Malik McMorris is strong. Strong enough to hurl a discus over 194 feet, and a 12-pound shot put over 60 feet. Despite being a sub-six-foot 300-pounder, he was plenty strong enough to bully and punish opposing offensive tackles while earning back-to-back Co-Defensive Player of the Year awards in the Trinity League – arguably the top high school football league in California – while playing defensive end for Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei.
He was strong enough to make it into Berkeley on his own, academically. He was strong enough to walk on at Cal, and to work out the entire summer on his own to get ready for fall camp.
“College is a little different with the scheme, but I did my best, which is all you can ask for, especially for a naïve, incoming freshman like myself,” he laughed, after his first day of camp. “It’s just all about getting better each day.”
It takes a different kind of strength, though, to move memories -- to squeeze chests of drawers through his parents’ bedroom doorway, to haul away lamps, nightstands and a bed -- in order to make room for hospital equipment.
That’s what McMorris and his father, Patrick, did before Lucy Guerrero – McMorris’s mother, and Patrick’s wife of 19 years – came home for hospice care. She succumbed to breast cancer on Jan. 29, 2014.
A year after Guerrero passed, McMorris was an All-American as a defensive tackle. Eight months later, and he's now preparing for his first college football game as a fullback.
A P.E. teacher in middle school told McMorris that his mother – a lifelong educator, who was well on her way to becoming a high school principal – laid down a path for him, his brothers and his sister, “an amazing one,” he recalls.
So, the morning after his mother passed, McMorris -- who struggles to remember any time he missed school, from elementary through high school -– made breakfast for his siblings, packed up and went to school. He was used to it. During the worst of Guerrero's illness, Patrick changed to the graveyard shift with Homeland Security at LAX so he could care for Lucy during the day, leaving Malik to care for his siblings and make sure they were fed and off to school in the morning. The morning of Jan. 30 was nothing new.
That morning, Monarchs head coach Bruce Rollison had heard from a faculty member, who heard from a teacher at the grade school where Guerrero had taught, that Guerrero had passed away the night before. When Rollison, along with Mater Dei’s principal, and the Dean of Men, went to meet with McMorris, they didn’t know if they were the ones who’d have to break the news.
But he already knew. He’d already said his goodbyes. He wanted to come to school, anyway.
“She taught me that school’s the No. 1 thing,” says McMorris.
“We were all in shock, and he was probably the strongest one of any of us in the meeting,” says Rollison.
"He’s one of those kids you root for." -- Cal head coach Sonny Dykes
[SEMPER FI FEATURE: Never Steered Him Wrong]
Lucy Guerrero used to ask her son, “Have I ever steered you wrong, soldier?”
She didn’t steer him wrong in school. He finished Mater Dei with a 3.86 GPA and got into Berkeley.
She didn’t steer him wrong in the throwing circle. A former discus thrower and mile-runner herself, she taught her son to love the field events, where he excelled, finishing fourth in the state finals in both shot (60’9.5”) and discus (182’11.0”) as a junior, and then second in discus (186’10”) and seventh in shot (59’11.5”) as a senior, despite being ill for the first time in, he says, “over 365 days, and I still threw 186, so I’ll take it.”
She taught him to be tough, to never accept ordinary, and so, despite being too short and too round, he became an impact player for Rollison and Mater Dei – a Semper Fidelis All-American, in fact, who was presented with that particular honor almost exactly two years after he and his family learned of Guerrero’s initial diagnosis.
“As a freshman, Malik, you looked at that body and it was a foregone conclusion that he would be a D-lineman, or, you said, ‘OK, maybe he could play some offensive guard,’” Rollison says. “What you didn’t realize, because you hadn’t really coached him or been on the field – you’d watched him from afar at freshman games – once we started the offseason training and the weight lifting, that’s when you saw this natural strength, this lower body power. He’s light on his feet and he’s got incredible foot speed, so you go, ‘OK, he’s definitely going to be defensive line,’ and that’s when we became intrigued about playing him at some fullback.”
McMorris piled up 56 carries for 241 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground in his final two years at Mater Dei, and on defense, racked up 90 tackles, 22.0 tackles for loss, 13.0 sacks (-105 yards), one forced fumble, seven fumble recoveries that he returned for 88 yards and a touchdown, five passes defended, six quarterback hurries and one blocked field goal.
As a junior, he was the Trinity League’s Co-Defensive MVP while earning second-team All-State and first-team All-Section, All-County and All-Trinity League honors. As a senior, he was named to the All-Los Angeles Times All-Star and All-SouthernCaliforniaPreps.com squads as a defensive lineman and repeated as the Trinity League’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year, adding a first-team All-Trinity League selection.
Despite all that, McMorris only held scholarship offers from Army, Holy Cross, Cal Poly-SLO, UC Davis, Azusa Pacific and Virginia Union.
“That was a tough recruiting process, because, you know, I am of the firm belief, and I don’t care what anybody says: That kid’s going to be a tremendous success at the D1 level,” says Rollison. “I’m up on my desk trying to get the Pac-12 and anybody else at the D1 level to listen to me, but they’re hung up on height and weight. I’m going, ‘But I’ve got three years of video here where he played against the best players, and he took to school some of your so-called five-star recruits.’”
No Power Five team wanted a defensive tackle that was shorter than six feet.
“If he had been 6-2, he’d have gone anywhere in the country he wanted to go, but he’s not, and we’re lucky he’s here,” says Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. “He’s one of those kids you root for. The more you get to know him, the more you get to root for him. He’s clearly an explosive athlete – a great shot putter, a great discus thrower – and a really good football player.”
Listed at 5-foot-11, 300 pounds, McMorris is probably about two inches below that mark. He’s a man-shaped, grinning dollop of humility that will bubble forth with a hearty chuckle as soon as knock you into next week. He’s a bowling ball with a dancer’s feet. It’s hard not to hear the Fred Flintstone twinkle toes sound effect when he’s running.
“I guarantee you: Somewhere down the road, somebody in the Pac-12 is going to go, ‘What the heck were we doing? We just got lit up by a walk-on,’” Rollison says.
McMorris started camp this year with the defensive tackles -- “going against grown men,” he says – and he’ll work back in there at some point, but for now, his future is at fullback.
“I can only hope to look like that,” he says, gesturing at Mustafa Jalil, pausing before he adds, “Maybe not that tall.”
While McMorris may not have ever had height, he had friends, brothers-in-arms who’d seen him go through hell, and somehow find a way to not only keep going, but come out the other side without so much as a singed eyebrow.
The day after his mother died, McMorris told just one person – receiver Matthew Rockett.
“The way kids are, they love Malik. You know it as well as I do – most kids, at that age, they’re consumed with their own homework, schedules, but they were there for him,” says Rollison.
“I was shocked,” says Rockett, now a sophomore receiver for the Golden Bears. “I didn’t really know his parents that well, but for him to come to me, that told me a lot. That told me what he thought about me, that he could trust me. That meant a lot to me. I tried to help him out as much as I could. I know Malik wanted to play. He’s that kind of guy. I just said, ‘Whatever you need, I’ve got you.’”
Less than a year later, McMorris called in that account.
It was Rockett, along with former Monarchs Chase Forrest and Addison Ooms, who helped bring McMorris to the attention of then-Cal offensive line coach Zach Yenser and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin. McMorris saw Berkeley as a dream school, one his mother could be proud of.
“He asked about it. I don’t know who he asked first, but he was in communication with all of us,” Rockett says of McMorris. “We gave him coach Franklin’s email or facebook or something. They started talking, and from there, coaches asked us what we thought about him, and we told them.”
Cal’s staff crossed its fingers as McMorris embarked on his senior track season, hoping no other program would take notice of his explosiveness and power.
“Looking at the tape, he’s a little undersized for a defensive tackle, and we thought he might get overlooked a little bit,” Dykes says. “He was just such a good player that he’s one of those guys that you want on your team. He’s a pretty unique athlete. He moves really well for a guy that’s 315 pounds, and catches the ball well. He’s got an extra skill set.”
That extra skill set includes catching passes – notably a touch pass from Jared Goff for a touchdown during a two-a-day practice at Concord (Calif.) De La Salle, the first TD pass McMorris has caught since his junior year (a pass thrown, coincidentally, by Forrest).
“Jared just touched it over the linebacker, I was behind him, caught it at the two and trotted – slowly -- my way into the end zone,” he grins.
McMorris has also been plowing the way for the Cal running game, clearing the way for at least two touchdowns in the past five days – one from Vic Enwere and another from Lonny Powell. He’s also going to throw shot put and discus for the track team in the spring, and wants to get involved in on-campus clubs and cancer charities, because free time is for the weak, apparently.
“You’ve seen it – Malik’s a hard worker,” says Rockett, who himself stands at 5-foot-9. “Kind of like me, it doesn’t really matter how big you are. A lot of people said he was too small, and I knew he wasn’t. I knew he was going to come in here and do his thing.”
“Nobody’s going to publicly speak about it and say, ‘Let’s win one for Malik.’ That might happen in the movies, but quietly -- quietly -- that’s the one thing that kids are good at: They’re resilient, and they’re there for each other in different ways that our age group can’t understand,” says Rollison.
Once McMorris got into Cal, Rockett, Ooms and Forrest immediately set themselves to work on finding him an apartment, calling teammates and chasing down leads. The trio had already signed a lease for themselves, but managed to find a place for McMorris just two blocks away, about two miles downhill from Memorial Stadium.
Throughout his senior year, McMorris – who wore his mother’s name on his throwing shoes during track season -- had written essays upon essays in order to earn academic scholarships, and, from when he moved to Berkeley on July 2 until fall camp started on Aug. 6, he had to work out on his own, at the Recreational Sports Facility, not the posh Simpson Center, because of NCAA regulations.
It’s the lonely reps, Trent Dilfer is fond of saying to his Elite 11 charges, that make the difference – the reps and the work and the lifts and the studying that you do when no one is watching, staying up late to write those essays and finding new scholarships to stitch together a way to make things work in Berkeley. McMorris was strong enough to do those reps, and now, he’s being rewarded.
“I definitely have enough money on the plate to make it really affordable the first two years, and hopefully, I’m on track for a scholarship,” McMorris chirps, cheerfully.
He appears to be well on his way. For the first several days of camp, McMorris split time with the offense and defense, working at defensive tackle – a spot he’d first played at the Semper Fi game – and, before practice, as a fullback, with Mark Tommerdahl. While defensive line coach Fred Tate says he’ll be “a very good football player down the road, in terms of that position (defensive tackle),” McMorris’s path to playing time is through the offense, and soon enough, he switched over to offense, full-time.
“He’s a pretty unique guy,” Dykes says. “He’s got good feet and he’s got good hands. He’s a tough kid, and I think plays with a good, low center of gravity. He’s trying to carve out a role for himself … He’s just kind of a bigger fullback than most people have. Not as big as some others – I think Baylor has a 400-pound tight end guy – but bigger than most, not as big as some others.
“He’s got size, he’s a good athlete, he’s got good foot turnover and good foot quickness. I’m impressed with what he’s done so far … He’s young, but he’s got what you want.”
Including the strength to carry on.
“She’d definitely be proud,” McMorris says of his mother, as he looks down at the turf, then up to the sky, as he did before every game during his senior year. “She’d definitely be up here on Saturdays, but she’s always with me.
“A lot of people have helped me in my journey, before my mother passed, while she was sick and after. It’s good to know that I have a great support system, still. I’m just trying to get better and be able to show off that everybody helping me, in the tiniest way or the biggest way, is paying off.”