Coach and Players Show Class In The Face Of Tragedy
Thamail Morgan took the kickoff and headed up the field.
He was at the 20 ... 30 ... 40
He had been avoiding, dodging or just simply running through tacklers on the way. Football always had come easily for Morgan. This game was no different. By the time he hit midfield, only open space was ahead of him. The two-time Arkansas all-state selection was headed for a touchdown.
40 ... 30 ... 20
He glanced at the clock and saw the final seconds ticking away. He realized his team, Cave City, was on the way to a victory over Yellville-Summit, comfortably ahead, 34-16. He also realized two other things: This wasn't an ordinary game. And he wasn't the same Thamail Morgan.
When he reached the 2, he stopped. He took a few steps back and took a knee at the 5-yard line.
Yelleville-Summit is a co-op program, a combination of two small rural schools in the northern part of Arkansas, near the Missouri border. Combining the schools allows them to field a football team. But even then, the squad is so small that coach Calvin Mallett has to bring extra uniforms in case a lineman gets hurt and someone needs to fill in.
On Sept. 11, before a game with Salem, the schools came together for a pep rally. Afterward, a four of the players piled into the bed of Kymball Duffy's truck to head to his house for a pre-game meal.
According to Marion County Sheriff Roger Vickers, this is what happened next.
As Duffy came over a hill, he quickly came upon a brush pile in the road. Duffy swerved into the other side of the road, attempting to avoid it. He lost control of the truck, sending it into a tumble.
The four players in the back – whose names are not being released - were thrown from the vehicle. Miraculously, three of the players in the back suffered only minor injuries. A fourth remains in the hospital but appears to be headed for recovery. Duffy was killed at the scene.
The game with Salem was cancelled.
The town held memorial services for Duffy, then decided they needed to continue the season as part of the healing process.
Before taking on Cave City, the most seriously injured of the four players in the back of the truck, spoke to the team from his hospital bed.
Players from Yellville-Summit and Cave City met at midfield before the game for a moment of remembrance. Players on both teams wore a No. 72 decal - Duffy's number - on their helmet.
The game began and Cave City quickly scored. Minutes later, it scored again. And again. All hope for a storybook ending appeared lost.
Thamail Morgan is type of player who can dominate a high school game. On every play.
Last year, playing for Newport in a state playoff game against Heber Springs, he had 15 tackles, a sack and two forced fumbles on defense. He had 145 yards receiving and two touchdowns on offense.
He was coveted by most Division I programs in the South. Then it all changed.
In January, he violated an unspecified school rule that banned him from athletics for a year. Morgan would be eligible for basketball during his senior season but not football.
A year away from football would hurt his chances of gaining a scholarship, so - after considering a number of options - he transferred roughly 40 miles away to Cave City. His scholarship offers did not travel with him.
"Before I screwed up and got myself into trouble, I had some schools like Arkansas, Florida State, Ole Miss, and some other big schools looking at me,'' he said. "Now they are not looking at me, but I have no one to blame but myself for that. Hopefully I can get on someone's radar, even if it is a lower level D-1 or D-2 school."
Cave City coach Jon Bradley was willing to take a chance on Morgan. But only if he met certain conditions. He not only is required to attend extra weight lifting and conditioning exercises, he is required to participate in after-school activities with a local church and meet with a pastor on a regular basis for counseling.
"Everyone makes mistakes," Bradley said. "Thamail made some mistakes that did not allow him to play football anymore at Newport, and we knew what those mistakes were when he came here. I sat him down and talked to him, and let him know I was willing to give him a chance, but there were certain things that he would have to do in order to play for our program.
"So far, he has accomplished, and continues to do everything he has been asked to do, and then some. He has transitioned well and the kids here have accepted him. He is doing well in class, and is a leader on the football field and is a great athlete. We feel fortunate to have him."
Bradley said he didn't get word the game with Yellville-Summit was going to be played until Tuesday. He then wondered all week how it would play out.
"I did not know what to expect due to the tragedy,'' he said. "You go into the game wanting to win, but then, you feel bad doing it. When we went up 21-0 in the first quarter, I just can't explain how I felt. The atmosphere was so weird. I just can't explain it."
His players sensed it too.
"They told me on the sidelines that Yellville-Summit was not into it and they did not want to pad stats or run up the score,'' he said. "At that time, I started substituting our kids in and out of the game."
At this point, what the game represented became clear to Bradley.
"Everyone was glad that they were out there playing, getting some sort of return to normalcy,'' he said. "But everyone was going to be glad when it was over."
Yellville-Summit eventually scored in the second quarter, after Cave City had replaced many of its regulars. Bradley did not have a problem with that.
"I talked with Coach Mallet earlier in the week and before the game," Bradley said. "He let me know that if the game was to get out of hand, he simply did not have the players to substitute due to his numbers. So, I knew that when I pulled our guys, that there was a chance they would score."
It was 28-8 at halftime. Then 34-8 at the end of three quarters. Yelleville-Summit scored a second time with little time left to make it 34-16.
They had to kick off, sending a line drive that bounced its way to the back. To Morgan.
"We didn't even think they would kick off," Bradley said. "And we had him (Morgan) all the way back. It was our top return team, but we only have one return team.
What Morgan did next surprised Bradley.
"I did not tell him to kneel down, he did it on his own," Bradley said. "I did not expect them to kick it to him. I figured they would kick away, because he has the ability to break away. I did not know that he was going to do what he did. He broke tackles, ran sideline to sideline, and got to the 2, and just stopped. That is when he backed up and took a knee on the 5-yard line."
Morgan did not do this completely on his own.
"We were on the sidelines yelling for him not to score," Bradley said. "Some of the players on the field were saying it, too. But I'm not sure how much he could have heard all of it."
He heard it, Morgan admitted. But he didn't need to.
"Before the game, we as a team talked about being classy,'' he said. "We did not want to come out in a game like this and not show any class.
"As I was running, some of my teammates told me not to score, and I knew that scoring was not the right thing to do."
He was glad to be a part of what happened.
"I just want to thank my teammates for not only being classy all night, but pushing me to be classy as well,'' he said.
The gesture was well received.
"We weren't sure how gloomy they would be before the game,'' Morgan said. "They had gloom, but it was not as bad as we thought. We met before the game, and they told us that they did not want us to feel sorry for them, and they did not want us to back off just because of what happened. They wanted us to play them like we would have if Duffy has still been there with them, so we did.
"After the game, they complemented us, and even thanked us for the way that we played them. They are some really cool cats, and I wish them the best of luck with their healing process and the rest of their season. I hope they make the playoffs."
What becomes of the rest of Morgan's football career remains to be seen.
He is getting interest from Arkansas State and Central Arkansas. Bigger schools such as Southern Miss and Texas Tech are starting to re-enter the picture.
At 6-1, 195 with a 4.5 time in the 40, there's no doubt he can play. It's the other issues that are a concern. Bradley is doing his best to make those go away.
"I send things out to places and I tell schools, he's had some off the field issues, but if you're interested, please call me because it's not near as bad as what it sounds,'' Bradley said. "They assume his grades are bad or that he's done something really, really bad. Everyone deserves a second chance. He's doing the right thing."
Bradley said he and Morgan have had many talks, but none of them have been about behavior.
"He's not a discipline problem at all,'' Bradley said. "His grades are getting better. He'll have an opportunity to play. He's too good of an athlete and too good of a young man right now."
Bradley admitted he had concerns at the beginning but they have proven to be unfounded.
"I've never seen anything negative out of the kid,'' he said. "He's the most polite kid. He works hard. He knows he has one shot to get his education.
"He's showing people he's doing the right thing."
That was never more evident as when he took a knee.