Alfred Morris makes his way through the rows of vehicles in the lot at Redskins Park, car keys in one hand, helmet in the other. ¶ “Oh, you wanna see my boo?” he says. Nearby sit a Lincoln Navigator SUV, a Porsche, a couple of Range Rovers and Dodge Challengers. ¶ “Here’s the Bentley,” he proudly says. But he’s standing in front of a silver 1991 Mazda 626. “You wanna know the best part about my boo?” ¶ The rookie running back walks around to the passenger side to a spot near the rear. ¶ “You know, dimples are beautiful — especially the half-dimples,” Morris grins, rubbing a slight dent. “My boo’s even got a dimple. I love this car.” ¶ It’s the unlikeliest of rides for the NFL’s fifth-leading rusher. But very little is typical when it comes to Morris, who has helped quarterback Robert Griffin III transform the Washington Redskins’ offense into one of the most potent attacks in the NFL. ¶ From his journey to the NFL — routed through Florida Atlantic University — to his ascension as Washington’s starting running back, nothing is as one would expect. ¶ But that’s fine with Morris, a soft-spoken, “Yes-sir, yes-ma’am” kid, the fourth of Ronald and Yvonne Morris’s seven sons.
To Morris, the 21-year-old car with 124,000 miles on the odometer represents a gift from God; the answer to countless prayers — even more than he offered up regarding his dream of playing in the NFL.
Morris didn’t get a car for his high school graduation like many of his classmates at Pine Forest High in Pensacola, Fla. Once in college — 10 hours away from home in Boca Raton, Fla. — Morris had to hoof it.
“The two most reliable things I had were my legs, so I used to walk everywhere,” the 5-foot-10, 218-pound Morris says with a shrug. “I’d walk to class, walk to work at Sears. It was quite a haul, but I’d walk it. I wanted a car so bad.”
Three years after he arrived at Florida Atlantic, Morris’s pastor, Gregory Fashaw, sold the football player the Mazda. He wanted to give it to Morris. But in fear of violating NCAA rules of improper benefits, he sold it to Morris for a great price.
“He said, ‘Two dollars. Just two dollars,’ ” Morris recalled. “I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Two dollars!’ God answered my prayer. . . . I was like, ‘It might not be much, but it’s mine.’ I wouldn’t let anybody steal my joy. They’d crack on me when I got it, and I’d be like, ‘Oh, that Bentley out there? Yeah, I’d be jealous if I didn’t have one, too.’ And the name just stuck.”
Morris drove the car the 1,022 miles from South Florida to Ashburn this spring after the Redskins drafted him and signed him to a deal that will pay him roughly $390,000 as a rookie. He could afford another car, but prefers to save and help his family.
“Why would I waste money on another car? My needs are met,” he says.
Said Redskins fullback Darrel Young: “He comes into Redskins Park in that every day. He doesn’t care what people think about him. That should tell you there’s something special about him.”
Of the country’s 120 Football Bowl Championship coaches in 2008, only Florida Atlantic’s Howard Schnellenberger saw something special in Morris. He was an all-state linebacker in high school, but on offense, he served primarily as a lead blocker in an option-heavy scheme. FAU was the only school to offer a scholarship, so Morris accepted, although at the time, he still wasn’t entirely sure where the school was located.
“He had all the traits that you look for,” recalled Schnellenberger, now retired. “He fit well into a pro-style offense. . . . When he hits the holes, he hits it hard, runs behind his shoulder pads, drives with his legs. That’s why we wanted him. A lot of it was instinctive, but you groom a player, and he learned how to run that way from playing fullback his first year.”
Thanks to injuries to teammates, Morris took over at tailback as a sophomore and never relinquished the role, averaging 1,168 yards and nine touchdowns his last three seasons. But the Owls posted a 10-26 record during those three seasons, including 1-11 in Morris’s senior year because of inexperience at many key positions, according to Schnellenberger.
Morris generated little interest in the NFL draft.
“It’s inconceivable to me that 32 teams passed on him five and six times until Washington took him,” Schnellenberger said. “Were 172 players better than Alfred?”
Morris and his family were just happy to hear the phone ring.
“It was chaos,” recalls Morris’s younger brother, Shawn, a Division III all-American running back at Birmingham Southern. “Phone rang and the whole family went crazy. He got off the phone, and there was a bunch of jumping around, running around. For three days of waiting, sitting there. That doubt had started to creep up.”
The Redskins were happy to get Morris with that 173rd pick, but initially had him buried on the depth chart behind Tim Hightower, Evan Royster and Roy Helu Jr.
But as in college, injuries to others meant opportunity for Morris. With all three veterans hobbled two weeks into the preseason, Morris received a steady workload and wound up winning the starting job.
“I was very confident in him as soon as I saw him run in the preseason games,” said Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan, who is known for plucking running backs late in the draft and turning them into effective runners. “You could see right away he has a natural feel and can make people miss. I like the way he practices everyday because he goes out there with the mind-set that he is going to give everything he’s got, if it is in the running game, if it is in pass protection, if it is picking up his responsibility. He is really a unique kid: He’s really down to earth, and I think he has a big-time future.”
Morris apparently has a big-time present as well. After four games, only Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch, Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles, Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy and Houston’s Arian Foster have rushed for more yards than Morris’s 376, and just 47 yards separate him from Lynch, the leader. Morris’s four rushing touchdowns are tied with Griffin and Foster for first in the league. And Morris’s 82 carries are tied for third in the NFL.
“Am I surprised? Not really. Not performance-wise,” Morris says thoughtfully. “Just more than anything, surprised that my opportunity came sooner than I thought it would come. But I always told myself, ‘All you need is the opportunity and once you get it, you make the most of it.’ ”
Morris last week joined Larry Brown, John Riggins, George Rogers, Earnest Byner and Terry Allen as the only running backs in Redskins history to open a season with at least 75 yards in each of his first four games. At this pace, Morris will rush for 1,504 yards and shatter the franchise rookie record of 1,063 yards set in 1993 by Reggie Brooks.
But individual performances don’t faze the rookie.
“He never really talks about what he does in games,” says Kenyon Littles, Morris’s roommate and his best friend of 11 years. “After games, at home, he’ll talk about games, but it’s never about his stats. It’s always about wins and losses. He hasn’t let it change him.”
Shawn Morris says of his brother: “That’s a trickle-down from our parents.”
The Morrises walked to Sunday morning services every week at New Dimensions Christian Center in Pensacola with their seven boys. Yvonne Morris regularly preached three one-verse sermonettes: “Without God, we can do nothing”; “He who will not work, will not eat”; and “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
And so, Alfred Morris tries to live by those lessons.
“He’s not a big trash-talker,” Young says. “He’s a religious kid. He doesn’t swear. He comes from a good family. He’s got a good base.”
Morris regularly seeks opportunities for community service. When the Redskins hold events for children as part of the NFL’s campaign against youth obesity, Morris volunteers. Last Tuesday, the team hosted a banquet for breast cancer survivors. Morris attended, and at one point, he and long snapper Nick Sundberg donned blond wigs to entertain the women.
“It’s a blessing to be able to give back,” Morris said. “I don’t do it for attention. I just want to make a difference. I’d rather fly under the radar. I’m a simple guy.”
Flying under the radar might have worked for a while, but no longer.
Fans and teammates make sure they let the back know that they haven’t overlooked his success.
“It’s crazy,” Morris says. “People recognize me more now. My teammates say stuff. [Defensive lineman Chris] Baker always calls me ‘Superstar.’ I say, ‘Man, don’t call me that.’ I’m no superstar. I’m just the man standing next to the man.”
As if on cue, ‘the Man,’ Griffin, walks by on his way out the Redskins’ facility. He stops and peers through the glass doors of the room where Morris is being interviewed. He sticks his head in the door and asks Morris why he’s wearing a jersey.
Learning Morris had done a photo shoot, Griffin nods fervently and grins. Pointing to Morris, the quarterback says, “This man is a beast!”
“Oh, whatever,” Morris protests. “I didn’t do GQ, like you.”
“Hey,” Griffin says before leaving, “you running the way you are, you can do whatever you want.”
Morris sighs and shakes his head.
“I’m just doing what got me here,” he says.