Player/Coach: 'Family' has extra meaning for Cajuns football assistant LaMar Morgan
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, May 10, 2020
His mother-in-law passed away. His wife gave birth to extremely premature twins, both of whom would spend months in a Texas hospital fighting for their lives. His brother-in-law suffered a stroke.
For UL cornerbacks coach LaMar Morgan, family matters came with one tough hit after another late last season.
During the same Thanksgiving week the Ragin Cajuns were preparing to play in-state rival UL Monroe, Morgan’s mother-in-law died in Abilene, Texas, and, three days later, his wife Jazen was rushed into an emergency C-section there.
She delivered twins Krue and Kalais just 24 weeks and two days into her pregnancy, just past the viability threshold for survival and the start of a long battle that kept both micro preemies hospitalized more than 100 days in Fort Worth, Texas.
UL cornerbacks coach LaMar Morgan and his wife Jazen hold their twins, Kalais, left, and Krue. (Photo: SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY Network)
Both had to be resuscitated at birth, and Krue – who also underwent two intestinal surgeries – was revived multiple times during his 145-day stay.
He weighed just 1 pound, 14 ounces, and his sister only 1 pound, 7 ounces.
A week after the win over ULM, with the babies still battling to make it, the Cajuns traveled to Boone, North Carolina, to face Appalachian State in the Sun Belt Conference championship game.
The NCAA’s early signing period in December soon followed, and in early January UL beat Miami (Ohio) at the LendingTree Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.
National Signing Day came and went in early February, and spring practice was right around the corner.
What was Morgan to do?
Enter Cajuns head coach Billy Napier, who made the balancing act much easier to handle.
“Coach Napier came into my office … several times (and said), ‘Hey, go ahead and get out of here.’ It was unbelievable,” said Morgan, who also was a defensive backs coach at ULM from 2016-17 and safeties coach at the University of Houston in 2018.
“A lot of people say in this profession they’re about family. But then what is more important at the time?”
More often than many may realize for coaches at all levels, the game is No. 1 and home life is relegated to the sideline.
“We all know family is more important,” said Morgan, a former starting safety for the Cajuns who played at UL in 2003 and, after missing one season with an injury, from 2005-07.
“But me and you both know sometimes people say it, but then when it comes down to the time (they don’t mean it).”
Lamar Morgan, now UL's cornerbacks coach, signs a ball during a 2016 Fan Day while he was playing safety for the Ragin' Cajuns. (Photo: Advertiser file photo)
In Morgan’s case, that wasn’t a worry.
“People are at the very core of what we do as coaches,” Napier said. “Certainly LaMar’s situation makes that even more real. It’s gives me, and all of us, great perspective.
“Life experiences like this galvanize you as a person and has a tremendous impact on you going forward.
“We often times refer to our organization as a family,” Napier added, “and that becomes even more of a reality after our people go through events like that.”
'HE WAS HERE FOR ME'
Morgan said Napier encouraged him to leave practice behind when his mother-in-law, Kathy Merrill, died last Nov. 25 following a lengthy battle with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
“Coach Napier had a soft spot for Jazen because his dad (died due to) ALS,” Morgan said, “so he knew what she was feeling when that happened.
“So when her mom passed away, he was telling me to leave to go see (Jazen, who was in Abilene to plan the service). But I didn’t know if I could do that until my mom came.”
Morgan’s mother traveled from her own home in Texas to Lafayette to help care the couple’s oldest child, now 2-year-old Kroix.
It’s a good thing she did, because when Jazen was taken to the hospital and the twins were born LaMar was able to jump into his vehicle and race about 575 miles overnight from Lafayette to Abilene, Texas, to be at her bedside.
“I just kind of put my socks on, shoes on, threw a hoodie on and I just drove,” he said.
And when the twins were transferred to a Level 4 NICU in Fort Worth, he was there too.
That Saturday, Morgan missed the ULM game.
Morgan also missed prep work early in the week before UL’s title game loss at App State, but he did travel there with the Cajuns.
As soon as the team landed back in Lafayette following their Dec. 7 loss to the Mountaineers, Morgan headed right back to Texas.
His mother-in-law’s memorial service was supposed to be Dec. 10.
Two days before that, shortly before a game against the College of Charleston got under way, Jazen Morgan’s brother Jarred – head basketball coach at Coker University, an NCAA Division II program in South Carolina – suffered a hemorrhagic stroke that for several weeks left him unable to walk.
He’s now preparing to coach again.
While Merrill rehabbed in Atlanta, where his wife and three children joined him, LaMar Morgan spent a lot of behind the wheel in another part of the country.
Typically, he’d drive 850 miles roundtrip between Louisiana and Texas.
Only occasionally did he fly there.
“I don’t know how many times he drove in the middle of the night back and forth to Fort Worth,” said Jazen, who worked previously an intensive care nurse at two hospitals in Texas and two in the Monroe area when her husband coached there, St. Francis Medical Center and Glenwood Regional Medical Center.
“I hated he did it, but he was there for me countless times and I couldn’t have done it by myself.”
UL safety LaMar Morgan (8), now the Ragin' Cajuns' cornerbacks coach, pushes Tennessee's Lucas Taylor (12) out of bounds during a 2007 game in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo: USA TODAY file photo)
'FAMILY IS MORE THAN JUST FOOTBALL'
Morgan relinquished his recruiting duties as Napier took him temporarily off the road and assigned those responsibilities to another staffer.
“He didn’t want me to go out,” Morgan said, “and I didn’t want to go out.”
Even as the Cajuns prepared for their bowl game, which he also worked, and in the months afterward, Morgan was told to leave whenever he needed.
Morgan said UL athletic director Bryan Maggard was “on board” with the plan too.
“Coach Napier would (say), ‘Take off Friday, take off Monday, take off whenever you want to go; if you’re not here, I know where you’re at,’ ” Morgan said.
A few times, Morgan was gone for a week or more at a time – away from hands-on involvement with the team but doing as much of his work as he could from Texas.
“He called back and we did meetings on Zoom,” sophomore starting cornerback Eric Garror said.
“I think it was hard for him, but he (knew) that if he had to go do something that was important the (cornerbacks) room knows what to do.”
Everyone from fellow assistant coaches to graduate assistants and quality control coaches helped pick up the slack while also encouraging him to tend to family matters first.
More than once UL offensive coordinator Rob Sale, a product of Neville High in Monroe and a former LSU offensive lineman who also worked with Morgan on ULM's staff in 2016, told him, “Hey man, you need to get out of here.”
Offensive line assistant D.J. Looney too.
His position players were supportive as well.
“Family is more than just football,” Garror said.
“I talked to Coach Morgan mostly every day. He calls me a lot, just checking in on (me), and I check in on him from time-to-time.”
'IT WAS A RELIEF'
Morgan kept his Cajun corners in the loop throughout his time away.
“He updated us with everything that was going on, and every time … he told us right there and then – like we’re a part of it,” Garror said. “We’re all a big family, so he’s not going to keep it away from us.”
The whole ordeal was shared with Cajuns like Kamar Greenhouse, a senior cornerback for UL last season.
“In the game we play – football – we face a lot of adversity,” Greenhouse said.
“And with him going through his situation, and being there experiencing how he handled it, that was a great lesson of how to react when things aren’t going your way, and keeping your faith strong in God.”
The devout Morgan was uplifted by the support from his players and colleagues, and so was his wife.
“The coaches here were awesome – texting (Jazen), calling her, encouraging her the whole time,” he said.
Through it all, though, Morgan also wanted to coach as much as he could – from wherever, however.
Each time he spent a long stint in Fort Worth he felt compelled to return to the team, “to check on my guys,” even after the season was done.
Even if it was only for a short time.
“If I stayed a day or two (in Lafayette), and I needed to go back to Fort Worth,” Morgan said, “(Napier) would definitely tell me, ‘You need to get out of here.’ ”
That was fine by Morgan, because truth be told he also hated being in an empty home in Lafayette.
To cope, he stayed in his office until late at night and returned to the house just to sleep.
Former Ragin' Cajuns safety LaMar Morgan was hired to coach UL cornerbacks in 2019. (Photo: Brad Kemp/RaginCajuns.com)
From the time he left the night before Thanksgiving until the time his family, twins in tow, returned in late April, Morgan never even turned on the television there.
But he did appreciate his time around the team, and the respite from reality it provided.
Jazen boarded much of the time at a Ronald McDonald House in Fort Worth with daughter Kroix, and the family was there so long that LaMar potty-trained his oldest daughter there.
Jazen left Texas only a few times from late November through April, including once to get the house in Lafayette ready for the twins’ arrival, and once when she flew to Mobile to watch UL’s bowl win, then flew right back.
Which is what helped make finally returning to Lafayette in late April with the family intact so satisfying.
“It’s like working in the field and you can’t go in and get shade and take a breather,” Morgan said. “She never was able to get a breather. She was just constantly up there (at the hospital).
“So I knew it was a relief for her just to … get in your own bed.”
The Morgans, whose preemies remain under the watchful eye of several specialists, weren’t the only ones relieved.
“I am thankful the twins continue to make progress,” Napier said.
“So many things are going on with them. … But they came home good, so it’s a good thing for him,” Garror added. “He’s better now, since his kids are at home with him. He’s doing a lot better than he was before.”