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Scared Straight
Michael Silver
May 04, 1998
Fresh off a sobering 90-day stay in a Texas jail, free-agent halfback Bam Morris is trying to put his life and career back together
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May 04, 1998

Scared Straight

Fresh off a sobering 90-day stay in a Texas jail, free-agent halfback Bam Morris is trying to put his life and career back together

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He could't eat, would't unwind and dared not sleep, lest the cruel concrete walls close in and the nightmare begin again. Byron (Bam) Morris had been out of jail for three days on April 14, yet his mind had not yet departed Cell Block 5 of the Rockwall County Detention Center, east of Dallas.

This isn't really happening, the former Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers running back kept telling himself. If I fall asleep, I'll get awakened at 4 a.m. by a guard saying, 'Morris, time to serve breakfast,' and I'll be back in that cell smelling the urine from the leaky toilet. I'll find out that this is all a dream, that I'm not really home, that they made a mistake and released the wrong Byron Morris.

So Morris lay in bed at the home he had bought for his parents in Cooper, Texas, 60 miles from his jail cell, and tried to get a grip. He squeezed his wife, Stephanie, to make sure she was real. He reached down and grabbed his legs, the thick-as-lumber limbs that had run wild in the second half of Super Bowl XXX. He thought about the downturn his life had taken since then, a two-year spiral that had begun with a marijuana bust in March 1996 and ended with him wearing a tangerine jumpsuit and serving pork and beans on aluminum trays to sneering inmates who said, "Nice handoff, Mr. Superstar."

Scared straight? Damn straight—or so Morris hopes. Once one of the NFL's most fun-loving players, Morris, who spent his 26th birthday in jail, believes his 90-day stay at Rockwall for probation violations was a sobering experience on more than one level. Whether he plays football again is the least of his worries; if he has so much as a single beer during a probation period that could last 10 years, Morris could face a decade-long incarceration. He carries a key to a jail cell as a reminder that he is one mistake away from a fate he doesn't want to endure. "I'd rather fight Mike Tyson than go to jail, even for another 90 days," Morris says. "I'd rather get knocked out by Tyson, get my ear bit off, whatever."

This fear was the cause of Morris's five-day stretch of sleeplessness following his release from Rockwall, sleeplessness that did not end until he and Stephanie flew to Cozumel, Mexico, and crashed together on a hammock, shaded by palm trees and caressed by Caribbean breezes. Until then Morris's nights were almost as horrifying as they had been during his incarceration, when he was tormented by migraine headaches and often dreamed that he was beside his wife, only to wake up in his bunk bed clutching his pillow. Then he would stare into the darkness, his body covered in sweat, his head pulsating, his nickname reverberating over and over. Bam...Bam...

Bam! The sound of a hand hitting a windshield, a shattered football career amid the shattered glass....

Bam! The sound of a steel door slamming and echoing off the mold-stained cement walls....

Bam! The sound he dreaded most in the darkness of his cell, consumed by his fears of the most brutal of jail clichés.

"Yeah, I was scared as hell someone would try to mess with me," Morris says. "As soon as we found out I was going in, my brothers started with the jokes: 'We're going to get you a gift, soap on a rope, so you don't have to bend over to pick it up.' I slept with one eye open and one eye closed. If anybody stirred in the middle of the night or got up to use the commode, I was wide awake."

Aside from a couple of suggestive comments, the six-foot Morris, who had ballooned to 40 pounds more than his playing weight of 245, was left alone. At the start of his stay he was made a trustee—an inmate who, in exchange for working in the kitchen and laundry room, enjoys increased freedom of mobility. "Maybe in some of the other tanks [cells] you had people who were into that physical stuff," he says, "but luckily in our tank everyone respected each other's space. The first five days I was there I didn't shower, because I wanted to check everything out and see how everyone acted. Finally, the head trustee said to me, 'One of the requirements of being a trustee is that you have to shower every day.' I went like this," Morris says, smelling each underarm, "and said, 'Really, man, I'm fine.' "

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