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Worth His Salt : USC’s Morton Isn’t Much of a Sports Fan, but He Knows How to Catch a Football

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last Saturday, before USC played Houston at the Coliseum, another Trojan approached Johnnie Morton, the team’s standout wide receiver.

“Johnnie, did you hear?” the player asked. “Jim Abbott pitched a no-hitter.”

Responded Morton: “Who’s Jim Abbott?”

That’s Johnnie Morton, the football player who’s not a sports fan. The only sport he enjoys is catching footballs. Ask Johnnie Morton if he thinks the Braves will catch the Giants in the National League West, and he probably will ask you which sport you’re talking about.

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“I don’t watch any TV at all, and I hardly ever read a sports section--I’m really not a sports fan,” he said.

“I had a production job on the Arsenio Hall show part of last summer, and I met Deion Sanders. I’d heard of him, I knew he played baseball, but I wasn’t sure who he played for.”

Then there’s the oft-told story about the day Morton met Lynn Swann, the only sports idol he ever had.

“I did used to watch Pittsburgh Steeler games when I was a little kid,” Morton said. “I loved to watch him going up over the top of defensive backs to catch passes.

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“I met him in Heritage Hall one day when I first came to SC. I was thrilled . . . but I was amazed to learn he’d gone to SC. I never knew that.”

Guys with gaps like that, you figure they wouldn’t know a football from a hockey puck. Must be an accounting major.

But believe it, Morton knows footballs.

Two games into USC’s season, he has caught 19 passes, a school-record 15 of them in last Saturday’s 49-7 rout of Houston. He scored three touchdowns in a game that seemed to officially launch a drive to All-American status.

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He’s the only senior wide receiver and certainly quarterback Rob Johnson’s favorite target so far. Of Johnson’s 46 completions, 19 have been caught by Morton.

The acrobatic, 6-foot, 190-pounder is a complete package, according to offensive coordinator Mike Riley.

“His strong point is that he’s a terrific route runner,” Riley said.

“He’s a very smooth athlete--good body control--he’s experienced and he’s very intelligent. He’s not the fastest receiver in the world, but he’s fast and quick in the right spots. He’s just a total receiver.”

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Morton, after some early trepidation, couldn’t be happier with new Coach John Robinson and his new offense.

“At first, when I heard Coach Robinson would replace Coach (Larry) Smith, I was a little nervous,” he said.

“He was known as a running coach. But once we talked to him, we knew we’d be throwing the ball a lot, too.

“When I was being recruited, I wanted to go to a Pac-10 school that passed a lot, so I considered Washington and Stanford, too. But at the time, Rodney Peete had just finished up here and (Todd) Marinovich was coming in, so it seemed like the place for me to be.”

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Four years later, different coach, different quarterback, different offense, different mood. “I respected Coach Smith, but he could be very reserved,” Morton said.

“Coach Robinson can be tense at times, but he’s laid back most of the time. If you have a problem, you can go see him almost anytime. He’s got this couch in his office--I think if I asked him if I could take a nap there, it’d be OK.”

Morton is best remembered by USC followers for his spectacular play in the closing minutes of the 1990 USC-UCLA game. Certainly, that’s how Terry Donahue best remembers him.

With 3:09 to play, Morton--then a freshman--caught a 21-yard touchdown pass from Marinovich to put the Trojans ahead, 38-35.

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But UCLA scored to go ahead. Then, with 16 seconds remaining, Morton made a diving catch in the end zone, enabling USC to win, 45-42.

Characteristically, he made the first of those catches with a leap over the top of defenders.

“He’s always played like that, with the ability to get open and to jump with a great sense of timing where the ball’s coming down,” recalled Joe Austin, his coach at South Torrance High.

“We lost probably the greatest game he ever played for us. San Marino beat us in the playoffs in 1988, but Johnnie almost won the game single-handedly. We lost, 28-19, and he scored all three of our touchdowns on big plays. He caught two touchdown passes and scored the other one on a long run on a reverse.”

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Morton says he daydreams of passing routes.

“Sometimes I daydream that I’m running a route and I can see every step, every cut,” he said. “I even do it in games--going back to the huddle, I’m thinking out a pass route--imagining that I’m really doing it.”

Morton isn’t known for his speed but he did place third in a 100-meter race, in 10.56 seconds, for USC’s track team last spring.

“I worked with my running coach, Danny Daniels, all summer,” Morton said.

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“I’ve worked hard on things like acceleration and deceleration. A lot of receivers are faster than me, but some of them don’t know how to control their speed. Putting on the brakes is a big part of being a good receiver.”

Morton is the oldest of three football-playing brothers. Middle brother Eric is a freshman defensive back at Dartmouth. Youngest brother Chad is a sophomore wide receiver-running back at South Torrance.

Morton spent part of his summer working underground--on the Metro Rail project.

“I mostly just moved stuff around, and did some shovel work,” he said.

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Morton’s father, John Sr., an African-American, is a finance manager and substitute teacher. His mother, Katsuko, is Japanese-American and works for her sister’s Torrance advertising agency.

“I learned some Japanese growing up because I talked a lot with my grandmother,” he said. “But I’ve forgotten almost all of it.”


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