Chris Morris is No. 1 on the 2019 Commercial Appeal Dandy Dozen
Khari Thompson, The Commercial Appeal
Football was the last thing on Melvin Cole’s mind when he first met Chris Morris a little more than five years ago. He was more concerned for Morris’ life.
Cole could see that Morris was heading down a dangerous path of gang affiliation. Cole said he was familiar with bad decisions, having spent two years in prison for trafficking cocaine, but he had vowed to save young black boys from taking wrong turns.
Cole, who founded an organization to help underprivileged kids, said what he saw in Morris was a taller version of himself, a young man from the inner city in need of guidance. Morris was playful, athletic and fun-loving. But he was a teenager with a second-grade reading level.
So Cole, at the request of Morris’ cousin and grandma, took Morris in, arranged for him to be homeschooled and taught him football. Today, Morris is one of the top college football prospects in the country.
The 6-foot-4, 287-pound senior is ranked No. 3 in Tennessee for the Class of 2020 in the 247Sports Composite. He is the No. 2 offensive guard in the country and No. 86 overall.
He is also No. 1 on The Commercial Appeal’s inaugural 2019 Dandy Dozen, a collection of the top 12 college football prospects for the Class of 2020 from the Mid-South as picked by the newspaper.
“I wouldn’t have even been thinking about football, and I don’t think I would have had the character,” Morris said. “Like I said, coming up in that neighborhood, you would have just adapted to the environment.”
A PURE vision
While Cole was incarcerated, he mapped out his entire life – where he went wrong, what he did right, where he needed help.
“And that’s when I kind of made a pact with God that once I got out of prison I was going to come back to Memphis and start saving young boys’ lives through football that looked like me,” Cole said.
In 2011, about a year after he got out of prison, Cole founded PURE Youth Athletic Alliance, which stands for Progressing Under Restraints and Extremes. It’s a residential program whose mission is to empower underprivileged students through education, mentoring and football. According to its website, PURE operates an accredited homeschool program and has provided housing for 15 members.
“I started off, I owned a gym called A1 Fitness and it just kind of turned into one kid needed to live with me, and then I moved him in. And it grew from there. And that’s when everyone kind of told me about the 501 (c)(3) to kind of get everything set up to be able to help more kids,” Cole said about becoming a nonprofit organization. “So it took on a life of its own. One kid, Abraham Austin, it started with him, and then it grew into what it is today.”
Today, five youth are participating in the PURE residential program – Morris, Tevin Carter, Terry Carter, Renard Gwynn and Tamerius Bell. All five hold Division I college football scholarship offers. And all five are ineligible to play high school football this season.
The five played football for Freedom Prep, a charter school, but moved into Central’s district because they couldn’t escape the issues they were trying to avoid.
“It was actually a combination of safety issues and housing and transportation,” Cole said. “There were a couple of different incidents that happened at Freedom Prep’s practice with the local neighborhood where the boys actually got into a fight, and I just felt like that wasn’t safe for what we were trying to do.”
But as a charter school, Freedom Prep’s district covers the entire city. So by TSSAA rules, they had not left their original zone and were thus ineligible.
Cole said that he plans to appeal the decision and that he does not currently have any plans to move again. He plans to wait until a decision is made and then re-evaluate his options.
How PURE helped Chris Morris
Before he began participating in PURE, Morris led what he described as a “pretty normal rough life.” He spent time living in Klondike and Orange Mound. And he was raised by his grandmother.
“It was like 12 people living in the house, a three-bedroom house. Not that much money. Everybody is staying with your grandmother. You’ve got grown kids and older people. So it was just a lot of commotion and a lot of mouths to feed,” Morris said.
Morris said that he moved in with Cole about a year after he was introduced to him.
“It’s a tough process, moving from your biological family,” Morris said. “But Coach, he made himself feel like he was family. And we’ve been building ever since.”
Cole said that removing Morris from the environment he grew up in was key to his development. He wanted Morris to realize he could lead a different life and that he had the power to break the cycle of generational poverty his family was caught in.
Morris started playing football in the eighth grade and developed into one of the marquee offensive line talents in the nation. He is committed to play in the Under Armour All-American game and has more than 40 scholarship offers.
Morris also has shown noticeable academic improvement.
“Now he’s on grade with his reading level and has a 20 composite on the ACT,” Cole said.
Cole describes Morris as the poster child for the impact PURE can have on children’s lives. And he believes that the program can touch even more lives as it grows.
“There’s a million Chris Morrises in Memphis, Tennessee, but he’s the one that got the opportunity to meet Melvin Cole,” Cole said. “So we’re going to poster his success to pull other kids from the gangs and things like that to show them that you too can be the next Chris Morris.”