MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Last month, Tanner Morgan lost his closest confidant and biggest fan.
Minnesota's fourth-year quarterback has found plenty of both among his coaches and teammates, as if he had any doubt about the depth of their connection.
Morgan's father, Ted, died in July of brain cancer.
“This is what my dad would want me to be doing right now. He’d want me to be in training camp ready to go and excited to play football again,” Morgan said recently. “Everyone can talk about a family or culture or whatever it may be, because every team has a different one. Ours is obviously very unique, but when you experience it through personal loss, personal trials, I think it really just hits deeper on how close it really it is.”
The grit, leadership and maturity that Morgan displayed in high school in Kentucky were what drew Gophers coach P.J. Fleck to recruit him first at Western Michigan and then persuade him to follow him to Minnesota once he took that job in 2017.
The way Morgan handled the ups and downs of his dad's illness over the 14 months until his death merely cemented the admiration that exists for him within this tight-knit program.
Ted Morgan, as Fleck declared, was a dad to “pretty much everybody" on the team. Said wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell: “We talked to him all the time. He gave advice and shared love and nothing but passion. He was a great guy.”
About a year ago, when Ted Morgan's recovery from surgery and fight against the disease was going relatively well, he was delighted to receive a package from Minnesota with hand-written notecards of encouragement from more than 100 Gophers coaches and players.
“I’ve never seen a member of a family pass away and watch a team grieve as much as they have for Tanner’s dad. I think that shows the impact Tanner has,” Fleck said.
Morgan learned plenty of football from his father, but lessons of life and faith have made the biggest impact. Their devout and humble Christian beliefs were evident in the moving tribute Morgan posted on social media when his dad died — and remain clear now. Morgan cited his gratitude to God, his family, his teammates and the university at the beginning of preseason camp when he spoke to reporters about overcoming the grief.
“It’s what brings me joy through this and what gets me through,” he said.
Morgan is 18-8 as a starter, ranking in the top 10 in most passing categories on the program's all-time list. He has ample opportunity to move up the rankings with a season more like the 11-2 record the Gophers posted in 2019 and less like the 3-4 mark they had during a pandemic-altered schedule.
Morgan, who was an All-Big Ten second-team selection in 2019, said last week he's had more fun in summer practices this month than at any other point in his career.
He's not a scrambling quarterback, but in a system that uses plenty of run-pass option plays he has to be nimble, so he focused on improving his speed during offseason conditioning. Pointing to the sleep tracker he wears on his wrist, Morgan also has become more cognizant of total-body health, seeking any additional edge he can for what could be his final year in college.
If the Gophers are ever going to have a legitimate chance to beat a team like Ohio State, it ought to be this year, with Morgan at the helm behind an extra-experienced offensive line and Mo Ibrahim — a preseason Associated Press All-America second-team pick — at running back next to him. The Gophers host the fourth-ranked Buckeyes on Thursday night to open the season.
“He is a wonderful person, an elite leader, and he’s gotten better in the offseason,” Fleck said. "He’s got that competitive spirit, that competitive greatness that you want to be able to see in every area of his life and that needs to rub off on our entire team, which it has. I’m just proud of the progress that he’s made on and off the field.”
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