An email changed James Morgan, and city of Green Bay’s bleak QB history


GREEN BAY, Wis. — In a city that enjoyed more elite quarterback play than any other in the NFL over the past three decades, guys like James Morgan should be more than a once-every-32-years occurrence.

It’s been that long, however, since a quarterback who played high school football in Green Bay, Wisconsin, heard his name called in the NFL draft.

Morgan, who is draft-eligible this year, couldn’t name the most recent one picked. He had never heard of Bud Keyes from the University of Wisconsin via Green Bay West High School, who was a 10th-round pick (No. 256 overall) of the hometown Packers in 1988.

And why would he have?

Morgan could see a statue of Bart Starr every day if he wanted, and had quarterbacks such as Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers playing down the street to idolize.

“I was [Favre’s No.] 4 up until eighth grade and then in high school I switched to [Rodgers’] 12,” Morgan said last week at the NFL scouting combine. “I’ll let you connect the dots on that one.”

For Morgan, it’s less about dots on a map and more about the path to the NFL.

You’ve got mail

The email sat in Bryn Renner’s inbox for 33 days before he opened it. It read like so many he received as Florida International University’s recruiting coordinator.

My name is James Morgan. I’m a graduate transfer quarterback from Bowling Green State University (MAC Conference) with 2 years of eligibility remaining …

“This sounds awful,” Renner said, “but I don’t check my work emails a lot because it gets so bogged down with, ‘Hey, this kid can play, this kid can do this.'”

But one thing made Renner finally read Morgan’s message: the need for a quarterback. FIU had just completed the 2017 season with Alex McGough under center. McGough led the Panthers to an eight-win season and their first bowl game in six years. McGough, who is now on the Houston Texans, was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in the seventh round.

It was the morning of Jan. 3, 2018. At 7 a.m., Renner and the rest of the FIU staff had a scheduled meeting with coach Butch Davis to talk about returning players for next season and recruits.

“It’s about 6:30 in the morning, and I’ve got to come up with something,” Renner said. “I literally typed in ‘quarterback’ into the search bar of my email, and sure enough it was James’ email. I read the email.”

It was dated Dec. 1, 2017.

… Over the last 2 seasons with the Falcons, I’ve thrown for over 3,300 yards and 25 touchdowns in 14 starts. I’m reaching out because I’ve decided to transfer, and will be immediately eligible for 2 years following my graduation in May. I have provided film on myself over the last two years, as well as my release papers …

The first thing Renner did was open YouTube and search for highlights. He immediately found a video of Morgan miked up for a spring practice.

At that point, he had no idea that he and Morgan had a connection that ran all the way back to Morgan’s hometown. Morgan played football at Ashwaubenon High, which is 1.4 miles from Lambeau Field. Renner’s father, Bill, played parts of two seasons for the Packers as a punter in 1986 and 1987.

Nor did he realize how rare it was for professional quarterbacks to come from Green Bay.

“As I was reading the email, it was very much like I have something to prove,” Renner said. “I like people who have that because you’re doing it for a bigger reason.”

… I’m very interested in your program. The biggest thing I’m looking for is a place where I can come in and compete for a starting spot. I’m extremely confident in my abilities, and will work harder than anyone for this game that I love. Additionally, I’m looking for somewhere with proven Coaches who have a deep understanding of their offense, and can help me prepare for my ultimate goal of playing at the next level. I believe I can greatly help your program to succeed and continue the success you’ve worked hard to build …

Renner spent the rest of that day — and into the night — watching game tape of Morgan at Bowling Green, where Morgan started for parts of two years before a coaching change prompted his decision to transfer. Because of all the Advanced Placement credits he earned in high school, Morgan graduated from Bowling Green in three years (his redshirt year plus two seasons playing), therefore making him eligible to play at FIU immediately.

“I literally sent a block email to like 60 coaches, three from 20 schools I had picked out,” Morgan said. “The only person who responded to me was Bryn Renner from FIU.”

‘Crazy how it worked’

Morgan won the starting job from the get-go, and in two years at FIU led the Panthers to consecutive bowl games, including a school-record nine wins in 2018, and threw for 5,312 yards with 40 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

“It just so happened to be the perfect situation for me,” Morgan said. “They were looking for a quarterback to come in and compete. It was the offense I wanted, the coaches I wanted, obviously Butch Davis. Crazy how it worked.”

It’s only gotten better from there.

Morgan excelled at the East-West Shrine Game in January and earned an invitation to the combine, where he continued to impress coaches and scouts last week. The 6-foot-4, 213-pound Morgan entered the combine ranked ninth among quarterbacks in Mel Kiper Jr.’s position rankings and did nothing in Indianapolis to hurt that. No fewer than 10 quarterbacks have been drafted in each of the past four years.

Morgan knows full well the long odds he faces, but he’s seen players from his hometown make it — and make it recently. Just last year, there was Max Scharping, the second-round pick of the Texans from Green Bay Southwest High who started most of the season at guard. And Alec Ingold, an undrafted free agent from nearby Bay Port High who made it as a fullback with the Raiders.

“I’d say that there’s an unfair stigma with high school football athletes in Green Bay and Wisconsin in general where you’re really underrecruited,” Morgan said. “I’m really excited to maybe be considered part of that and changing that kind of stereotype.”

There’s even another Wisconsin-born quarterback in this draft class: Iowa’s Nate Stanley from Menomonie, who also worked out at the combine last week.

“It does wonders for our local pro day,” Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said. “There’s places like Miami and San Francisco and other places where we’re rolling 200 guys through.

“To actually have an Ashwaubenon NFL prospect is pretty neat. We’ve had a few other guys come through the last couple years, but there were many years we didn’t have a local pro day.”

Keyes, the most recent Green Bay-bred quarterback to get drafted, hopes Morgan gets to experience the same thing.

“It didn’t matter where I went and who drafted me,” said Keyes, now 54 and living in Madison, Wisconsin. “Obviously being drafted by the Packers, I grew up in Green Bay, I knew more about Green Bay than probably any other person in the draft.”

Before Morgan left FIU, Renner printed a copy of the email and asked Morgan to sign it. It still hangs on the wall in his office.

“No one deserves it more than him,” Renner said. “When he sent that email, it’s putting your résumé on the line and saying, ‘Please take a chance on me.’ Sometimes you don’t get that shot, and he’s done everything you can with it.”

… I would very much appreciate you taking the time to consider me. If there’s anything else you may need from me, please let me know.

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