A ‘Walk-On’ Sprints to the Top of His Game

One fall afternoon in 2010, then-freshman Derrick Morgan walked into men’s track and field head coach Wayne Angel’s office, Gaither Room 207, and introduced himself.

As Angel stared from his arbor-colored desk, the 6-foot-2, 165-pounder talked about his track and field accomplishments at North Central High School in Indianapolis. Morgan had competed in both the regionals and state finals during his senior year.

Morgan believed he could compete at the Division I level – Florida A&M’s Robert “Pete” Griffin Track, specifically.

“I just had to convince Angel that I could,” Morgan said.

Angel told Morgan to come to FAMU’s next time trial. Morgan blazed to a second-place finish at the time trial – the first day he had seen a track in months.

That invitation led to a quarter-mile runner whose performances have exceeded several of his teammates’, many of whom are scholarship athletes.

Morgan, a sophomore, has become a dominant force for the Rattlers in the 400m dash during the last two seasons, despite the challenges that face walk-on athletes.

This season, Morgan is ranked seventh in the eastern region and 20th in the nation. These standings followed seven top-five finishes in the 400m dash, including a victory during the Florida State Relays recently with a personal-best time of 47.12.

“It feels pretty good to see my name on the national leaderboards, but I know that I still have a long ways to go to be where I would like to toward the end of the season,” Morgan said.

Such accomplishment is expected of scholarship athletes. But when a walk-on measures up, it surprises many.

Walk-ons are required to take on the responsibilities of the team’s recruited athletes – the demanding workouts, the long trips, the performance expectations – with no financial benefit. Lack of assistance weakens some athletes’ motivation. But with Morgan, this drives his success.

“It’s difficult knowing that you’re not getting paid for your accomplishments,” Morgan said. “But what motivates me is the future. I just think about what it takes to earn a scholarship down the road.”

Today, Morgan is awestruck by his college success considering he does not consider his high school performance extraordinary.

“I was just an average high school athlete running normal times on JV (junior varsity),” Morgan said. “I never thought three years down the line I’d be running low 47s (seconds) and ranked 20th in the nation. My mom did, but I never imagined this.”

Blondina Morgan, his mother, recognized something he and college recruiters did not.

The runner said the main reason college recruiters overlooked him was the left hip flexor injury he suffered after a strenuous practice his junior year – when recruiters make their selections. The injury sidelined Morgan for the majority of the season. He felt a sharp pain in his hip but raced through it out of fear of losing his position on the varsity team. Unknown to him at that time, that decision would affect his future.

Morgan returned to the track during his senior season in maximum form following several physical therapy sessions. He earned 13th place in the 400m dash during the 2010 Indiana IHSAA Outdoor State Championship. By that time, college recruiters had moved on.

But Morgan refused to let his college aspirations fade. While he chose to attend FAMU to pursue a bachelor’s degree in business administration, auditioning for its track and field team was always in mind. During his walks to the School of Business and Industry from the Gibbs Hall dormitory, Morgan always envisioned himself wearing FAMU’s white and orange track uniforms.

Angel was in his inaugural season at the time, and Morgan sought to impress him.

“I had heard that FAMU was getting a new coach,” Morgan said, “so I figured I’d just go out there and try out.”

The coach said giving Morgan a chance was risky because he didn’t know how well Morgan would perform at the college level.

“Walk-ons, if they’re good enough, can become the foundation of a program,” Angel said. “And sometimes, walk-ons become better than your scholarship athletes. These things are exactly what have happened with Derrick.”

Team captain Shuaib Winters, a senior who was recruited from Conyers, Ga., in 2008, said Morgan has been a treasure to the team since his arrival. He added that Morgan’s success has subtly influenced team members’ work ethic because only the best athletes maintain scholarships.

“This is a business,” Winters said. “Everybody knows that if they don’t perform, they can lose their scholarship. Morgan is exceeding expectations; he’s stepping up. He makes everyone work harder.”

Morgan said meeting Angel that fall afternoon was the best move he made since leaving Indianapolis.

“Just thinking about it, I’m very happy I went to the office that day,” Morgan said. “I’ve been running track for nine years now, and I’m glad I can continue with a coach like Angel who pushes me to be the best I can be.”