On the particular one day I saw Drew Morgan play football in 2012, he was the best player I’d seen all season in Arkansas high school football. He played a half-dozen positions on offense and defense in the Class 6A state final game, missed just a couple of plays to have his dislocated hip worked back in place, and led his Greenwood Bulldogs to a third-straight championship.
He did all that against an athletic Pine Bluff program, which through the years has been an excellent barometer for how a prep player’s talent will project to the speed of college football. Morgan seemed to be the fastest player on the field, with that special twitch and change-of-direction ability rarely scene around the Arkansas.
A day after winning that title, Morgan was offered and committed to a scholarship from the Arkansas Razorbacks.
He was just getting started.
On Wednesday night, alongside such other prep stars and SEC-bound athletes as Altee Tenpenny, Austin Allen and Hunter Henry, Drew Morgan was the name announced as the winner of the 2012 Landers Award — KATV, Channel 7’s honor to the top player in Arkansas, a Heisman Trophy for the state’s prep stars, if you will.
“He said ‘Drew Morgan,’ and I was just like, ‘No way,’” Morgan said of Steve Sullivan’s announcement at the end of a 30-minute live broadcast at KATV’s studio at Fourth and Main streets.
“It’s awesome. It’s excitingly, honestly. I’m shocked, I’m shocked with excitement, which is pretty good.”
He’ll carry that giddiness with him up to Fayetteville this weekend for his official visit to Arkansas. Tenpenny, who seems firmly committed to Alabama, and the Hog-bound Henry and Allen will also be part of an expected 15 visiting athletes, some from outside the state.
Morgan agreed to a Jan. 25-27 weekend visit to Auburn, where former Arkansas State head coach Gus Malzahn and former UA recruiting coordinator Tim Horton now reside. Malzahn had received an earlier commitment from Morgan to play at ASU before Horton watched the 6A state title game and called Morgan with the Hog scholarship offer he’d been hoping for.
Wrapping up this whirlwind of thrills, Morgan will return to Capital City for the Little Rock Touchdown Club’s award banquet Feb. 1, where he’ll be honored as 6A Player of the Year, to go along with his 5A Player of the Year award from last year.
Feb. 6 is National Signing Day.
“It’s like it’s all coming so fast, so I’m really excited,” Morgan said. “ I’lI have a lot ahead of me and I’m going to be very humble about it and take it to heart.”
It was revealed that this Landers Award was decided by its closest margin: 1 point (though the order of finish behind the winner is not announced, unlike the New York Downtown Athletic Club’s Heisman Trophy presentation).
It’s safe to say, though, that Fayetteville quarterback Allen, North Little Rock speedster running back Tenpenny and Pulaski Academy tight end Henry were all in the mix. In its 12-year history, this may have been the deepest Landers finalist field from one to 13.
Allen, whose brother, Razorback rising sophomore quarterback Brandon Allen, won the award two years ago over current Auburn quarterback Kiehl Frazier, was hoping to add another Landers trophy and ring to the family’s collection. He’ll settle for the two state championships he secured as Fayetteville’s record-setting quarterback.
“This is big, a blessing really,” Allen said. “It could have gone to anyone. You’ve got Altee Tenpenny, Hunter Henry, L.J. Wallace; all those guys are great players. It could have been anyone up there. It went to Drew and he deserves it.”
Tenpenny, donning a crimson pullover that would have fit perfectly among an Alabama Crimson Tide rooting section, said he was thankful just to return to the field after missing 2011 with a broken ankle.
“It’s an honor, a blessing, a true testament,” Tenpenny said. “My junior year I had sit out, so this year just to come back and accomplish some things that me and my team could accomplished together and be amongst 12 of the other greatest players in Arkansas, it’s cool.”
Henry, who even towers above his dad, former Arkansas All-Southwest Conference center Mark Henry, was one of the rare two-time Landers’ finalists, making the field as a junior when his team’s senior quarterback, Fredi Knighten, took home the honor.
“I got to come last year and be a part of the whole ceremony and see Fredi win,” Henry said. “And, I just challenged myself to try to make it back and I did and it’s an honor to be among these great athletes.”
The annual program is also highlighted each year with the Paul Eells Award, presented in honor of the late Channel 7 sportscaster to a player who had to overcome major adversity to compete. Bryant’s Ian Shuttlesworth, who survived cancer to return to football and earn a college scholarship, was this year’s winner.
When the crowd heads back out into the chill of a winter night after the Landers Award, everybody feels like they’ve been in the presence of champions. For all but one athlete, Arkadelphia junior quarterback Jakahari Howell, who could be back again as a finalist next January, the others know they’ve moved on from high school ball with an eye toward a college career and more goals to set.
“My feelings right now, I feel accomplished. I feel like I have succeeded [in reaching] my expectations, everyone else’s expectations,” Morgan said, still trying to fully realize he had the trophy in his hands. “Right now I’m going to celebrate but you’ve got to give it out to rest of these 12 other athletes that have been out here and competed. I’m shocked, they’re shocked. Everybody else came expecting to win it, and I came expecting to win it, and you’ve got to come in with that confidence.”
Anyone who saw Morgan play against Pine Bluff knows that’s how he also approaches every game.