116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Much of Marcus Morgan’s childhood revolved around sports.
The youngest of five siblings recalled being ushered to tournaments and games. Weekends spent at gyms or diamonds, watching his older brother and sisters compete and his dad coach.
Baseball and softball. Youth football contests and dance recitals. Basketball, too. Lots and lots of basketball. Young Marcus attended it all.
Looking back, Morgan recognized the experience helped mold him into the person and athlete he is today.
“Seeing my siblings play, they were always good at what they did,” Morgan said. “I think a lot of it was me wanting to be better than them.
“I’ve always been super competitive since I was younger, running around their tournaments and horsing around to play basketball or whatever, going out during timeouts to shoot hoops. I was also doing that with my youngest sister. We were super competitive all around.”
Morgan parlayed his competitive spirit into a successful four-sport high school career that included all-state campaigns in football and baseball, state and Drake Relays appearances in track and field and all-Mississippi Valley Conference Valley Division basketball honors. He also contributed to a Class 4A state runner-up football team and led the Trojans to the state quarterfinals twice. Morgan also pitched West to the state semifinals as a sophomore and will continue his career with the University of Iowa baseball program.
Morgan has been voted The Gazette’s 2021 Male Athlete of the Year. He joins older brother, Jeremy, as the only brother combination to earn the award.
“I think it was a matter of me being so competitive I wanted to be better than everybody else,” Morgan said. “Obviously, I have some natural ability. To be better than everybody else, you have to do the extra stuff behind that. My parents and siblings set the example and instilled in me from a young age. Just watching them really helped me out.”
The bar was set high by his family. His father, Michael, played basketball at Iowa. His mother, Cris, played basketball at Drake. Jeremy Morgan and sisters, Cailyn and Mikaela Morgan, played basketball at Northern Iowa, while his oldest sister, Crystal Smith, played for Iowa and in the WNBA.
He had to learn to fend for himself. No one was taking it easy on him, especially Jeremy, who was eight years older.
“My brother used to beat me up,” Marcus said with a laugh. “My sisters used to beat me up, but mostly my brother. I was toughened at a young age.”
Jeremy made a tremendous impact on his younger brother. Marcus recalled watching his brother win back-to-back state titles at West. He also followed UNI in the NCAA tournament. He soaked up each moment, learning from Jeremy’s approach and mindset.
“He set a really high bar and a really good example for me,” Marcus said. “Experiencing the environment, tension and competitive spirit out there inspired me. I want to be doing this on a big stage someday. I was going to do whatever I can to get there.”
The expectations provided a challenge accompanied with stress to live up to the name. The youngest Morgan was fueled by a desire to surpass his siblings and obtain good-natured bragging rights.
“There was a lot of motivation, seeing them do so well,” said Marcus, noting that he still debates his dad and brother about who is the best athlete. “I was inspired to be like them, if not better than them, so I can rub it in their face.
“Then, there’s that natural pressure that they are doing so well. Just to stay on top of things. Stuff that comes from the last name has that natural pressure, having and wanting to live up to the standards they’ve set for me. That was a good thing.”
An arm that is off the charts
West baseball coach Charlie Stumpff has coached many top-flight pitchers. Some have reached the D-I level and even advanced to professional ball, including former Hawkeye Nick Gallagher, who pitched in the minors. Marcus throws as well as anyone Stumpff has seen, shattering the program’s mark with 273 career strikeouts before last Thursday’s start against Iowa City Liberty.
“He’s just a freak athlete,” Stumpff said. “That doesn’t make you a great pitcher, but his arm strength is off the charts. We’ve had very few guys who have been able to touch 90 (miles per hour) and he’s touched 90 and can sit at 88 or 89, comfortable at 86. He’s got great arm strength.
“His slider is another level. It is better than what (Gallagher’s) was in high school and it’s always been that way.”
Success seemed to come instantly on the mound. Marcus was never intimidated, going 6-1 as a freshman with a 1.75 earned run average. He alternated between levels. Upperclassmen and coaches helped him transition.
“When it was time for me to pitch, I’d go with the varsity to pitch,” Marcus said. “It was awesome. I was up with all those older guys. They treated me really well. It was a pretty easy adjustment. They made it easier on me. Stumpff made it easy for me. Things took care of themselves.”
His sophomore season was his best. He went 10-0, allowing just 31 hits in 59 1/3 innings. Marcus struck out 105 batters, posting a 0.71 ERA and a 0.89 walks/hits per innings pitched (WHIP). He also developed into a two-way force, hitting .404 with 44 hits, including three home runs, 32 RBIs and 31 runs.
“He’s been very gifted,” Stumpff said. “I think all the sports — playing quarterback in football, pitching for the baseball team — you just know how to compete. He will take that moxie to the mound.
“You add all of it and you get Frankenstein’s monster that you’ve created the guy. He has all the great physical attributes and tough-minded as heck.”
Marcus plays with a smooth eloquence, whether he’s covering gap-to-gap as a centerfielder, moving into the infield to fill a position or staring batters down from the mound. His mild-mannered personality masks a fierce competitor.
“I think it’s a supreme confidence,” Morgan said. “I’m confident in my ability. I know what I can do and what I should be doing, for the most part. I think it’s more of a mentality going into it that I know I’m better.
“I take things personal. I’m competitive. When I’m in game mode, I’m in game mode. Outside, I’m a fun guy. I like to goof around, talk or whatever, but when I’m competing I get in my mode. I try to get really locked into what I’m doing and limit distractions.”
Baseball won out over football and basketball. The choice was difficult. Marcus made a list of positives and negatives, going with the sport with the better long-term potential.
“It was more of a business decision than anything,” Marcus said. “I’m very happy with it. I’m at peace with it. I love both, but when it came down to it baseball was the right choice for me. A really good spot for me at Iowa as well.”
The hometown Hawkeye will get an opportunity to wear black and gold like his father and sister. He has dreamed of this moment from the time he spent with his dad around Carver-Hawkeye Arena as a women’s basketball assistant.
“It’s kind of surreal,” Morgan said. “Growing up and going to all the football games, following my dad around and just being around Iowa, in general, especially growing up around here. Everybody wants to grow up and be a Hawkeye.
“It doesn’t get much better than that. It’s an awesome feeling.”
‘He has always been a part of the big moment in all of his sports.’
West head football coach Garrett Hartwig recognized Marcus’ potential before he even joined the varsity. He caught a glimpse of his ability during the 2017 season opener at Southeast Polk.
Marcus was a freshman, starting his first high school game for the sophomore team. Hartwig took in a few moments right before halftime. He witnessed the poise and leadership that highlighted Marcus’ football career.
“It was a really gritty win by the sophomore team on the road,” Hartwig said. “It was a back-and-forth game in the (first) half. I remember we got the ball back with three minutes left. As a freshman, he led his team down to score in his first game he ever started in high school.”
Marcus joined the varsity in time for the playoff run. He assumed punting duties, averaging 34.1 yards per kick. He booted a 55-yard punt in the 35-21 Class 4A state title game loss to West Des Moines Dowling. The moment was indicative of what made him so special.
“He has always been a part of the big moment in all of his sports,” Hartwig said. “That’s what separates him from a lot of other athletes. He’s never been afraid of the big moment. He always wanted the ball in his hand, whatever ball that was. Ninety-nine percent of the time he wanted the ball and got the job done.”
Marcus entered his sophomore season as the starting free safety, but grabbed the offensive reins when injuries sidelined a senior quarterback. He stepped in Week 2, took over Week 3 and never looked back. He became the program’s all-time leading passer with 5,260 career yards, including 1,662 and 17 touchdowns as a senior. He also amassed 6,000 offensive yards, 55 total TDs and 334 points in his career.
Eight NCAA Division I football programs offered Marcus scholarships, including Iowa State, UNI, Ball State, Toledo and Central Michigan.
“He’s not a self-promoter at all,” Hartwig said. “Who knows if he would have been more of a self-promoter at times where it would have turned out?
“He was never caught up in that. He always let his abilities speak for him. Very good student. I’ve never heard anything negative about him. He always got his work done. Did well there. He excelled in school.”
One thing that didn’t surface during the season was an injury that limited Marcus in the fall. He suffered a knee injury that transformed him from a dual-threat quarterback to more of a pocket passer. The injury eventually cost him his senior basketball season, but he displayed toughness, dedication and versatility, adjusting on the gridiron.
“I’ll never forget the fact that he played this season — we found out after Game 2 — on one knee,” Hartwig said. “We adjusted our game plan for him. When the time came, he made the play he needed to with his legs. He went from a dual-threat quarterback for us to a pass-only quarterback and nobody even noticed. He had the ability.”
Hartwig said that Marcus is a genuine, down-to-earth person. He sees a bright future ahead and some big shoes to fill in West athletics.
“We’re going to miss him,” Hartwig said. “He’s been a staple for us in all the programs.
“We’ll never replace a guy like Marcus. We can’t try to. He’s one of a kind.”
Marcus possesses elite skills. He could have trimmed his activities and devoted his focus to one or two sports, but that just isn’t how he is wired. Marcus found a way to excel year-round, managing to earn offers from D-I programs in multiple sports, including a hoops scholarship offer from UNI.
The demands were tough, transitioning from sport to sport with little downtime since most of his seasons extended into the playoffs. The toughest part was the mental grind, but Marcus would do it all again.
“It can get a little taxing at times, going from thing to thing to thing without many breaks,” Marcus said. “The thing about it is I really enjoy what I do and the sports I play. I love them enough where I was perfectly fine doing that.
“I enjoyed the hell out of it. I wouldn’t change a thing, if I could go back.”
Marcus actually returned to track after a brief hiatus. Even though he hadn’t competed in the high jump since junior high, he managed to qualify for the Drake Relays and the Class 4A state meet.
West Activities Director Craig Huegel said Marcus personifies the school motto, “Where excellence is a tradition” in athletics and academics.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Huegel said. “He was an integral part of three of our programs. He absolutely was one of the finest high school quarterbacks I’ve ever seen. It’s a shame his basketball career was marred by injuries. He was our best or second-best player every year he played varsity basketball. Then, as a baseball player, he is the straw that stirs our drink. He is a phenomenal high school baseball pitcher.
“He is a phenomenally great kid. He was raised by great parents with a great family.”
He is proof you can do it all and still perform at a high level. Stumpff will use Marcus as an example for future athletes, reminding them they don’t have to specialize to thrive.
“He was literally an all-state athlete in three sports,” Stumpff said. “You don’t have to specialize to be that guy. That is a great legacy for a society that tends to want to focus on getting them pigeon-holed in one thing.”
Marcus praised his coaches, including Hartwig, Stumpff and basketball coach Steve Bergman. Each made a considerable impact. The biggest might be their faith in his ability.
“I’d say they’re three unique individuals, but three of the best coaches in the state by a long shot, in my opinion,” Morgan said. “Having the pleasure of playing under them was a big help to me with their guidance, help and believing in me.
“All three of them saw it in me before I saw it in myself. Just that little nudge that they gave me when I was young has taken me a long way. I’m really appreciative to those three guys, for sure.”
Marcus owns fond memories of each sport, building longtime friendships. Teammates Ian McAreavy and Alex McKay and his standout receiver Grahm Goering are among close friends. They play golf when they aren’t at practice, training or playing in-season games.
His favorite recreation activity is fishing. He can be found tracking down largemouth bass or casting lines at night for catfish.
“I’ve been fishing forever,” Morgan said. “I love fishing.”
All of the statistics, awards and achievements are great, but there are more important things to Marcus. When students, parents, faculty or fans pass his photos or banners in the future, he doesn’t want athletic honors to be the first thought. He has hopes of being remembered for his everyday actions.
“The first thing I want people to think is ‘that is a high-quality person, whether he’s playing sports or not,’” Morgan said. “‘Then, he gave it everything he had all the time and was a supreme competitor’ in anything I did. The main thing is just being a good person in or out of sports. Just being a stand-up dude.”
Something he learned from his family, too.
Marcus Morgan, at a glance
Full name: Marcus Christopher Morgan
School: Iowa City West
Hometown: Iowa City
Birth date: December 27, 2002
Family: Parents, Michael and Cris; sisters Crystal Smith, Mikaela Morgan and Cailyn Morgan, brother, Jeremy Morgan
High school accomplishments: Four-sport athlete, competing in football, basketball, track and field and baseball. Played varsity football all four seasons. A member of the 2017 Class 4A state runner-up team and helped the Trojans reach the state quarterfinals in 2018 and 2020. First-team all-state as a senior, tallying 1,880 all-purpose yards (1,662 passing) and 25 total touchdowns. He completed 67 percent of his passes and averaged 44.2 yards per punt. He is the Trojans’ all-time leading passer with 5,260 career yards in the air and amassed 6,000 yards of total offense. He scored 55 career touchdowns and 334 total points. Morgan is a four-year letterwinner in baseball. Before Thursday, he owns a 20-5 career pitching record with one save. Morgan has struck out 281 batters in 167 total innings pitched. He also has a .370 career batting average with 62 singles, 20 doubles, a triple and eight home runs, reaching base at a .500 career clip. Named to the IHSBCA All-State Super Team and was a 4A first-team all-state pick by IPSWA in 2019 as a sophomore, going 10-0 with 105 strikeouts in 59 innings and posting a 0.71 earned-run average that season. Two-time all-district selection. Earned the win in a 6-3 state quarterfinal victory over Pleasant Valley in 2019, throwing 5 2/3 innings and striking out 11. Morgan was also a Drake Relays and state meet qualifier, reaching 6 feet, 4 inches in the high jump. He also played in 38 games during two basketball seasons hampered by injury. He scored 317 career points with 117 rebounds and 102 assists. He also made 52 3-point field goals, shooting 41.6 percent.
Future plans: Will play baseball at the University of Iowa
Final 2021 Gazette Male Athlete of the Year voting
1. Marcus Morgan, Iowa City West 43 (3)
2. Trey Shearer, Montezuma 37 (5)
3. Justin Recker, Monticello 17
4. Jared Voss, West Delaware 15
5. Max White, Cedar Rapids Kennedy 10
First-place votes in parentheses
Others receiving votes (alphabetic order):
T.J. Bollers, Clear Creek Amana
Alex Koppes, Springville
Jack Lux, Cedar Rapids Xavier
Alec Wick, Iowa City Regina
Trashaun Willis, Washington
Note: Bollers, Willis each received one first-place vote
Others nominated (alphabetic order):
Ashton Cook, Iowa City Regina
Gage Franck, Marion
Bowen Gryp, Iowa City Liberty
Raphael Hamilton, Iowa City High
Abass Kemokai, Linn-Mar
Kaleb Kurt, North Linn
Sawyer Nauman, Western Dubuque
Collin Rickertsen, Cedar Rapids Prairie
Collin Swantz, Mount Vernon
Kael Unruh, North Cedar
Cole Watts, Montezuma
Cole Whitehead, Center Point-Urbana