Having just finished cutting the grass in a complex that houses the busiest execution chamber in the country, inmate No.1103327 of the Texas prison system slides behind a spare table in a visitors' lounge, his white jump suit immaculate. give Byron "Bam" Morris this: even in prison, he presents the kind of clean, ironed image that led four NFL teams to trust him. The question is whether a Texas parole board weighing his release will trust him too. "The one thing I couldn't change in my life before were my friends," he says. "Now I have no friends left. It's a clean slate for me."
If Priest Holmes has used his gifts to surprise those who ignored him, Bam Morris, another back who ran for the Chiefs and Ravens, squandered his in spite of those who believed in him. The youngest of 10 children born to a church deacon, Morris learned to ooze contriteness in tiny Cooper, Texas. It's served him well on a six-year trip through the courts, during which he tested Texas' drug laws and the NFL's patience before ending up in Huntsville State Prison. Now 30, he's living in a garage-gray barracks with 106 other inmates, his world framed by a 5'x 12' cubicle that includes a metal bed, a bread-box-size locker and a huddle's worth of personal space. Before he walks into the cream-colored visitors' lounge to give his first interview since going to jail, he strips naked in front of a guard wearing a big Stetson. "They don't make you strip on Saturday, when there are women visitors," he says, embarrassed.
His problems began in March 1996, after he'd led the Steelers in rushing in their Super Bowl XXX loss to the Cowboys and gone on a vacation to South Padre Islanda Texas hotspot on the Gulf of Mexico. According to the book Pros and Cons, by Jeff Benedict and Don Yaeger, dozens of calls were made to known drug dealers from Morris' hotel room while he was there. On his way to Dallas after his vacation, Morris was driving in his Mercedes with a friend when a cop stopped him for swervingand found six cellophane-packed pounds of pot in the trunk. At first, Morris claimed the drugs weren't his. Then he accepted a deal still offered in the dry, law-and-order Texas county of Rockwall: stay free ...if you don't touch a drink, let alone a blunt, for six years. Soon after, the Ravens signed Morris, who became the AFC's top rusher in the second half of the 1996 season.
That's when he began to party again. He tested positive for alcohol in January 1997, and earned a four-game suspension at the start of the next season. Meanwhile, back in Texas, an angry judge voided Morris' probation, sentencing him to 120 days in the Rockwall County jail. When he got out, the Chiefs became the fourth team to buy into Bam (he detoured briefly through Chicago), and he whet their appetite with 8 tDs in 1998. But just when he should have been breaking out, Bam slid backward. "I was rippin' and running, trying to be a youngster," he says, understating what he looked like crawling into practice on three hours' sleep, so fat and foggy that teammates shot him dirty looks.
One of his closest friends on the Chiefs was Tamarick Vanover, then a fourth-year kick returner out of Florida State. Vanover was close to a Kansas City drug dealer named Greg "Tomato Jaw" Burns, and in 1998 he fronted $8,000 for Burns to buy cocaine in Miami. The two also dabbled in stolen cars. According to Morris and law enforcement officials, Vanover upped the ante in the spring of 1999 when he asked Morris to introduce him to DeWayne "Weasel" Bryant, an ex-defensive back who played with Morris at Texas Tech and had the Dallas connections to move large amounts of pot. What was Morris thinking when he called Bryant? "that I was helping out a friend," he says wanly.
In truth, Morris had more interest in the deal than mere altruism. Unable to make ends meet on his $400,000 salary, he was late on his car payments, $30,000 overdrawn at his bank and delinquent on his visa card, while trying to support a marriage that was crumbling, according to court records. At the very least, hooking up with Vanover supplied him with cash and breathing room; nearly halfof the $70,000 that Vanover gave him in the spring of 1999 was understood to be a loan. Instead of buying time, the out-of-shape, out-of luck running back got played.
Tipped off to the drug deal, the FBI stepped up its surveillance of Vanover. In January 2000, realizing that his indictment was near, Vanover walked into the Kansas City office of the FBI and cut a deal. After giving grand jury testimony against Burns, Bryant and Morris, Vanover was charged with auto theft and received two months of house arrest and two months in federal prison (Burns got 10 years for distributing cocaine; Bryant four for conspriacy to distribute marijuana and money laundering). Now that Vanover's back in the NFL with the Chargers, he says: "I don't want anyone thinking Tamarick Vanover didn't make good on his second chance."
Morris, meanwhile, spends his days as part of a 12-man yard detail, counting off imaginary first downs as he trims the Kentucky bluegrass. This is his second address since he pleaded guilty on the eve of his trial in August 2000. First he did two years in the federal prison at Beaumont, Texas. "Try being in lockdown without showering for four days after a gang war," he says. "I seen some stuff." When he finished that sentence in July, Texas marshals took him into custody as a probation violator. Now he lives in a low-risk dorm, doing his yard duty largely unsupervised, allowed to lift weights and run on the quarter-mile track outside the aluminum barracks. "What I've been through has had a dramatic effect on my heart," he says in a soft voice.
His only hope is a favorable decision from the parole board, which began reviewing his case in late August and may not rule until late fall. Meanwhile, Morris waits. His shoulders still look like they can support a set of encyclopedias, and he's got the v-shaped figure that made him a pile driver in his prime. But is an NFL team going to gamble on a 30-year-old ex-con? "I'm not," says a front-office exec who's been intimately involved in Morris' career. "It's not worth the risk to take a guy with a checkered pastlet alone a double-checkered past."
Morris thinks he can still be a force for good in a locker room. Yet even now, his message of personal responsibility seems a bit muddled. "I've never considered myself an addict," he says. "I've smoked plenty of weed and done my share of ecstasy. But that was when I was having problems with my marriage. I'm no dealer. I never did this to make money. The other guy got the deal. I got the blame.