuesday during the 2012 season, Morgan filled with some sort of charitable appearance.
“I don’t think the ink was dry on his contract before he was asking around, trying to find me, trying to find community relations,” said Jordana Taylor, who worked for seven years as the Redskins’ director of community and charitable programs. “He made it clear that he thought it was his responsibility — a privilege and a responsibility — to give back to the community.”
The Redskins signed him to a two-year, $11.5 million contract not because he would give back, but because he could provide depth to a thin receiving corps. A sixth-round pick out of Virginia Tech in 2008, he caught 131 passes in 49 games for the 49ers over his first four seasons in the NFL.
But on the second Tuesday of the 2012 season, Morgan was already coming off what threatened to be his defining moment as a Redskin. In the waning minutes in St. Louis, Morgan was tackled by Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan, who then shoved him. Morgan sprang up and hurled the ball at Finnegan, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that moved the Redskins out of reasonable field goal range. Morgan grew up in D.C., but had no reputation here among the majority of Redskins fans. Some fans turned on him.
Morgan caught 48 passes for the Redskins last year. He may have made as many charitable appearances. In April alone, a time when most players are scattered across the country taking time to themselves, Morgan served as the grand marshal of the National Cherry Blossom Parade, helped lead 800 kids in an exercise program sponsored by the United Way, spoke to students about eating right and leading a healthy life at a clinic designed to combat childhood obesity, presented his college coach with an award for providing books to children.
He is, by nature, soft-spoken, but he preached passionately at the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure on the National Mall, in part because Strickland-Gaither, unbeknownst to even close friends, had breast cancer diagnosed in the fall of 2009.
“When I talk to people here,” he said, “I talk to people I know had the same experience I did.”
The city, too, is taking notice. On June 4, the D.C. Council unanimously approved agenda item No. 9: “Joshua L. Morgan Recognition Resolution.” On June 18, he will be presented a proclamation by the government.
Back at that little triangle of a park, Morgan thought about his message.
“I tell kids to this day: Stay out of trouble. Do everything your coaches and your teachers tell you to do. Get good grades,” he said. “And just work hard at whatever you decide to be in life. Just constantly work hard. That’s all you need.”
But Morgan will tell you: You need a family, you need friends. You need role models, you need a neighborhood. You need a city that, in some way, loves you so you can one day love it back.