It's 6:30 a.m., and Santa Ana Mater Dei High football players preparing for a weight-lifting session are mostly yawning or napping. Not Malik McMorris, a senior defensive tackle who shows up with a smile. It's as if he has an ulterior motive that makes him fresh, pleasant and inspired. And he does have one.
His mother, Lucy, died of cancer in January. She was 38 and a teacher who would tear up when discussing her dreams and hopes for her son.
"In the classroom, I think about her," McMorris said. "In football, I think about her. When I'm walking home, I think about her. Everything is for her and to make her proud. We had a lot of goals in life, and now I'm going to try to achieve them one at a time."
If you think McMorris is driven, he is.
As a junior, he had nine sacks and 50 tackles, was first-team all-Trinity League and got all A's on his report card.
And yet, college football recruiters dropping by in the spring were not in a race to offer him a scholarship, because he's 6 feet and 277 pounds, dimensions that don't fit into the most desired mold for a defensive lineman. Two of his line teammates received offers from Nevada and Wisconsin. They're bigger.
His philosophy is simple: "Height doesn't matter; it's all in the heart."
Now, if only he can convince college recruiters.
"It's kind of frustrating, but at the end of the day, coaches will sit down, evaluate me and say, 'Do we want a kid who has as much heart as he does, who does it for the team?' Each night, I go out there and try to play my game, not try to go over the top and impress everybody. Just try to play within myself and help the team win," he said.
Mater Dei Coach Bruce Rollinson is glad McMorris has another year left to dominate in the competitive Trinity League.
"I'm very high on his bandwagon," he said. "I think he's the rare breed of power and quickness. His 'get-off' is to make training tapes of. He has an arsenal of moves and has a burning desire to be successful, and his motor is always going."
McMorris is so competitive that he has played three sports at Mater Dei despite people telling him to focus on football.
He started for the junior varsity basketball team because he loves basketball. He was a shot putter and discus thrower in track because he loves winning. He finished fourth in the state shot put with an effort of 60-91/2.
He thrives on being an underdog.
"I just like to prove people wrong," he said.
The offensive linemen assigned to block McMorris pay attention to him because he is a disrupter in the middle. From St. John Bosco to Servite to Santa Margarita, McMorris was causing havoc for the quarterbacks last season.
"Week in and week out in the Trinity League, going out and playing against those guys is ruthless," he said, "but I play football for the love of the game."
It's that intense, unpredictable week-after-week competition in the trenches that never leaves him weary or dissatisfied.
"It's crazy," he said. "It's guys going at each other constantly each play. You have to go at the guy. Sometimes you'll be tired, but you fight through it."
After each game, McMorris knows how to evaluate his performance against a lineman.
"At the end of the night, I want to say I beat him no matter how tall he is. I want to be the one who won that battle no matter what," he said.
Even though his mother is no longer around, she left a powerful legacy for him to follow.
"I come out here and try to be a copy of her in being dedicated in everything I do," he said.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times