This was never the plan.
College, the NFL … none of it.
My mom put me in football when I was nine years old because I was getting to that age where kids start acting up and getting into trouble. She was a single mother, and I was basically a latchkey kid. I’d wake up in the morning, and she’d already be gone for work. When I got home from school, she’d still be gone. Football was a way to make sure I was occupied when she wasn’t there, and for me to burn off all that troublemaking kid energy I had.
I didn’t really like football at first. I would have rather been out riding bikes with my friends or at home playing Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! or NBA Jam on Sega.
It wasn’t until my middle school years and into high school that I really began to fall in love with the game. There was just something about being a part of a team — about contributing to something bigger than myself. It made me feel like I was more than an only child growing up in a single-parent home, or just another kid.
Courtesy of Derrick Morgan
I felt significant.
When I was growing up in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, my mom never talked about college. It was all about finishing high school. The plan was for me to get good grades, graduate … then get a job and go to work. That’s what she’d done. It’s what her parents had done. It’s what most people in our neighborhood did. That was the model.
She always preached hard work, no matter what. I believed in it then, and I believe in it now.
I started working as soon as I was old enough. In high school, I cooked french fries and cleaned bathrooms at McDonald’s. On summer and holiday breaks, I worked 18-hour shifts at a warehouse. I was a lifeguard. A bus boy. I shoveled snow. Cut grass. I even worked at Party City for a minute. I was basically acclimating myself to the world I was going to enter after high school — the working world.
Then, my junior year, I started getting recognition on the football field, and the whole plan changed. My mind opened up to a much bigger dream. Something that could potentially deliver me from my circumstances.
So I put all my effort into that pursuit. And once I achieved that goal and I arrived on campus at Georgia Tech, I looked even further ahead, and my focus became NFL or bust. I studied just enough to stay eligible, and I devoted the rest of my time to football.
That “formula” worked. In 2010, the Tennessee Titans drafted me in the first round.
James Kenney/AP Images
When I came into the league, my focus immediately shifted from getting there, to staying there.
Then, in the fourth game of my rookie season, I tore my ACL and my whole world got turned upside down. In my 21-year-old mind, I feared that my career was over. I didn’t know what rehab was going to be like, or if I would ever be the same player.
But the hardest part wasn’t the questions about my knee.
It was the questions I had to face about myself.
When you’re on IR, you’re basically not a part of the team. You’re on your own schedule and left mainly to your own devices. I had a lot of time to think, and then think some more.
I had attached my entire value to football — to being a part of a team and contributing to something. Suddenly, the game had basically been taken away from me. And with it — in my young, naive mind — so had my identity. My meaning. My purpose. I felt like I had nothing left. For the first time in my football life, I felt in-significant.
That battle of self-worth was … it was rock bottom. I battled bouts of depression. The word “failure” started to creep into my mind. I felt that I had let a lot of people down.
I remember one Sunday when we had a home game while I was on IR. The sun was out, the stadium was filled to capacity … and I was out on I-24, driving past the stadium. I could hear the crowd, but I could barely bring myself to even look in that direction. I just kept my eyes on the road until the crowd noise faded.The hardest part wasn’t the questions about my knee. It was the questions I had to face about myself.
At that time, I just didn’t want any part of it.
It was like the game of football had pushed me away, and now I was pushing it away.
But I kept on rehabbing, because it was my job and I had made a commitment. Even when I got back on the field the following season, I still had questions — existential questions about who I was. Questions about my purpose.
Through a lot of soul-searching and a lot of prayer, I began the journey of discovering who Derrick Morgan was outside the game of football.
A big piece of the process was becoming a father. My son was born during my second season, after I had returned from my injury. And when he arrived and I was able to hold him in my arms, I knew that I couldn’t live my life just for myself anymore. Here was this child, and he was looking to me, depending on me to be a father and a role model — to be the best man I could possibly be.
It just put everything in my life into perspective. Especially football. It made me realize that football wasn’t my identity. It wasn’t everything. That didn’t mean that I couldn’t love it or give everything that I had to be the best player possible. It just meant that I didn’t have to let it define me.
That was when I started to shed the chains of my old identity and come into my true self. My son made me think hard about my long-term future — about the kind of life I was going to provide for him and the kind of example I wanted to set. I began to understand that while I had been blessed with an amazing platform in the NFL, it would not last forever.
So I got to work. I started studying, increasing my financial literacy. I invested in companies that aligned with my values. And I invested in myself. I went back to school and got my MBA. I started networking. I began preparing myself for the next chapter of my life.
That next chapter begins now.
After nine seasons, I’m retiring from professional football.
Guillermo Hernandez Martinez/The Players' TribuneGoing into this past season, I had a strong feeling that it would be my last. Maintaining my body to perform at a high level after nine surgeries was becoming more and more difficult, and it was starting to weigh on my family. I thought about all the locker room turnover I had seen through the years, and how many guys who came and went who had no real backup plan. I realized that for so many guys, football was all they had. In a lot of ways, they were just like I had been. We had all “bought in,” and we were determined to prove to the people running things that we loved the game and we would devote all our time and energy to it. This is the philosophy that is perpetuated throughout NFL locker rooms, and it keeps players in somewhat of a trap — one where we’re meant to sacrifice everything from our family time, to our bodies, to our futures … all in the name of the game.
I’m glad that I recognized this early in my career, and I urge young players to recognize it as well, because it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to fall into that trap. You can devote yourself to your family, be a great businessman and set yourself up for the future — and you can do it all without sacrificing your commitment to the game and to your craft.
I am greatly appreciative of the opportunities that playing this game has afforded me. It’s been an amazing nine years. I want to say thank you to all my real friends, family, teammates and fans, who have been with me through my entire journey and who have helped me along the way. To my mom and my grandparents, for instilling in me the work ethic and drive to achieve my dreams. To the Titans organization, for taking a chance on me. And to the city of Nashville for embracing me — I’m proud to call this my home.
And most of all, I want to thank God for all the blessings He has brought to my life.
My intention moving forward is to leverage my platform for good. To try and change the narrative on what athletes are supposed to be and what being an athlete means, and hopefully helping people along the way. I’m excited to see how that manifests itself and how much of an impact I can make. I’m excited for what’s next off the field, and for being able to fully fulfill my true purpose in life.
Thank you again, everybody, from the bottom of my heart.
And stay tuned … the journey is just getting started.