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Mercury Morris: Mercurial pursuit
Together at night, together in his living room, together sometimes for hours, Eugene ``Mercury'' Morris and Janet Reno talk. He will be on the couch. She will be on CNN.
The former Dolphins running back always starts softly, keeping the cracks to himself. But as Reno continues talking on the television _ maybe before a Senate committee, maybe at a news conference _ Morris' voice grows accusing, his tone turns forceful and his words become loud enough to wake a sleeping household.
``Gene?'' his wife, Bobbie, has stumbled out of bed and walked into the living room a dozen times to ask. ``Who in the world are you talking to?''
But she knows who. Without even looking at the television, she knows. She refers to Reno, who as U.S. Attorney General is this country's top law-enforcement official, only as ``that poor lady up in Washington.''
It isn't so much her husband's shouts. It is his one-man phone campaign. It is the 120 letters he figures he has written: To Sen. Joe Biden, about Reno's integrity during her Attorney General confirmation hearings; to David Koresh's lawyer, about Reno's history during the Waco affair; to Gov. Lawton Chiles, Dade State Attorney Kathy Rundle and Nightline's Ted Koppel, about various aspects of Reno, including the procedure for investigating a state investigator.
And the one thread through them all, the one question that is his public life's quest, actually stood in line to be addressed last week by a caller to Larry King Live!
Morris had set up the caller, naturally. He had been stretching at the gym that night when, lo and behold, up on the television he saw Reno sitting in-studio with King.
Immediately, he called a friend, had him phone the show's hotline and then wait on hold for 40 minutes to pose this simple question: ``Why are you ducking the Mercury Morris case?''
Bobbie, who has loved her husband though it all _ through his drug days, through the 1982 cocaine arrest by Reno's Dade investigators, through the 31/2 years in jail, through the Florida Supreme Court siding with Morris in 1986, the subsequent no-contest plea that freed him and several years of fighting that plea _ this woman who has loved this man through this hell and back, just now hears this Larry King show story and drops her head hard into her hands. Smack!
``Gene, you didn't,'' she mumbles, monotone, head still in hands.
``I did,'' he says.
``You know why.''
``I can't believe this.''
``The question never got asked,'' he says. ``They only took like two questions from callers.''
Bobbie lifts her head from her hands and looks at him. The room drops silent. No one moves. No sound is made. Then her shoulders start shaking. Her head falls back. Something bubbles up from deep inside her _ the sounds of laughter!
She is laughing so hard her eyes are mere slits and her hands cover her mouth. Five seconds pass. Ten seconds. She can't stop laughing. Finally, her husband finds his smile, then also the laugh of life that has so eluded him at times.
``I'm obsessed,'' he admits. ``I used to be obsessed with scoring touchdowns. It would be third-and-1, and I'd be thinking, `Touchdown.' They'd say, `Merc, we just need a yard.' I'd say, `Hell with that, I'm going to score a touchdown.'
``Now I'm obsessed that same way with clearing my name.''
By ordinary standards, it should be the best of times for Morris, 50. Great wife. Great children. His finances are in order, his drug abuse of the early '80s is far behind and a long weekend reunion is planned with his '72 Dolphin teammates, climaxing with Monday night's halftime celebration of the Perfect Season.
There's just one problem that muscles in on everything: He wanted his name cleared for Monday's public spectacle. Nov. 6 was the 15-year anniversary of his going to jail, and he had planned to have the battle won by then _ just as he has every Nov. 6 since 1991, when he renewed the fight.
``I don't want people to think of me when I walk out on the field as [a drug trafficker),'' says Morris, a Dolphin from 1969-75.
Most people today could only think that, it's pointed out, because he keeps the case alive.
``It's never ended,'' he says. ``It's always been alive. I'm [an officer) in an energy company, and we have worked with Broward schools. You know I can't go to the school grounds to inspect the work, because of this plea?
``When Janet Reno took her oath, the first words that came out of her mouth when she became attorney general were, `My highest responsibility is to protect the rights of the accused more than convict the guilty.' Quote, unquote.
``Those were her first words. As she stuck her hand straight up. It makes you sick to hear that when you know the things that I do.''
Morris gives answers like this even to the most innocent questions. For the next three hours, he talks about the case. Who among the Dade investigators set him up. Why it was ruled entrapment by the state Supreme Court. And, most of all, how the ensuing no-contest plea to cocaine conspiracy charges released him from jail but chained him forever to this drug-trafficking stigma.
He is angry as he talks, very angry, but also funny, passionate and completely captivating. He quotes testimony. He cites verse and chapter of statements. He weaves the characters and plotlines together by relating books, movies or TV shows.
``Did you see Poltergeist? Remember, the story was based on them building this whole community over a cemetery . . .,'' he says to explain the faulty foundation of the case against him.
``Do you remember the A-Team? Every time Mr. T had to fly, they had to trick him somehow to get him on the plane . . .,'' he says to explain how he was tricked into the plea bargain.
Remember Ghosts of Mississippi? He can relate to the injustice, his jury being all-white. Remember To Kill A Mockingbird? Morris knows why the crippled Tom Robinson tried to hobble away while being shot, because at least he was doing something, anything, to flee his prosecutors.
Up close with Morris in his South Miami home, you see the brains, you see the charm, you see why in this age of the sound bite he is a regular on the talk-show-TV circuit. Oprah. Geraldo. You name a name, he has been on the show _ most of them several times.
Because on every issue from personal abuse to drug issues to O.J. Simpson, Guilty or Not, he has an opinion and delivers it with the subtlety of an uppercut. For instance, he thought Simpson, a former football rival, to be guilty. But he delivered it in such a way that Geraldo had to step between Morris and Guardian Angel founder Curtis Sliwa and a homicide detective, who in fact agreed on Morris' bottom line.
``Jerks,'' is what Morris calls them today, which is how he remembers most of those who have crossed him, unless they are ``punks'' or ``mos _ short for morons.''
Morris never has been the silent type _ or, as he says, sticking to the movie theme, ``I rarely pull a Cagney.'' Even in the losing locker room after Super Bowl VI, he sat on a folding chair, surrounded by the nation's sports writers, and repeated how the Dolphins had lost to Dallas because coach Don Shula didn't play him.
Shula and Morris nearly came to a fistfight right there.
``It was like the O.K. Corral,'' Morris remembers. ``But if I don't speak up right there, Shula doesn't play me the next year. I had to force him to play me. I'm not just going to sit back and be quiet about what I perceive to be an injustice.''
Bobbie, his wife of 17 years, admires his determination but wonders sometimes about his direction. She believes in her heart he is right on this drug-case challenge, but wonders if the reward is worth the years expended.
``Every time I turn around, he has another fight starting,'' she says. ``I think somewhere deep within, he wants to be an attorney.
``I'll ask him what he's going to do today, and he'll say he's going to make some phone calls and write some letters. I'm thinking, `Oh, no, please go mow the lawn!' ''
The letters' folders on his desk are a roll call of his fights. One is from an ongoing lawsuit against an electronics store that got into a dispute with his son. One is from a potential suit against his insurance company from a January car accident. He promises not only to sue it for medical bills [he sustained a hernia and tore a rotator cuff, for which he still wears a sling) but to bring another suit against their advertising jingle (``Like a good neighbor _ right, they don't say they are a good neighbor. They say they're like a good neighbor'').
Another folder is for the NFL, whom Morris is suing over retirement benefits. He already sued the league once. That was over disability benefits for problems stemming from the broken neck he played with during the '73 season.
The NFL offered an $80,000 settlement in that case. He demanded $300,000. The NFL countered with an offer of $295,000.
``This isn't over until I say it is,'' Morris told his lawyer. ``Tell them I want, $295,000.22.''
He wore No. 22. He got the check.
But it is his fight against his former Dade investigators that litters his desk. There are letters, documents, testimony. Some concern Reno, the former Dade state attorney whose people set up the arrest. Some concern Ray Havens, the chief investigator who Morris claims destroyed the tape recording of a conversation in which Morris made clear he was not involved in cocaine trafficking and didn't want to be.
Some concern prosecutor George Yoss, whom Morris notes looks like Danny DeVito. Some concern John Johnson, a former investigator for the state attorney who Morris claims promised to support this tape claim in 1996 but who was supposedly pressured from above into backing off.
``Let's get something straight,'' Johnson said from Fayetteville, N.C., where he is retired. ``There isn't some magical tape that was made one night. There never was. This thing has been going on forever and forever, and I'm sick of it.''
Yes, Johnson said, he would have handled the investigation differently if he had been in charge. Morris wouldn't have been the focus. ``Getting cocaine off the streets'' would have been.
``But it's a matter of the real world that famous people get more attention,'' he said. ``And Mercury Morris was doing wrong here. Let's be clear on that. The only thing he wasn't a willing participant in was the arrest.''
That all happened nearly 15 years ago. Eleven years have passed since Morris' release, six since he took up the case again, one since he hired lawyer Ellis Rubin to represent him.
Johnson was going to testify for them. Now he isn't. Morris says someone got to Johnson. Johnson says he was hurt that Morris ``twisted my comments.''
``He scares me,'' Johnson says. ``I think he's going to reach the point where he gets desperate enough to come after me, or come after Ms. Reno. I think he might figure he has nothing to lose some day.''
Morris sees another finish.
``Did you ever see the movie 9 to 5? Remember near the end, Dabney Coleman made his escape, came back to the office and is sitting in his chair and says, `I just want to gather you one more time and take a look at you before I send you bitches to jail.' ''
He is told the movie ended with Coleman's character going to jail. He shrugs. His point is taken. He is standing on his driveway, and his 10-year-old son, who passes by at the end of this discussion, rollerblades out to the street now, never seeming to notice, never looking back, as his father keeps fighting:
``Do you remember in the Wizard of Oz. . . .''