Faith, family then football: How Tanner Morgan has stayed humble during rise to sport’s ‘elite’
It’s hard to sum up the mix of humility, talent, charity and zeal that is the all-conference quarterback in one image or sentence. But what makes Tanner Morgan Tanner Morgan, he says, isn’t about Tanner Morgan at all.
MINNEAPOLIS — Even if you’re not a Minnesota football fan, you might have heard of him, that quarterback who came out of obscurity to put up big numbers in the Big Ten last year. If you dress in maroon and gold and whip up tater tot hotdish on fall Saturdays, you know him as the endearing kid from Kentucky with a big arm, bigger heart and zero arrogance.
And yet it’s hard to sum up the mix of humility, talent, charity and zeal that is all-conference quarterback Tanner Morgan in one image or sentence.
Maybe it’s him lofting a perfect pass into the outstretched arms of Rashod Bateman between two defenders. Maybe it’s him echoing his head coach’s coined catch phrases on the regular. Maybe it’s his childhood in suburban Kentucky, taking his lumps against bigger neighborhood kids, including his older brother, while starring when picking on foes his own size. Maybe it’s his high school graduation party, where a celebratory cake bore yesterday’s news as Morgan followed P.J. Fleck to Minnesota.
Or maybe it’s his grandfather, cleaning the pews and counting the collection money at Victory Assembly of God church in Hazard, Kentucky on Sundays. Maybe it’s his dad sitting alone in the hospital after learning he had a brain tumor. Maybe it’s high school Tanner eating in the cafeteria with children who have special needs, or college Tanner giving his mom’s second-grade class a pep talk via smartphone video.
Ask the Golden Gophers’ starting quarterback, unquestioned leader and one of the most authentically modest star athletes you’ll ever meet, though, and he’ll point to one common thread that ties it all together.
It’s not his skill. It’s not his leadership, his work ethic or his simple refusal to accept defeat — whether it’s a Big Ten Football contest or a board game with his grandmother. It’s not even his family, his friends or his upbringing. These are all key elements of the story, but they aren’t the theme.
What makes Tanner Morgan Tanner Morgan, he says, isn’t about Tanner Morgan at all.
“I understand what football is and that it’s an aspect of my life, something I love to do and compete at every single day,” Morgan told Saturday Tradition, “but I also understand the platform it brings. That’s something I don’t want to take lightly. Throughout the (COVID-19) pandemic, people are looking for positive things. They’re looking for joy. For me, one great aspect has been leaning into Christ.”
The “AO1” inscription on his play-card wristband stands for “Audience of One.” The “Ww” he writes on his wristband means “Worship” and “win.”
It’s a willingness to surrender to something larger as a source of hope and strength during an era in which the individual is chiefly celebrated and fear and despair are all too common. It’s also the first step in understanding how a prototypical Generation Z superstar can carry himself like just another dude on campus.
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Union, Kentucky sits between high-level Rust Belt urbanization and the South’s agricultural underpinnings. The town of 5,900 is 17 miles southwest of Cincinnati and is only about 3 square miles in geography.
“You go out of my neighborhood and turn left, and you’re in the sticks,” Morgan says. “Turn right and drive for 15 minutes, and you’re in downtown Cincinnati.
“It’s kind of the best of both worlds.”
It’s here that Morgan grew into a cold-blooded competitor with an equal eye for servanthood. His father, Ted, is a commercial real estate agent. His mother, Pat, is a second-grade teacher.
Pat’s father — “Papa,” as Tanner calls him — and the rest of his side of the family live in Hazard, a 3-hour drive that takes you down Interstate 75, straight through Lexington and southeast on I-64 toward the Virginia border.
Christianity was central to the Morgans’ family life, which included sports all week and frequent trips to visit Grandma and Grandpa on the weekend. Tanner remembers his grandfather doing anything and everything around the local church.
Pat is the family’s “spiritual leader,” Tanner said, and his dad has grown to be equally devout.
“Where we grew up, everyone knows everyone,” said Tanner’s older brother Tyler Morgan. “If you’re not in church on Sunday, you’re in trouble.”
The messages shared during Sunday services were complemented by now-infamous pickup games in front of the Morgans’ home on Brandsteade Court. Often, it was Tanner, best friend and neighbor Bryce Ashley and their buddies against Tyler, Bryce’s older brother and other youngsters 4 years Tyler’s senior.
“Sometimes, it wasn’t too fun,” Ashley said.
They often ended with Tanner coming home crying because Tyler and his friends had stacked the rosters with older kids. It’d take 15-20 minutes of catch with his dad before Tanner could calm down.
“There was no taking it easy, and it wasn’t a lot of losses for me, either,” Tyler says today. You can almost hear him smiling through the phone as he explains. “I reminded them a lot who the big brother was. I was better at everything, from football in the backyard to basketball to baseball to street hockey. Whatever it was, I wanted to beat him as bad as I could.”
Tanner’s opponents throughout southern Ohio and northern Kentucky weren’t so lucky.
He was one of those kids who excelled at everything he tried. AAU basketball champion. A possible future in baseball.
But Tanner’s truest love was football, and in particular playing quarterback.
Morgan passed for over 10,400 yards during his four-year high school career. He started as a true freshman at Hazard — his family lived there from 2013-15 — before transferring to Ryle High School when the Morgans moved back to Union ahead of his junior season.
Ted coached a lot of Tanner’s football, basketball and baseball squads growing up. He saw the talent. But he also saw a kid taking to the messages heard every Sunday and reiterated in his home throughout the week.
“You just try to keep him focused on it’s better to give than to receive,” Ted said. “Our motto was just stay hard-working and humble.”
That lesson proved invaluable when Tanner started the 2018 season behind walk-on Zack Annexstad on the depth chart. The transition to college and not being “the guy” were challenging at times, but Morgan quickly found a new community to lean on via on-campus ministry Athletes in Action.
He also stayed patient and waited for his chance after redshirting in 2017.
Without grandstanding or preaching, Tanner is quick to share he is who he is because of his faith.
“I had to make that decision of is it something I want to be a part of,” Morgan said. “I had to make that decision for myself. Everyone does. And honestly, for a little bit, I struggled through it. … But Athletes in Action really helped push me back toward God.”
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Ashley and Ryle coach Mike Engler were asked separately for their favorite Tanner Morgan memory. They both gave the same answer.
Kentucky Class 6-A state quarterfinals in 2016. Fourth-and-4. Morgan rolls out to his left, doesn’t see an open receiver and starts angling toward the sideline. A linebacker twice his size comes up to meet him, but Morgan lowers his shoulder and plows through him. It takes two more defenders to bring him down after he’s lunged past the first-down marker.
“He absolutely trucked the kid,” Engler said. “I was like, ‘Tanner, I didn’t know you had that in ya.’
“He wasn’t going to be stopped.”
But that’s Morgan. At 6-2 and 215 pounds, he’s not exactly Cam Newton. But his humility is matched only by his intensity.
He’s painstakingly detailed and takes notes on everything. He’s his own worst critic, too, but only as a means to the end of convincing victory.
“Don’t let him fool you,” Tanner’s dad says today. “He’s still got an assassin inside.”
You can watch the big run — today a rarity in Minnesota’s pro-style offense — on Morgan’s Hudl highlight film. If you do, you’ll also see a bevy of big-time throws, many of them to his lifelong compadre Ashley, who’s now a student at the University of Cincinnati.
“I could’ve told you in the seventh grade he was going to make it to the B1G,” Ashley said. “Seriously. If someone had told me ‘Tanner’s going to end up being one of the best quarterbacks in the country,’ I wouldn’t have been shocked.”
But here’s the thing: No one ever said that.
Originally, Louisville and Wake Forest were the only Power 5 schools to offer. Morgan was committed to Fleck at Western Michigan until the coach took the Minnesota job in 2017 and asked his prized quarterback recruit to follow him to the Twin Cities. The announcement came the same day as Morgan’s grad party, forcing them to eat an obsolete cake and turn the “W” cookies his mom had made upside down to look like “Ms.”
Morgan never even visited Minnesota. But he believed in Fleck, also a man of faith with whom the family had developed a fantastic relationship.
“It wasn’t exactly my dream school,” Morgan said. “If you asked me at 15 years old or told me I’d be playing quarterback at the University of Minnesota, I don’t know how I would’ve reacted. I don’t know if I would’ve believed you.”
It wasn’t a dream start, either. Not until Annexstad’s game-ending injury at halftime of the Gophers’ 2018 defeat at Nebraska did Morgan get his shot. He made good on it right away, turning what should’ve been a surefire blowout in Lincoln into an at-least-interesting second half.
There hasn’t been much losing since.
The Gophers are 15-4 with Morgan as the starter. He was one of the key players in last year’s 11-2 finish, resulting in Minnesota’s most wins since 1904. His passer rating of 178.7 ranked fourth in FBS.
Ahead of him? Joe Burrow, Jalen Hurts and Justin Fields.
It’s easy to forget Morgan went into last year’s fall camp once again battling with Annexstad for the starting role.
And yet Morgan heads into his redshirt junior season with full command of Minnesota’s offense, a potential first-round target in Rashod Bateman and a seasoned offensive line set to return all five starters from the B1G’s No. 4 total yards producer. He set single-season school records for passing yards, passing touchdowns, completion percentage, passing yards per game, touchdown-to-interception ratio and pass efficiency.
But the hype around Morgan outside Minnesota is minimal.
One good opener against Michigan with College GameDay in town could change that. But it’s not what defines him, anyway.
“He’s really good at blocking out the noise,” Tyler said. “We’ve talked about the possibility of him playing in the NFL one day, and he just says, ‘Dude, I just want to make sure I’m the starter at Minnesota tomorrow.’”
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Ted Morgan sat in the hospital, alone and afraid.
An episode of slurred speech this past spring caused his wife and a family friend, a nurse, to convince him to go and get a CT scan. They were afraid he’d suffered a stroke.
Because of COVID-19, Ted was at the hospital by himself when he was informed he had glioblastoma.
A brain tumor.
“That’s a tough phone call to make,” Ted said.
On May 12, Ted underwent surgery to have most of the mass in his head removed. He then began radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
When Minnesota and the rest of the Big Ten canceled spring practice due to coronavirus, Tanner — like most college athletes — headed home. He was able to be around for his father’s recovery.
“It was really scary, obviously, to start with for me and my family,” Tanner said. “Glioblastoma is never a good brain cancer to have, and it’s not something that’s easy to recover from.
“But one of the main aspects was seeing how my dad responded to it. Instead of falling apart or having a negative mindset, he leaned into Jesus and the power that we have as believers in Christ with the Holy Spirit.”
Fleck, athletic director Mark Coyle and countless players and staff reached out during the process. So did B1G Commissioner Kevin Warren, who ended his call with Ted on Father’s Day by praying for his healing.
In August, the Morgans received good news. No new cancer growth, which means no more radiation. At his doctor’s behest, he takes preventive chemo treatments five times a month.
He’s lost about 35 pounds. But he’s back at work (remotely, of course), and will be in the stands at TCF Bank Stadium for Saturday’s Little-Brown-Jug-deciding opener.
“Obviously, it’s been a hurdle, but we jumped it,” Ted said. “It’s helped me grow exponentially in my faith.”
The summer also gave Tanner — with his dad and former youth coach’s help — a chance to dig into the finer points of his game, from working with a throwing coach to learning about his biomechanics from a kinesiologist to studying film from a makeshift home office. He’d watch replays of Gopher games on Big Ten Network with his parents, never saying anything self-aggrandizing but pointing out flaws he’d already reviewed via his extensive self-scouting.
How did Ted raise such a non-egotistical star athlete? “I don’t know what we did,” he says, “but I guess we did it right.”
Tanner also made Tyler and their younger sister, Grace — a high school softball player — run routes in the yard while the United States went into relative lockdown.
He even got a few rounds of golf in. And pulled out his Bible more often.
“Right now, where I’m at through the pandemic, I’m grateful to have had the time to do that,” Morgan said. “I didn’t have any excuses for skipping a day, missing a reading or whatnot. That’s something that really honestly kept me sane through what my dad was going through.”
Late last week, a package arrived for Ted from the Minnesota athletic department. He figured it was a new team-issued Nike hoodie for him to wear during his first trip north this season.
Out fell more than 100 hand-written letters, each from a different Gophers player, coach or staffer congratulating him on his recovery.
“That was incredible,” he said. “Almost all of them, at least 85 percent mentioned something about culture. Either ‘Row the Boat’ or ‘we got your back’ or ‘keep your oar in the water, we can’t wait to see you at the game.’ Half of them mentioned something about Tanner. ‘Your kid’s an amazing leader. You did a hell of a job raising him,’ or whatever. It was just so humbling coming from guys like that.”
What an incredible package today. Hand Written cards from all Gopher Football players. Said praying for me, keep fighting, can’t wait see you at games, almost all mentioned RTB or Culture and most many most about our son. So Blessed. Thats what College football is about pic.twitter.com/FR1f1FgYY6
— Ted Morgan (@Tmorgan5312) October 16, 2020
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Around Athletes’ Village, it’s not uncommon for Morgan to be mistaken for the Gophers’ eccentric head coach.
“It’s funny; guys on our team will turn a sharp corner or something like that and say, ‘Whoa, I thought you were Fleck for a second,’” Morgan said. “I’m not gonna lie, that happens at least once every day.’”
Morgan and Fleck’s matching shaved heads are one thing. The quarterback’s complete and utter buy-in to what his coach sells on a daily basis is another.
From his parroting of the program’s mantra “Row the Boat” to his use of the word “elite” to the pair’s apparent complete synchronicity on the sidelines during games, Morgan is essentially an extension of Fleck as he tries to build Minnesota from also-ran to yearly B1G West contender.
But Morgan’s leadership is nothing new.
“Guys love him,” Engler said. “I could see him being a great coach someday.”
When Morgan played peewee football back in Union, he and his father would buy his entire offensive line Snickers bars and Gatorade. Today, he treats Minnesota’s behemoths up front to Insomnia Cookies near TCF Bank Stadium on a regular basis.
When the team was forced to disperse due to COVID, Morgan was one of the main voices keeping guys in the loop and on the same page as Zoom meetings replaced offseason 7-on-7s and player-led workouts.
“I think his leadership has gone through the roof,” Fleck said. “It’s better now than it’s ever been.”
But Morgan wants to spread his message beyond the locker room. Last week, his mom posted a short video he’d recorded encouraging her students to hang in there while navigating the educational impacts of COVID.
“I can’t imagine what it’s like being a young kid right now,” Morgan said. “Things are just super weird.”
It’s a message for students but I think we all could use this pep talk.❤️Show up every day! pic.twitter.com/r70OtCzvSE
— Pat Morgan (@Pat081868) October 14, 2020
They are in the land of college football, too. Some teams so far have looked prepared for this wild and wacky, mainly-conference-only season. Others haven’t. Several Power 5 operations have been infected with the virus, games continue to get postponed, and the B1G’s stringent protocols leave a razor-thin margin for error.
Daily testing. Near-empty stadiums. Three weeks out after a confirmed case. There’s a chance the guys blocking for Morgan or catching passes from him varies week-to-week based on who’s able to stay healthy. That’s if he doesn’t test positive himself.
Since the B1G decided to reinstate fall football after canceling it in August, Morgan has been one of the top voices in Minnesota’s program preaching accountability.
“It makes you have more gratitude towards football,” he said. “It’s always been a thing that’s guaranteed, and now in people’s lives, because of the pandemic, there are a lot of things that haven’t been. A lot of people have had a lot of things they’ve had to sacrifice or give up. We have to do the same thing to have the opportunity to play again, and it honestly comes with a lot of feelings of gratitude to do it.”
It’s a time when the game itself almost seems secondary. But that’s how Morgan views his existence, anyway.
The addition of new co-offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. has added some wrinkles to the offense. That could help neutralize the loss of wideout Tyler Johnson to the NFL.
You won’t see Morgan ranked highly on many pro scouting sites yet. He could put up Heisman-esque numbers, but it’d be an upset if he’s given any finalist consideration for the award.
And yet after he burst onto the scene last season, Morgan won’t be sneaking up on anyone in the conference this fall.
But those in his inner circle know how he’ll handle the increased scrutiny and attention.
They also know why.
“I’m not really worried about what expectations people have on me outside of our facility and our program,” Morgan said. “People are going to have opinions on you; one week, you could be fantastic, and the next week it could be ‘this guy stinks.’ For me, it’s about how I can perform for my teammates every day and help this team any way I can.
“I also have to remind myself that my relationship with God is not about if I’m the best or the worst or what I do for him or what I do on a football field. He still loves me every single way possible.”
Said Ashley: “He’s the kind of guy that people turn to for guidance in places like this. Because of his leadership, his faith, he’s stayed positive through all this. Through COVID, through his dad’s battle, he’s continued to work, to be a leader to his family, his teammates, his friends, his community.
“He’s built for situations like this.”