Many great football players have stepped onto the field at Ogle Stadium. One of those great players returned this week and talked about his football career and how he also found success after it ended.
Mario Morris, who was an All-State linebacker at Decatur High in 1989 and played on Alabama’s 1992 national championship team, visited his high school alma mater on Tuesday.
“This is where it all started,” Morris said while taking in the view of Ogle Stadium. “I have a lot of memories from here. This was a great place to grow up.”
Morris’ first experience with organized sports was through the Boys & Girls Club. His life journey since leaving Decatur has taken him to the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. The 47-year-old has a law degree and is the deputy athletic director of Business Operations.
One of the lines in the Notre Dame fight song says “Wake up the echoes.” As Morris looked over Ogle Stadium, it seemed to wake up the memories of his career when he played for the Red Raiders.
“Having the opportunity to play for a great coach like Steve Rivers is the No. 1 memory,” Morris said. “He was like a father to me.”
Rivers was also at Decatur High to visit with Morris.
“I’ve been fortunate to coach a lot of guys that had the ‘it’ factor,” Rivers said. “Mario certainly had it. We knew from the first time we met him that he was going to be a great success in whatever he did with his life.”
In Morris’ three varsity seasons at Decatur, the Red Raiders went 23-8 with two trips to the state playoffs. They were 8-2 in his senior season. He played in the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star game and was a first-team All-State selection by the Birmingham News.
A photo of the 1989 team is one of many on display in the Decatur football facility.
“Who would have ever imagined that the one person in that team photo to make it to the NFL was the water boy,” Morris said.
The “water boy” was Philip Rivers, Steve’s son who turned 8 in December '89 and is now the quarterback for the Los Angeles Chargers.
Morris credits his upbringing with being a large motivating factor in his desire to excel in academics and athletics. His family first lived with his grandmother before moving into their own home in Northwest Decatur.
“I would describe it as very humble beginnings,” Morris said.
Morris’ visit was arranged by Patti Stutts, who was his geometry teacher at Decatur. He and his fiancée Tatiana toured the campus. He made a video that will be part of the homecoming celebration next week.
Decatur head coach Jere Adcock had Morris address the team before Tuesday’s practice. Morris talked about the standard of excellence at Decatur.
“You’ve got to fight for each other to reach that standard of excellence,” Morris said.
After his senior season at Alabama, Morris wanted to continue his football career in the National Football League. He trained in Green Bay with former Alabama teammate George Teague, hoping for a tryout with the Packers.
“That didn’t work out and I thought ‘I’ve got this finance degree, maybe it’s time to start using it,’ ” Morris said.
After working in the financial services industry for several years, he was in Madison, Wisconsin, and decided to pursue his law degree.
“Going to law school was something I had talked about doing,” Morris said. “When my mom, Debra Tucker, passed away from breast cancer at 44, I realized that life is short and I got my law degree.”
Not long after that, Morris got a phone call from former teammate at Alabama, Sean Frazier.
“Sean was working for the Wisconsin athletic department,” Morris said. “He saw my name on a database that the Alabama Athletic Department had put together of former football players. He asked, ‘Are you living in Madison, Wisconsin, or Madison, Alabama?’
“He invited me to visit the athletic department. I did an internship there and got hired full time after that.”
In 2015, Morris became the chief financial officer for the Wisconsin Athletic Department, overseeing a $150 million budget. He used data analytics to increase overall fundraising and ticket sales capabilities.
Last March he moved to Notre Dame, where he is responsible for planning, monitoring and managing the financial activities for one of the richest athletic departments in the country.
“Most people don’t understand how tough a business college athletics can be,” Morris said. “The profit margin is thin for even a school like Notre Dame. The business model is basically flat. We constantly search for ways to enhance revenues.”
After two days in Decatur, Morris returned home to help with final preparations for Notre Dame’s big home game Saturday against Southern California. The game will allow him to visit with lifelong friend Greg Gilbert, who also grew up in Decatur. Gilbert played football at Austin and Alabama. He now works as a fundraiser for the USC athletic department. Gilbert’s wife, Carly Smith Gilbert, is the USC director of track and field. Their son Spencer is a redshirt-freshman linebacker for the Trojans.
“Greg’s been a friend and mentor for me practically all my life,” Morris said. “When we get together, we always say ‘Who would have ever thought that two boys from Decatur would ever be doing what we are doing?’ ”