COATESVILLE >> During the 2015-16 football season, Derrick Morgan amassed 24 tackles and 4.5 sacks in just 10 games for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans.
But in the offseason, the former Coatesville High School great checked off what he considers a much more important goal by completing his studies and earning a Master’s Degree in Business Administration.
“A lot of times with young men and women, they only see today,” said Coatesville head football coach Matt Ortega. “It’s obvious that the whole time Derrick was playing professional sports he was already planting the seeds for his next adventure.
“Getting his MBA in 2016 allowed him to leave football on his own terms.”
Three years later, Morgan has officially retired from the game at the age of 30. But he doesn’t like the word ‘retire’ because it implies a sort of withdrawal. And his quick transition into the business world of socially responsible investing can certainly attest to the fact that he is moving forward at full speed.
“A lot of it boils down to who you surround yourself with,” said Morgan, Coatesville class of 2007. “When you are in the NFL, a lot of players are surrounded by yes-men and people that are really bringing them down. I’ve been very intentional about building a good team around myself.”
Unlike scores of professional athletes who plunder their fortunes and have no plans for the rest of their lives, Morgan has been thinking and planning for his life after football for a very long time. Throughout his nine-year NFL career Morgan earned more than $42 million, but he never fell for the trappings or the temptations that have befallen so many of his peers.
“What is going to be my purpose when I’m done playing the game? That question forced me to evolve as a human being to be more than just a football player,” he said.
“If you are not intentional with your down time in the NFL, you will be lost when it’s over.”
INSTILLING A WORK ETHIC
Born in Lancaster in 1989, Morgan moved to Coatesville with his Mom, Pamela, at age 12. Like many kids, he dreamed of making it big in the NBA. He would routinely shoot 200 free throws in one setting and would run a high-intensity sprinting drill called ‘suicides’ all by himself.
“I was really committed to the game, but when I got to Coatesville, it was like: ‘you’re not going to make it in basketball,’” he recalled.
A self-proclaimed latchkey kid and an only child, Morgan’s single Mom signed him up for football, but his love for the game didn’t blossom until early in high school. Around this time, Morgan started hearing about getting a college education.
“I was like, ‘I don’t think I can afford college.’ And that’s when they told me about athletic scholarships,” he said. “That was really when my goal was put into motion. I knew my Mom wasn’t going to be able to support me financially.”
All through high school, Morgan excelled in football but also found time for part-time jobs at McDonald’s, as a lifeguard, as a busboy. During summers and holiday breaks, he worked 18-hour shifts at a warehouse.
“I really wanted to have my own money and independence from an early age,” Morgan pointed out. “I got a cell phone when I was 14. I had my own money to buy sneakers and such. I was always shoveling snow and cutting grass.
“My work ethic was in me from the very beginning and I wasn’t a stranger to hard work. My Mom always instilled that in me.”
Morgan began getting attention from college recruiters during his junior year, and after being named the Ches-Mont Defensive Player of the Year and first-team All-State in 2006, he signed to play at Georgia Tech. In Atlanta, he studied science and technology, but majored in football, which took up the vast majority of his efforts.
After playing in a dozen games as a true freshman defensive end, Morgan started every game for the Yellow Jackets as a sophomore and junior, combining to make 106 tackles and 19.5 sacks. Following the 2009 season, Morgan was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and consensus All-American selection and declared for the NFL draft. He was picked 16th overall in the first round by the Titans.
FOCUSING ON LONG-TERM FUTURE
In the 2010 NFL season opener, Morgan notched a sack, but three games later he suffered a serious knee injury. It ended his rookie campaign and turned his life upside down. Just 21 years old, Morgan had attached his entire value to football and it was suddenly gone. Bouts of depression followed, but being sidelined also gave Morgan time to think.
“I had heard from retired players to handle your business while you are in the league,” he said. “And when I tore by ACL, it really woke me up in a lot of ways and forced me to look at the big picture.”
It was a lonely, long but productive rehab, and midway through his second season Morgan became a Tennessee starter. Around this time he also became a father for the first time, which was another milestone that prodded Morgan into focusing on his long-term future.
“I knew that I couldn’t live my life for just myself anymore,” he said.
From 2012-14, Morgan made 48 starts, registered 19 sacks and was developing into one of the league’s top defensive ends/outside linebackers. And during this period, as he started to more fully understand the platform afforded NFL players, he began speaking out more forcefully against social injustices.
“Derrick is a very talented as football player, but as you get to know him you realize that education, family and the big-picture is just as important as the sport,” Ortega explained. “He’s used his platform in the right way. He saw the big picture and realized what he can do in the positive way.”
The 2015 season was cut short by a shoulder injury and surgery, but it also provided an opportunity for Morgan to return to school for his master’s degree, which paved the way for entry into a second career as a real estate investor.
“When you are in the NFL, it’s like a loop,” Morgan said. “You put everything into the season and the
Super Bowl is the goal, and then it starts over every year. But you realize that you can’t do this forever.”
The 2016 and 2017 seasons were highly productive for Morgan, who was now a full-time linebacker, with a total of 115 quarterback sacks and 16.5 more sacks. But in 2018, more nagging injuries limited his playing time and his numbers dropped off significantly.
On July 15th 2019, with a total of nine surgeries under his belt, Morgan announced his retirement from football. He finished with 44.5 sacks, which is sixth all-time for the Tennessee Titans/Houston Oilers franchise.
“For me, I wanted to walk away on my own terms,” he said. “But I also wanted to be fair to myself and my family.
“If I’m a normal NFL player through nine seasons, how long do I really have left, two or three more years? Do I really want to keep putting my body through this and maybe have a life-long injury?
“The risk-reward of it started to get unbalanced. And the off-the-field stuff is way more stimulating to me right now. That was a big part of my decision.”
A VISION FOR THINGS BEYOND SPORTS
While still playing, Morgan created a firm that specializes in investing in low-income communities called the Kingdom Impact Fund. He is now able to devote most of his time to the venture, which Morgan defines it as a company that invests in real estate projects which include services and resources for the community like vocational training, child-care services and financial education.
“It means investing with the social outcomes in mind,” he said.
“A lot of it comes down to people believing they can own their own homes and not be life-long renters. Having an inclusive approach to all of this is a healthy balance so that you don’t have more of the same gentrification and socially irresponsible practices.”
During his early years in the NFL, Morgan supported a number of philanthropic causes in Coatesville including the Scott Field Project. He also donated funds to create the Derrick Morgan Center, which is an outdoor Cross Fit area at the high school.
“He has a vision for things beyond sports,” Ortega said. “You admire the professional athletes who have taken care of their bodies and have done the right things financially. They are the ones that are able to get out at the right time.
“You hear stories about how pro athletes blow money. And then there are the ones like Derrick who did it the right way, and now he has a vision to help other people.”
When Morgan returned to Coatesville near the tail end of his NFL career, he noticed that the city looked the same when he left for Georgia Tech in 2007. That’s when he became determined to do more.
“The philanthropy side is good, but that isn’t really affecting the systemic cycles and issues the city is facing,” he pointed out. “I’m learning more about Coatesville than when I lived there. I learned that it is situated in the richest county in the state.”
He’s since discovered that Coatesville is the only Opportunity Zone in Chester County, which is a federal program that encourages private investment to revitalize economically distressed communities.
“There are a couple projects that we are working through in Coatesville where we have the residents in mind first and foremost,” he said. “But we also want to make sure it is financially feasible investment where everybody wins.
“Coatesville is primed for revitalization. The pieces and players who are coming into the picture in Coatesville are a very unique group of people that want to see the city thrive.”
Morgan currently lives in Nashville with his wife, Charity, and two children.
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