Sartorial sheen hardly is lost on Randy Morris as he walks into a harbor-side cantina in San Pedro wearing a royal blue polo shirt, jet-black sunglasses and shimmering studs in both ears.
What immediately distinguishes him, though, is not his wardrobe. It’s his Gargantuan frame.
At 6 feet, he isn’t towering. But Morris, Carson High School’s defensive line coach, has muscles on muscles that must account for most if not all of his 265 pounds. Intimidating barely explains him.
Obviously not shy about pumping iron--he says he lifts at least five times a week--Morris puts his bulk to use playing competitive rugby in the spring. And after a year away from coaching, he returned to Carson this fall to, well, teach some boys a few lessons.
“Our players get along very well with Randy,” says Carson Coach Gene Vollnogle, “and if you’ve seen him, it’s obvious they don’t have much choice.”
“He is just a scary looking person,” adds Los Angeles Rugby Club captain John Mickel, who has played with and against Morris for seven years. “I pride myself on being able to tackle guys of any size, but he makes it hard because he comes straight at you and he’ll just run right through you.”
In other words, you want Morris on your team.
South African movie mogul and rugby enthusiast Boet Troskie figured that out quickly in the spring of 1987. Troskie, executive producer of “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” owns film companies in his country and in Long Beach. After watching Morris throw his weight around several times as a member of the Long Beach-based Belmont Shores Rugby Club, Troskie persuaded Morris to test his talents in South Africa.
Morris had often dreamed of making such a journey because rugby is revered in that country. “But I never thought I’d get there because of all the political overtones,” he said. Nor, he figured, would his wife and daughters, 4 and 9, agree to a long stay overseas.
Neither his wife nor his kids fussed, however, when Morris suggested an expenses-paid summer vacation. Troskie had secured sponsorship for the Morrises from a South African rugby club based in Bloemfontein, the nation’s judicial capital. “And I knew that was the ticket,” Morris remembered.
Flying time was 24 hours, and when the Morrises arrived a hotel served as their home. That lasted one month until a house was located. In addition to practices and weekend matches, the deal also included a day job for Morris in a BMW parts department. What it did not include was much introduction to apartheid, South Africa’s system of racial separation.
Said Morris, who is Samoan: “I’m dark-skinned and I wondered about the racial thing. But Mr. Troskie said to let him know if I experienced anything at all and that kind of eased my mind.”
Morris, 33, experienced mostly friendliness. “The South Africans almost smother you with kindness,” he said. He was sure of his abhorrence of apartheid before arriving, but he said it was only educated blacks who wanted to discuss South Africa’s problems. His few visits to black townships brought forth mostly working people seemingly satisfied with their lives.
“I don’t know whether they are happy deep down inside,” Morris said, “but they seem content.”
An apolitical joe, Morris wasn’t about to rail against the system. “Politics were the furthest thing from my mind,” he recalled. “Anyway, who you going to complain to? I was there to play rugby, to be an observer and to take what I saw back home with me, not to be a rabble-rouser.”
A Fijian all-star rugby team arrived with similar intentions when Morris was about to leave. The latest news reported that the club’s union back in Fiji phoned to inform team members that all would be forgiven if they left immediately. The curse of associating with apartheid worried the team’s public relations department. But, like Morris, the Fijians came to play--and stayed.
Rugby, Morris said, is a nationally renown sport in South Africa. People grow up with it, the game is faster and participants are fitter than in the United States. About 250,000 play in relative anonymity in this country, according to Ed Hagerty, editor of Rugby magazine, who said the game is played in 120 nations.
Morris said he enjoyed most of his four-month visit but that rugby “became like a job after a while.” His wife and children became bored after a mere two weeks. It was winter in the Southern Hemisphere, chilly in southern Africa. Few playmates could be found for Morris’ young ones because school was in session. “So we took trips,” he said.
They met South Africa’s most talked-about personality, President Pieter W. Botha, in Bloemfontein. Botha, a friend of Troskie, was honored at a party Troskie threw for the opening of his new $1-million mansion.
Morris recounted the meeting: “When we were introduced, President Botha said, ‘So what do you think of our country? It’s not as bad as people say, huh?’ ” Not about to disagree, Morris laughed and said he was enjoying his stay. But by August, he and his family were homesick. “Don’t let anybody tell you different,” he said. “When you are in a different country, there is no place like home.”
At Carson, Morris is hardly a stranger. He played offensive and defensive tackle on Vollnogle’s 1971 City section championship team and returned to help coach the defensive line in 1982, ’83, ’85 and ’86. But on returning from South Africa last summer, “all I wanted to do was take it easy, so I took that year off from coaching.”
He came back this year at what seemed a perfect time, according to Vollnogle. Morris filled the slot left vacant when defensive line coach Marty Blankenship took over the B team for Coach Irvin Finis, who went on sabbatical. “We were really lucky,” said Vollnogle. “We’d like to have Randy all the time.”
The L.A. Rugby Club’s Mickel, a Hermosa Beach resident, probably feels the same way. But Mickel has teamed with the brawny Morris only a few times.
In 1986 the two were selected to tour Argentina with the Pacific Coast Grizzlies, an all-star team composed of the best players from the Pacific Coast region of the United States of America Rugby Football Union. The Grizzlies are one step below the U.S. national team, the Eagles. Mickel was a national team member last year and believes Morris could play with the Eagles.
Morris’ major problem, Mickel said, is his friendly demeanor on the field. “He has to be mean when he plays,” Mickel said. “There is no room for nice. It’s not a dirty game, but it’s war and you have to let your opponent know you are out there.”
Morris thinks opposing teams are always aware of him because he’s Samoan. In rugby, he said, South Pacific islanders--Tongan, Fijian or Samoan--are known for their aggressiveness and willingness to fight.
“That stigma is wrong, but it will always be there,” Morris said. “As soon as guys hear that they are playing a Samoan team, everyone gets very tense. That’s good because it is intimidating, but it can also be detrimental because you will always be under that microscope.”
Some Tongan players once told Morris that he was the only islander they’d seen who had never punched or kicked another player. Morris said: “We don’t need that stuff because you will get even in other ways.”
Winning is the best revenge, according to Morris’ Belmont Shores teammate Gary Montgomery, who believes Morris is an exception among players from the South Pacific. “If he wanted to hurt people, he could do it legally,” said Montgomery, manager of the Pacific Coast Grizzlies, “but he is not that type of player.”
Morris plays a forward or “prop” position. His strength is relied on to prevail in a scrum, the shoulder-to-shoulder tussle for possession of the ball that occurs after rules infractions or out-of-bounds plays.
“He is a cornerstone,” Montgomery said.
Few players want to challenge such an important, imposing figure on the field--or in the pub. Even curious teammates relaxing with Morris following a match refused to ask him why he wears earrings in both ears. “But after a six-pack, I decided to ask him,” Mickel remembered, chuckling. “He said, ‘Because I want to.’ ”
The conversation ended there.