Former coaches say Morgan had ‘it’ from an early age
By Rich Palzewic
ASHWAUBENON – Jackie Morgan, the mother of Carolina Panthers NFL quarterback James Morgan, said she knew her son could go places from an early age.
“Even when James was in YMCA flag football when he was five or six, we were the only team passing the ball,” she said. “At the time, Doug Pederson (the former head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles) was the backup quarterback to Brett Favre with the Packers. Doug’s son was also on James’ team. He was standing out as a thrower, even from that early age.”
Jackie said James’ father, Brian, was always throwing a football around with their son.
“It wasn’t anything grand at that point – it was just what fathers do with their sons,” she said. “Brian coached their flag football team, but it for sure helped.”
Morgan played baseball and soccer in his youth as well.
“When James was younger, football was something he did during that season,” Jackie said. “He liked other sports, too.”
Morgan was also a member of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association Division 1 state championship 4×400-meter relay team in 2015 at Ashwaubenon High School.
So, what’s it like having an NFL quarterback sitting at the dinner table?
“We still pinch ourselves from time to time, but James is still the person he’s always been – hard-working, humble and a good role model,” Jackie said. “It hasn’t gone to his head. We see him maybe three or four times a year. We were planning on going to his games last year, but COVID-19 put a change to that. He was home for Christmas and a couple of weekends over the summer. We are anticipating getting to more games this season.”
Standing out in middle school
During his middle school days, Morgan was coached by Pete Mears on the Falcon Football Green Bay team.
“I always have fun talking about James,” Mears said. “It brings back lots of good memories. When he came into the program, I didn’t know much about him. I was the athletic director and head coach of the eighth-grade team. I quickly learned about him.”
Mears said Morgan stood out early on.
“His arm strength was incredible,” he said. “By the time he was in the seventh grade, he threw the ball so hard I couldn’t catch a pass from him with my wedding ring on anymore. It would ruin my hand and tear at the skin. He had an absolute cannon for an arm, but he also had outstanding character and was coachable. He loved the game.”
Mears said, like most accomplished athletes, Morgan put in the time.
“He was always the first one to practice and the last one to leave,” he said. “He loved being around the field. He raised the ability of the other kids on the team, but he also raised their work ethic and commitment. Seeing him work so hard, that raised everyone else’s appetite to do the same. He helped the program while he was there and after he left.”
Mears said two moments stick out in his mind when thinking back to Morgan’s days in a Falcons uniform.
“We had a playoff system back then, and we had a game versus Bay View Middle School, which is part of the Bay Port High School feeder system,” he said. “We played the game at Green Bay Preble High School. They were a great team – that’s when (current Las Vegas Raiders fullback) Alec Ingold was playing. Bay View had two teams during the season, but when the playoffs rolled around, they’d combine into one. They physically outmatched us by quite a bit.”
Mears said the Falcons got down early.
“In the second half, James was able to take advantage of a particular coverage Bay View was playing,” he said. “I don’t remember how many yards he had, but it was lots. He had a great football IQ. We came back and rallied to victory. I can still remember on the sideline when we got down, he was saying to the guys, ‘We can do it – keep your heads up.’ He was being positive. Typically, when kids are that young, they don’t say things like that.”
The Falcons played in the championship game the next week in difficult conditions.
“We played against Ashwaubenon at Green Bay East,” Mears said. “It was one of the last seasons before East put in turf. Prior to the game, we had a two-day monsoon with tons of rain. Between the 20 yard lines, the field was solid mud. Ashwaubenon wore white uniforms and we wore maroon. By the end of the game, you couldn’t tell the difference between the teams. It rained the whole game.”
Mears said it was a great game.
“We ended up losing, but James stood out again,” he said. “On the final play of the game, James threw a pass to the end zone and put it on our receiver’s hands, but he couldn’t pull it in. Neither team could run the ball, so because James was so good, we could throw the ball.”
Jackie said her favorite moment also came when James was an eighth-grader.
“I remember one game when he had six touchdown passes,” she said. “I think they were all more than 20 yards. That’s when we said to ourselves, ‘This is fun.’ He then starting participating in camps leading up to high school. The truth is, he led it. He enjoyed it and worked hard. As parents, we just tried to guide him.”
Success in high school
While at Ashwaubenon, Morgan played four years: One year as the junior varsity starter and three years leading the varsity.
He threw for more than 7,500 yards under then-head coach Mark Jonas.
“I didn’t get involved with too much of the youth stuff as head coach at Ashwaubenon,” Jonas said. “Fundamentally, I have an issue with programs getting too involved with youth programs and recruiting them. I had heard about James, but I didn’t meet him until Christmas during his eighth-grade year.”
Jonas said he was “extremely glad” Morgan ultimately picked Ashwaubenon.
“There was also another talented area quarterback (Charlie Rotherham) coming up through the ranks, and he chose Notre Dame Academy,” he said. “Brian talked with us about the basics of our offense and what we’d expect out of James. Brian is big on servant leadership, not only the x’s and o’s. Clearly, anybody who got James as their quarterback was going to throw the ball a bit more than normal – it would be foolish not to.”
Jonas said they didn’t revolve the offense around Morgan, but he helped propel it forward.
“His freshman year, he was clearly ready for junior varsity ball, so he started there,” Jonas said. “His sophomore year, he was behind Kyle Mrozinski (on the varsity), who was our starter for three years. At the time, the offense was playing well but not great. James knew he had to bide his time, but we felt if we could put Kyle as the captain of the defense and James at quarterback, we’d be better. We talked to Kyle – he was the ultimate team guy and fabulous leader – and the rest is history.”
As a pure thrower, Jonas said Morgan is at the top of the list of all Green Bay area quarterbacks in history.
“I don’t know of any other quarterback who’s come out of this area that could do the things James could do,” he said. “He could make every throw and was phenomenal. He pushed everyone around him to be better. He would get guys together at 5 a.m. throughout the year. Players followed him because they knew James would carry them. His impact was huge.”
Despite Morgan’s talents, Jonas said everyone should be surprised he made it to the NFL.
“I say this only because it’s difficult to get to this level,” he said. “It’s a select group – it’s pretty impressive. He has the attributes to be there, but he created the opportunity for himself.”
Time with the New York Jets
Coming out of Florida International University, Morgan was drafted by the New York Jets in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
Morgan didn’t play down last season but saw extensive time this preseason.
The Jets recently cut Morgan, but he was picked up by the Carolina Panthers and signed to the practice squad.
Return to Lambeau Field
Before being released by the Jets, Morgan realized his childhood dream of returning home to play at Lambeau Field in front of family and friends as a member of the Jets for an Aug. 21, preseason game against the Packers.
“When you look at everything that needed to happen and for the stars to align, it’s a surprise he made it this far,” Mears said. “There are only about 100 NFL quarterbacks in the world. Having said that, he used the tools he had and worked hard. From that aspect, I’m not surprised. I knew he’d play (college football) at some point, but playing on Sunday is a different animal.”