Cal QB Great: Craig Morton

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By Dave Newhouse, Contributor
Posted Sep 23, 2013
If by BearInsider Staff or Contributor, this article is Copyright © 2014 BearInsider.com


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Cal QB Craig Morton
Craig Morton, arguably the greatest Cal quarterback, was back in Berkeley, seated at a picnic bench in the outdoor sun and enjoying a hamburger and chocolate shake at The Smokehouse, a favorite hangout when he was a Big Man on Campus 50 years ago.

And Morton wasn't blowing smoke when he projected that Jared Goff, the Cal freshman passing sensation, could become the greatest Cal quarterback of them all.

"I first saw him at Marin Catholic (High School) because I live right down the street," said Morton. "He's got great maturity. Nothing seems to rattle him. And he has phenomenal fundamentals, great feet and hips, and he has a great arm and touch.

"If you have great feet and hips, and you have a pretty good arm, you can pretty much rule the game. Can he play in the NFL? Definitely. He's, what, 18 years old? I used to look like that myself when I was a freshman."

And Morton went on the play 18 years in the National Football League, longer than any other Cal quarterback. He started in two Super Bowls with two different teams (Dallas, Denver), the only quarterback to do that besides Kurt Warner. Morton made the College Football Hall of Fame despite not having one winning season at Cal.

A bunch of Cal quarterbacks have better career numbers than Morton. But they played on better teams, thus they benefitted from more offensive plays and longer, bowl-related seasons. But if you're talking about touch, only Aaron Rodgers was as accurate as Morton -- and Rodgers didn't play from behind as often as Morton, when opponents knew he was throwing on every down. Hopefully, Goff won't experience the same fate.

Another testimony to Morton's special talent: No Cal quarterback, not even Goff, was ever recruited more intensely. Believe it or not, Rodgers had only a few feelers before arriving at Cal. Kyle Boller was branded as "Jesus in Cleats" by the Daily Cal, but he wasn't as heavily recruited as Morton. The nation was his personal oyster.

"I could have gone any place I really wanted to go," he recalled of those less-intensive times, before the Internet and prep rating systems. "I got a lot of letters in those days. Oklahoma sent a guy out, but I said there was no use wasting your time because I wasn't going to leave California. It was either Cal or Stanford."

Morton struggled in choosing between the two schools while starring in football and baseball at Campbell High in San Jose. He was named Northern California High School Athlete of the Year in 1961. Then on a final recruiting trip to Cal, he heard professor Garff Wilson read the "Andy Smith Eulogy", and he was hooked.

That was the era of freshman football teams, and the Cal's frosh were 6-0 with Morton at quarterback. But Berkeley never saw the young Craig Morton, a 6-4, 210-pound natural athlete who could pass and run, that is until Cal coach Marv Levy wanted to find out who were the toughest Bears. So he had Morton returning punts in practice. Imagine asking a quarterback to do that today. Morton fielded a punt, then made a cut just as he was being hit, and his knee gave out. He wasn't ever again the same shifty runner.

Levy then wanted Morton to red shirt, but he dedicated himself physically and made it back for the sixth game -- dynamically -- against Penn State. Without much practice time, he entered the game in the second quarter, trailing 7-0 against a nationally ranked team. He threw three touchdown passes as the Bears narrowly lost, 23-21.

Levy would become a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, from his four Super Bowls as Buffalo Bills coach, but his four years at Cal, 1960-63, amounted to a 8-29-3 disaster.

"I always liked Marv, but his Winged-T offense was a dumb offense; establish the run game and try to catch up in the second half," said Morton, who from that Penn Sate game forward was 7-17-1 as a starter. "The players wanted Marv out; I wanted no part of it, and walked out of the room. They got what they wanted, but Ray (Willsey) coming back was important, because Cal is all about tradition."

Willsey, a Cal graduate who replaced Levy in 1964, Morton's last year, immediately instilled a coaching "legitimacy because he brought a professional approach, a different feeling. We lost so many close games (in a 3-7 season), but still it was great."

Morton also played center field at Cal. A Detroit Tigers scout projected him as a third baseman. Morton was unsure, himself, if baseball wasn't his future. He made up his mind at UCLA when he hit a drive that he was sure was a game-winning home run. But a Bruin outfielder leaped over the fence and caught it. Morton decided on football right then.

Impulsive, perhaps, but insightful, too. You have to know Craig Morton. He's basically a private person who lived in the public spotlight, thus someone who isn't comfortable with all of the "hullabaloo" around him. For him to make up his mind that way, on his own island without any outside interference, seemed perfectly natural.

Morton was a first-team All-America in 1964 over Roger Staubach of Navy and Joe Namath of Alabama. Morton was drafted No. 1 (fifth overall) by the Dallas Cowboys while Staubach was taken later in the same draft as he had a four-year military commitment to fulfill. When he finally joined the Cowboys, their careers collided.

"I had these little quirky things happen in my career, like Roger Staubach and I," Morton said. "We're very close today, but when I threw the winning touchdown pass (to Cal's Jack Schraub) in the East-West Game, Staubach got the MVP. I wondered if that was a sign of things to come, and it was."

Morton, in time, replaced Don Meredith as the Cowboys quarterback. And Staubach gradually replaced Morton, though not until after Super Bowl V when a Morton pass went through Dan Reeves' hands, and Baltimore's Mike Curtis intercepted to set up Jim O'Brien's winning field goal.

Twice, Dallas coach Tom Landry called Morton up at night and asked him to come over to the coach's house. "Alicia, Tom's wife, answered the door," he said. "She once told Roger and I that she liked me better." But her husband told Morton that he was going with Staubach. Twice. Finally, Morton told Cowboys general manager Tex Schram to trade him. Schram balked, so Morton signed with the Houston Texans of the World Football League. He didn't play for Houston as Dallas then traded him to the New York Giants in mid-season of 1974 for a No. 1 pick (Randy White).

Staubach and White would be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, while Morton encountered fan and media discord in New York. In 1977, he was gratefully traded to Denver for quarterback Steve Ramsey and a No. 4 pick. At 34, he rejuvenated his career by leading the Broncos to the Super Bowl and being named NFL Comeback Player of the Year.

However, to play in the Super Bowl was a physical ordeal. He was in the hospital the week of the AFC championship win over Oakland, and didn't practice before the Super Bowl because of a hip pointer. Denver coach Red Miller had to tie his quarterback's football shoe laces before facing Dallas; Morton couldn't bend over.

Peter Gent, a Dallas wide receiver, was writing "North Dallas Forty" when he roomed with Morton, who didn't know it. "There were a lot of characterizations that weren't that far off," Morton said of the book. "Pete should have gone to Berkeley; he was a hippie."

Morton had his best year, at 38, in 1981, throwing for 3,195 yards and 21 touchdowns. After he retired in 1984, he became head coach of the Denver Gold of the United States Football League. He held that position for 1 1/2 seasons, teaching such personal responsibility as no talking behind anyone's back. And he promoted a family atmosphere, with playground swings for the kids and team barbecues. And he wouldn't allow his coaches to sleep in the office at night; he made them go home to their families.

But an ownership transition soured Morton after he learned the Gold's new owner was reading the players' mail. He later returned to Cal as an athletic fund-raiser, a position he held for seven years during the Jeff Tedford era, before he was "downsized."

"I think Jeff Tedford is the most important coach Cal has had since Pappy (Waldorf)," he said. "He got the stadium (re-built); he asked for stuff and the alumni gave it to him. That's part of the Cal tradition. Except for white helmets."

Morton is disgusted over the recent tarnishing of that tradition -- the white football helmets, the Big Game being moved to the middle of the season, then at night, and finally, nearly playing it at the San Francisco 49ers' new stadium.

"Why would you even consider it?" he said of that last move. "You knew there would be an uproar among alums. The traditions at Cal are great, and they're being pecked away at. There's a disconnect."

But he is excited about new football coach Sonny Dykes.

"The (2013) schedule doesn't help things," he said, "but it's probably a good thing because it's his first year, and he's trying to install stuff that looks complicated to me. But according to Jared Goff, he could teach it to a fourth-grader. I like Sonny Dykes a lot, and I like his staff. They're accessible to everybody; they're outgoing and really do understand the traditions at Cal. I think Sonny will be very successful."

Morton, now 70, is married (Kim) and has a son and daughter. Craig and Kim live in Mill Valley, which is a little farther away from Marin Catholic than just down the street.

Morton is retired, but is looking to un-retire, even though he deals with daily excruciating pain stemming from three knee replacements, one shoulder replacement and another shoulder replacement a-coming, plus a constant numbness in his feet.

"It's a wrestling match," he said. "I wake up every day wondering what am I going to do. There are some things that kids need help with, and I'm so far removed from what kids problems are today. But if I was going to do something, it would be to mentor kids."

Perhaps he could alleviate his own pain by alleviating the problems of young people.

We hugged and said goodbye, and as Morton walked to his Mercedes SUV for the drive home to Marin -- Goff country -- he turned and showed his true colors, even after he was dismissed from the university he loves.

"Go Bears," he said.

Dave Newhouse, retired Oakland Tribune columnist, writes occasionally for bearinsider.com. Read his two latest books, "Before Boxing Lost Its Punch" and the Cal-related novel "White Lightning", on amazon.com at $5.99 apiece

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