Down 21-24 in their week one matchup against UNC, with just over 13 minutes left in the game, the Bears faced a crucial fourth down with 1 yard to go, ball at the UNC 38-yard line.
With most fans expecting the classic run up the gut, the Bears pulled out one of their more unexpected plays: a flat route out to the fullback. Not only did Cal convert, they gained 18 yards, most of which came with the receiver dragging a defender behind him.
Cal’s Malik McMorris is no ordinary receiver — there were tweets comparing the play to passing to a defensive lineman. To see a 5-foot-11, 285-pound man catch the ball on fourth-and-one is already a sight to behold. To see the number 99 (hence the defensive tackle reference) big man drag a defender with him while gaining 18 yards on a route intended for short yardage and keep alive the go-ahead drive, is all the more impressive.
But for McMorris, it’s almost normal.
“We all knew he’d catch it. I don’t think there’s anybody that doubted that he’d catch that football,” says Charlie Ragle, Cal special teams coordinator and tight ends coach.
Admittedly, while the pass catches and long-yardage plays — of there which have been quite a few — are most memorable for the fans, McMorris’ job as the blocking back who does the dirty work is far more definitive of his role. Regardless, so much about that play embodied him.
Despite not normally being a pass-catcher, he was prepared to make the play in crunch time. His size bears little meaning when it comes to his footwork and light movement, as he showed with the yards after the catch. And his excitement after making the big play showed his passion for the game. A video clip of the game ends by zooming in on McMorris and his pink mouth guard, which he wears in honor of his late mother, Lucy Guerrero.
For people new to Cal football this season, this image may have been their first glimpse at the junior fullback. But those who know him better can attest to the fact that this passion and dedication are what have driven McMorris throughout his path to Cal and to a starting offensive role.
Malik’s father, Patrick McMorris, knew from early on that his eldest son would be involved in sports. His son’s first words were far from the ordinary “Mama” and “Dada.”
“I played football as a kid myself — I always thought my kids would play in sports. His mom was the same way — an athlete in high school, same thing,” Patrick McMorris says. “The first word he ever said was ‘Ball,’ and he always had a ball in his hands when he was a kid.”
But after McMorris started playing football around age six, his peers — and their parents — quickly understood him to be the big kid on the field. He had to play with older — and bigger — kids than him, but he nonetheless established himself as the fullback.
A few years after his start to football in elementary school, McMorris also picked up basketball. One spring afternoon, however, he found himself bored, and with football and basketball seasons over, his mother decided to take him to her old stomping grounds — the track.
McMorris’ mother had been on the track and field team at her high school, where she did shot put. That afternoon, she gave her first of what would be many lessons to Malik, as she passed her craft onto her son. Soon, trips to the local track became a once-a-week occurrence at the least, which became track meets on weekends, and then, soon enough, became trips to age-group nationals.
McMorris attended Mater Dei High School, a private Catholic high school in Santa Ana, Southern California. It is widely regarded as one of the football powerhouses of the state. The Santa Ana School District, however, has nine high schools that tend to break up the good football talent across several schools in the city.
This convinced Lucy and Patrick to decide on what would be their first “investment for the future” in their son. Educationally, the school is top-notch. Playing at Mater Dei would give him a chance at being recognized and the opportunity to play with the best players from all around Southern California. On the track, McMorris would expand his repertoire to include the discus throw.
Immediately, McMorris faced the first of many obstacles — the freshman coach already knew one of the players and was giving him more snaps over McMorris. It was only after the head coach intervened and confirmed he would always play the best players, regardless of their origin or connections, that McMorris was assured of his opportunity.
McMorris made the most of the chances he did receive, and he quickly showed the team what he was capable of, playing fullback and defense on the way to becoming a sophomore starter.
But in 2012, towards the start of that sophomore year, a much bigger obstacle than anybody could have prepared for was thrown towards McMorris and his family. His mother Lucy was diagnosed with breast cancer.
The nuances of Malik’s family’s life changed drastically. Patrick picked up a night shift so he could be there for his wife during the day. Malik became a caretaker at night, for both his mother and his younger siblings. When his resolve was tested most, he did not falter.
“(Malik) is the best person I have ever met. He cares about everyone, he means what he says, and he’s the hardest worker I’ve ever met,” says Cal linebacker and Malik’s former Mater Dei teammate Gerran Brown. “It’s incredible, the things that he’s faced and the way he still looks at life so optimistically.”
Lucy Guerrero’s battle was a losing one, one that came to a tearful close during Malik’s junior year of high school.
“One of the last conscious moments I had with my mom was after my banquet for football my junior year. I had won defensive player of the year for the team, and we went to the hospital to visit her about a week or two before she was in hospice,” McMorris says. “I look back on that moment and just remember her crying and me crying, and it was just one of those things. She was so invested in all of it. Me, her and sports. That’s kind of how we connected.”
He channeled his mother’s death as motivation to work harder — to make her proud. By spring of his junior year, he led his team to the state championship for track. The following fall, he was named a football All-American.
Still, it was difficult for McMorris to find schools that were willing to offer him positions on both the football and track teams. Some schools wanted him just for track, some just for football.
He had a number of scholarships on the table, all of which he ended up turning down — to walk-on at Cal. Malik’s parents had always emphasized the importance of a good education. Attending Cal wouldn’t just be an opportunity for an excellent degree — the school had precedent of having a football player also competing in track.
“I’ve always envisioned myself playing football and doing track at the highest level. Wanting to do both closed doors,” Malik says. “At the time Khalfani (Muhammad) was a sprinter and he was also on the football team, playing since his freshman year. I knew there was always opportunity there because Khalfani kind of kicked his way into the door on being able to be a dual-sport athlete.”
Three years later, McMorris still lives the life of a two-sport athlete. Balancing the schedule demanded of a student-athlete for one sport — let alone two — is significantly difficult, especially if one intends to excel academically.
“I was always just a busy person. It’s a challenge but I’ll go back to track after (football is) done and just try to grind,” McMorris says. “I work better as a busy person. My freshman year, I had a schedule that was too lackadaisical and didn’t go as well as I thought it would, so I packed on some classes. Knowing that I have due dates and practice keeps me accountable.”
His job on the Cal football team has varied under two sets of coaching staff, but his role as the fullback has continued to be so emblematic of who he is and the past he carries with him. He is a hard worker, spending most plays hitting blocks for the running backs. Most of time, his efforts go underappreciated by the fans. But he’s used to it.
“From the time I got here, he has just been an extremely hard worker. It’s truly important for him to get all the little things right,” Ragle says. “And I think that tells the kind of person that he is — the little things matter. He’s a diligent worker.”
Last spring, McMorris was finally recognized and rewarded for his relentless work. After two years, he was finally put on scholarship by the coaching staff. In the process, he has quickly become a fan-favorite.
One of his most memorable moments came against Oregon State during his freshman year in the fall of 2015, in a play similar to the one against North Carolina. Fans love seeing the big man get rewarded with the ball, and in McMorris’s case, with a rare scoring pass play. With the game already in hand and the Bears on the verge of being bowl-eligible for the first time in four years, quarterback Jared Goff found a wide-open McMorris on third-and-1 from the OSU 11-yard line. He ran into the endzone for his first career receiving touchdown, and he sent the already hyped Memorial Stadium into a raucous cheer.
“In my head I was like, ‘If I drop this ball, I’m never going to get another ball my way in my life,’ ” Malik says. “I do the little arrow route, and then Jared sees me. The defensive end that was on me, he bit super hard — I was like, ‘Oh God it’s time. You can’t drop this catch.’ ”
But of course he didn’t. Just like this year against North Carolina, he did his job when called upon. It’s the same thing he’s been taught to do his entire life.
As soon as he crossed the goal line against Oregon State — and again on a rushing touchdown against UCLA the following year — he pointed up toward the sky before celebrating with his teammates.
In whatever his future holds be it professional football or not, it’s quite clear that his past will help him. Instead of crumbling after his mother’s passing, his resiliency helped him grow from it. To say the least, it’s impressive.
McMorris’s parents twice had to make tough decisions about investments for his future. But the way things have gone thus far and with the bright road ahead, the investments don’t seem to have been big decisions at all. Rather, they’re just starting to pay out.
Vikram Muller covers football. Contact him at [email protected].