COOPER--It is mid-afternoon and in the booths down at the Dairy Queen and at the tables of the 75-year-old Miller's Pharmacy on the square, a religious rite of small-town Texas is being practiced. There is some talk of the endless drought and the brain-baking heat, maybe even a bit of bragging about a big one recently caught at Cooper Lake, but eventually the September conversation turns to high- school football.
For many of the 2,338 who live in this quiet community 80 miles northeast of Dallas, life offers no greater joy than following the Friday night football fortunes of the Cooper High School Bulldogs, past and present.
Even as a new group of teenagers labor through steamy after-school workouts on the edge of town in preparation for the new season, those who set the standards they aspire to have not been forgotten. Back in the '30s, brothers Marshall and Ed Robnett played for the Bulldogs before going on to continue their athletic careers at Texas A&M, then to the National Football League. Marshall ultimately played for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ed for the San Francisco 49ers. They still talk of the 1958 season when Joe Scott, Tom Landry's old New York Giants teammate, came here to launch his own coaching career.
And, of course, there's the remarkable Morris family.
The recruiting war between Oklahoma and Texas Christian University for the services of running back J.C. Morris in the late '70s is legendary. According to the local lore, then-Sooners coach Barry Switzer all but lived in Cooper for weeks in an effort to get Morris to sign. There are stories of the youngster being hidden in motels in Norman before a member of the TCU staff located him, kidnapped him, and drove him back home, stopping at a roadside park along the way to sign him to a Horned Frogs scholarship agreement.
Then in the '80s came younger brother Ron, even more talented. In addition to record-setting efforts as a Bulldogs running back, he was the state 100-meter dash champion and won the event at Sacramento's Golden West Invitational, defeating a field of the premier high school sprinters invited from across the nation. He went on to play wide receiver for SMU, then the Chicago Bears for six years before a knee injury ended his career.
Brother Tommy, some say, was probably the most talented of all the 10 children born to Marvin and Marie Morris, but he died in an automobile accident during his sophomore year of high school. Mourners at the funeral found it entirely appropriate that the youngster was buried in his Bulldogs football jersey.
And most recently there was Byron "Bam" Morris. After adding his mark to the family legacy, he enrolled at Texas Tech where, following his All-American junior season, he won the Doak Walker Award in 1993 as the nation's top collegiate running back. Skipping his final year of college eligibility, he was selected in the third round of the NFL draft by Pittsburgh. Three years later, as the Cowboys defeated the Steelers 27-17 in Super Bowl XXX, the 6-foot, 255-pound Morris, not Dallas' Emmitt Smith, was the game's leading rusher.
In Cooper, where bragging rights are deemed valued currency, the townspeople applauded his accomplishments and celebrated his success. And in off-seasons Morris hurried back to his roots, to family and the familiarity of small-town living. He often stopped in at the school, walking the halls to talk to wide-eyed youngsters, signing autographs, always smiling the infectious smile that had been his trademark since childhood.
On the southern edge of town, just beyond the city limits marker, the proud Morris family had a large sign erected, advising visitors they were entering the boyhood home of their two pro-football-playing sons.
Then, in the summer of 1996, the football fairy tale turned ugly, and it has steadily worsened.
Bam Morris, a 28-year-old hometown hero, will soon be headed for prison. Recently, in a Kansas City courtroom, he pleaded guilty to attempting to distribute more than 220 pounds of marijuana and conspiring to launder money for drug transactions.
U.S. District Judge Gary Fenner has ordered that Morris remain in custody pending a pre-sentencing investigation.
Meanwhile, Texas authorities have issued an arrest warrant for Morris, charging him with violating terms of probation he received following his first brush with the law in 1996. He was stopped in Rockwall as he drove from Dallas to Cooper, and six pounds of marijuana were found in a gym bag in the trunk of his car. A search of Morris' impounded automobile later turned up an ounce and a half of cocaine. Ultimately, Morris pleaded guilty to the marijuana possession in exchange for probation. The cocaine charges were dropped.
His football career began to crumble. The Steelers, one of the few NFL teams intolerant of any kind of bad-boy behavior, quickly released him. The NFL suspended him for four games of the 1997 season for violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. He received a second chance when the expansion Baltimore Ravens signed him, but two years later he was looking for yet another professional home.
Originally placed on six years' probation, fined $7,000, and ordered to perform 200 hours of community service for the Rockwall marijuana charge, Morris soon found himself back in trouble. Having repeatedly missed scheduled meetings with his probation officer, he was re-arrested and given a 10-year prison sentence. His attorney managed to arrange a plea bargain with the prosecutor and finally Morris was ordered to spend 120 days in jail, perform additional community service, and pay another fine.
At the sentencing, a stern state District Judge Sue Pirtle told Morris that if he violated the new agreement, he could expect to be sent to prison for the remainder of the 10-year sentence.
Morris' image further sullied, the Ravens released him. Chicago, his older brother's old team, picked him up in August '98, but by October he'd been traded to the Kansas City Chiefs. It was there that his once-promising NFL career crashed for the final time.
And back home, folks were baffled by the opportunities lost, the life wasted.
Richard Huie, a life-long Cooper resident currently in his eighth term as mayor, shakes his head at the mention of Morris' name. "My son-in-law played ball with him in high school," he says. "He really liked him. Everybody in town did. But now, I'm hearing a lot of disappointment in people's voices.
"Folks around here have supported Bam all his life. After the Super Bowl against Dallas, the town threw a really nice reception for him. The whole community participated. Even after that business over in Rockwall, there were a lot of folks who felt it might just have been a situation where he got mixed up with the wrong people.
"But there comes a time when you've got to ask yourself: How many chances do you give someone? In most small, conservative towns like this, folks reach a point where they say enough is enough."
That, it seems, is the mindset of Cooper today.
Mayor Huie, who coached several of the Morris boys during their Little League days, says that since word of Bam's arrest in Kansas City he's received calls almost daily from townspeople asking why the sign out on the highway, proclaiming Cooper as the fallen hero's home, hasn't been taken down. "A fella called just the other day to point out that our baseball team won the state championship in 1999 and there's no sign up for them, and he's got a good argument. But all I can do for now is explain that the city didn't put the sign up--the Morris family did--so there's nothing we can do about taking it down."
How the Morris family, living in a home built for them by their pro football-playing sons just a few years ago, feels about the matter is unknown. No one answered when the Dallas Observer knocked at the door last week, and the family's unlisted phone number had been changed.
"You know," says school Superintendent Fred Wilkerson, a close friend of the Morris family for more than 30 years, "I was talking to the school nurse just today about how mad I am at Bam for what he's done to himself, his family, and the community. But having said that, if he came walking through the door of my office right now I'd get up and hug his neck. The Bam Morris I've known most of his life is a big ol' teddy bear, a charmer, a nice, polite young man. That's what makes this all the more difficult."
And while Wilkerson, who coached the Cooper High football team from 1968 to '73, admits there is little evidence of sympathy for Morris within the community, he has heard no blame pointed at family members. "I guess the thing you hear most over coffee or at church or wherever," he says, "is that Marie Morris doesn't deserve this. And that's right. I don't believe there is a finer, more gracious woman in the world. She saw to it that those kids participated in the community, behaved themselves, worked hard, and were polite. And if one was playing a game, she made sure all the others were there to cheer him on. No question about it; she doesn't deserve this."
Nor, says the man to whom Morris came for advice when he was contemplating leaving Texas Tech a year early to make himself available for the NFL draft, does the town of Cooper. "A li'l ol' town like us needs a positive identity. It's nice to say you produced somebody who goes out into the world and makes something of himself. Bam had that opportunity and now people around here feel he let us down."
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Judy Falls, an English and government teacher who doubles as a photographer at Cooper High athletic events, fondly remembers the young Bam Morris who once sat in her classroom. "He was a gentle person, thoughtful, and had a wonderful sense of humor. You couldn't help but like him.
"But he obviously made some bad choices, and now he has to take responsibility. While I hate what's happened to him, my sympathy is reserved for his family. This town loves that family and knows he's embarrassed them."
Last week, local pharmacist Marion Miller, self-appointed historian of Cooper High athletics, was reading proofs of the program that will be sold at home games this season. The final page was devoted to past accomplishments of those players who once wore the maroon and white. "I noticed that where the NFL teams Bam Morris had played on were listed, the Baltimore Ravens hadn't been included," he says, "so I pointed it out."
The response was more matter-of-fact than bitter: "Who cares anymore?"