If you hadn’t read the title to this column, would you have been able to honestly answer any of the following questions?
Which former player was Syracuse’s leading rusher in its last game ever at Archbold Stadium and in its first game ever inside the Carrier Dome?
What legend still holds or shares 15 school records?
Who helped SU end an 18-year bowl victory drought?
Of course, you already know the answer to every one of those questions is Joe Morris. But just for good measure: what number did Morris wear during his time with the Orangemen?
Morris, in his number 47, racked up 5,581 total yards in his four years playing for Syracuse, among one of his school records that still stands. Despite setting key benchmarks like that, Morris is somehow sometimes the forgotten legend. He didn’t wear 44 and he never had movies made about him or substantial books written about his accomplishments.
Yet, when you look at all that the five-foot-seven kid from Massachusetts accomplished, it’s amazing how his name sometimes gets left off after someone says Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, and Floyd Little.
This weekend, however, during the Orange’s game with Connecticut, that might finally change when Morris’ jersey is officially retired. Number 47 will hang up near the top of the Dome’s bubble with the other greats, giving Morris some of the recognition he has seemingly lacked.
It’s not just the eye-popping stats accumulated during his four years playing for Syracuse that makes him memorable, it’s that Morris was also instrumental in helping revive a dying program.
The ‘79 season ended with an Independence Bowl victory largely won on Morris’ back, the first post-season win for Syracuse since 1961. For that year alone, the pint-sized running back averaged 5.7 yards per carry, finishing with 1,372 rushing yards, one of his many school records that still stands.
And the craziest part about that successful season was how Morris and company never once had a true home game. After Archbold was demolished, and before the Dome was completed, SU became a vagabond team in ‘79, setting up shop in Buffalo and New Jersey, even having a “home” game at Cornell University!
The following year, just about every Syracuse fan was in attendance (or at least they say they were there) when the Orangemen beat Miami, Ohio in their first-ever contest inside the Carrier Dome. Those
millions thousands and thousands of sweaty people saw number 47 run wild that steamy 80-degree day, churning out 170 yards and three touchdowns on an incredible 32 carries. On top of that, he gave the Dome one of its first “stand and jump” moments with a 94-yard kick return for a score in the second quarter of that day back in September of 1980.
Morris even helped usher in one of the true saviors of Syracuse football, Coach Dick MacPherson, during his senior season.
That’s right, for the younger trivia buffs, Coach Mac wasn’t on the sidelines when the Dome opened its doors for the first time. But Morris was right there in the thick of the action for Coach Frank Maloney in year one of the Dome and for Coach Mac in year two.
So why does it feel like Morris isn’t quite on the same level as Brown, Davis, Little, John Mackey, Larry Csonka, Art Monk, Don McPherson, Donovan McNabb, Dwight Freeney, and the rest?
Maybe because Morris’ time, while eventful on a macro level, isn’t among the “glory days” for Syracuse. Most of the legends on the list won and some won big. Those greats played on teams that found themselves in top-25s, in important games, as bowl winners. Syracuse from ‘78 through ‘81, meanwhile, averaged just under five wins per season. Morris’ sophomore year culminated with the Independence Bowl victory over McNeese State, the lone winning season he experienced in college.
The late 70’s for Syracuse were known for the decaying giant of Archbold and the crumbling foundation of the football program.
The early 80’s brought about the Dome and then Coach Mac, which also kind of washed away a bit the previous years. Coach Mac was a mix of football genius and showman, almost like a forging of Doug Marrone and Dino Babers. By the time the Orangemen beat Nebraska in ‘84 and then had that unbelievable ‘87 run, Morris’ era was an afterthought.
Which is a bit amazing in its own right, considering that Morris left Syracuse and then went on to star for the New York Giants in the National Football League. Hell, on his first play from scrimmage as a professional, Morris scored a touchdown for the Giants. He would go on to earn two Pro Bowl selections and even help New York win the 1986 Super Bowl. Morris, after besting so many Syracuse all-time records, set the franchise mark for the Giants in rushing with 5,296 yards in his seven-year career in New York—a high-water mark since broken.
It’s also notable that during his time at on the Hill, Morris was also allowed to play as a freshman, something the great 44-wearers were never able to do. Brown, Davis and Little had to wait a full year before running roughshod over the competition thanks to the rules of the time. Morris, meanwhile, went full on wrecking-ball from minute one under Coach Maloney. That’s not to say he was a “stat compiler,” but it’s highly likely that any of those great RBs would have set the rushing numbers so high, no one would ever be able to get close.
The thing is, Morris rushed for 1,001 yards as a frosh, something no other newbie has done since. Even when nitpicking, Morris is truly unassailable.
Besides, none of it, the time in which he played, or the years in which he was allowed to do so, should matter when it comes to his significance. The importance, the legacy of Joe Morris should be treated with the same level of reverence as any of the all-timers. Syracuse at the time was noteworthy because of the moves off the field—a new modern home opening— but it was also worth watching because of its running back on the field. Morris is the thread that connected the past, Archbold, to its future, the Carrier Dome.
When the ceremony starts up on Ernie Davis Legends Field Saturday, under the giant 44 banner and the jerseys of the other greats, it’ll be Joe Morris who will become a little less Syracuse trivia answer and a lot more main character in the story of Syracuse University football.