Faith, Family, Football and Kentucky Roots: The Story of Former Gophers QB Tanner Morgan 

Six-year-old Tanner Morgan stared at the scoreboard in awe. His uncle, Tim Koogler, former head coach of the Leslie County Eagles, was seconds away from winning the 2005 Kentucky Region 4, District 7 Championship.

Morgan, along with his 10-year-old brother, Tyler, couldn’t wait for the championship celebration. Seconds later, everything around them became a blur.

Tanner sprinted onto the field, raising a celebratory No. 1, as Leslie County defeated rival Middlesboro, 37-14. Tyler raced ahead and greeted all of his favorite players at midfield. That night, while players, coaches and fans celebrated a championship, two brothers developed a lifelong love for football.

(Tanner Morgan is in the gray hooded sweatshirt raising the No. 1 and Tyler Morgan is wearing the No. 11 jersey on the left side of the image)

Koogler, a Kentucky high school football coach for 32 years, remembers the special moment like it was yesterday.

“When I got that picture of those two boys, I made sure to keep it. It was no doubt my biggest win because we didn’t only win, we whipped them. Tyler ate that moment up like he belonged there and Tanner is a little bit reserved and raised his finger just like the quarterback on the field,” Koogler said. “To share that win with those two, my brother Ted, my mom, and the entire family, made it extra special.”

Tanner Morgan, the all-time winningest quarterback in Minnesota Golden Gophers football history, vividly recalls spending time around his uncle’s team at a very young age.

“I remember watching my uncle’s football games as a young kid and just being around the game from an early age and how much it meant to my family. And then I naturally just started to want to do it,” Tanner Morgan said. “The first time I got to play tackle football, I just really loved it and made a lot of really good friendships out of it.”

The summer after Koogler and his team won the district championship game, Tanner, Tyler, and their friends, attended Uncle Tim’s football camps. While there, the group of boys spent three days completely immersing themselves in football fundamentals. Koogler said he will never forget watching Tanner intently apply every technique he learned at the camp.

“Tanner was just glued to the high school quarterback showing him how to drop back and throw with a three-step drop. You could just tell he was soaking it all in,” Koogler said. “It caught my eye at the time. As he went on and became better and better, it started making sense. I just remember how fascinated he was on the football field as a young kid, he listened to everything.”

(Uncle Tim Koogler gives advice to a young Tanner Morgan, who was sporting his Eddie George Titans jersey)

Backyard Battles

Morgan’s laser-focused mindset and competitive fire carried into backyard football games with his brother and friends. Tanner’s mother, Pat, said the young quarterback’s competitive juices were always flowing when he went up against older boys in his neighborhood.

“I always say to Tanner, I’m like, you would not be where you are without Tyler and all of his buddies who tormented you from day one. They were four or five years older than Tanner,” Pat said. “And Tanner and his little buddies would try to play and and beat the big boys. I mean, every day, all summer long, all spring and winter long, they would be out there playing.”

Tyler, Tanner’s older brother, always made sure backyard football games were competitive. He and his group of friends never gave Tanner and his younger friends an easy path to victory. Every day, their goal was to leave with a win.

“[Tanner and his friends] never won, they never won. We would stack the deck, the older kids versus the younger kids, and in everything we played, we would beat him about as bad as we could,” Tyler laughed. “Football, basketball, baseball, Xbox, whatever it was, there was no mercy.”

Tanner and Tyler even lined up against each other from time to time. During one memorable backyard game, Tyler, a defensive back that day, remembers tackling Tanner after the catch.

“There was one time Tanner was playing receiver and I was guarding him man-to-man and I think he ran a hitch and came back and caught it,” Tyler said. “I just kind of threw him to the ground. And my dad was sitting on the back porch and ran up to me on a beeline, grabbed my shoulder and was like, what are you doing? I was like, we’re just playing football. He wasn’t happy that I chucked him to the ground, but Tanner was fine.”

Reflecting back, Tanner believes all of those difficult backyard games helped him develop a relentless mindset. It didn’t matter whether it was a kickball, football, baseball, or basketball game, the younger Morgan brother hated losing.

“I think all of those backyard games played a huge role on me because we were always competing and me my friends were always losing to my brother and his friends, so I always hated losing,” Tanner said. “I would come in the house crying all the time because we got destroyed by the older kids that were four years older than us. It was a great place to grow up, I loved it.”

Union Raiders Youth Football 

Morgan kept developing his football skills as he moved through middle school. During those years, Tanner’s father, Ted Morgan, played an active role in coaching his youth football teams. In fact, Ted, along with a few other local dads, launched the Union Raiders youth feeder program in their Kentucky hometown. Years later, Ted’s vision for youth football in Union, Kentucky, is still going strong.

“We have the original No. 33 jersey hanging in our coaches office because it started with 33 kids and Tanner was on that team. What it is now, kindergarten, first grade, flag football, all the way up to eighth grade,” Tyler Morgan, a current assistant coach at Ryle High School said. “There are just so many teams going now and they’re all doing great things. It’s amazing to see what that has become.”

Tanner said one of his fondest football memories was helping his father build the current youth football program in Union. Morgan always remembers the passion and energy his father poured into the next generation of local athletes.

“Going back to seventh grade, my dad started the feeder league for the high school that I went to. He spent a ton of time doing that and now seeing what it is, it’s a first through eighth grade league with hundreds of kids participating,” Tanner said. “That was something that was really cool because we got to spend a ton of time together doing that.”

Leslie County Championship Legacy 

Ted Morgan developed a passion for football while growing up with his younger brother, Tim. The two of them were born four years apart, but frequently competed against each other. During his high school career at Leslie Country in Kentucky, Ted played center and broke many school records as a kicker. Reflecting back, Tim said he was inspired by watching his older brother play football.

“I fell in love with football watching Ted. If it wasn’t for Ted, I don’t know if I would have played. And then once he left, I came into high school and I had big shoes to fill because they were a good team and Ted was the starting center,” Tim said. “Tanner was a lot like Ted. Ted didn’t say a whole lot. He led by example and he wasn’t out there running his mouth.”

As a senior in 1980, Ted and his teammates won the first Region Championship in Leslie County football history. Tim, who eventually became head coach of the same program, treasures the photo of his big brother holding the championship trophy. In the picture, Ted is raising the No. 1 in celebration, just like Tanner did after Leslie Country defeated Middlesboro in 2005.

“When I was eventually head coach at Leslie County, I liked to have history in the building, so I would go back and find old photos and have them blown up. I had one blown up of Ted,” Tim said. “They were handing the trophy to the seniors and he was one of the players in the photo. I remember that was the best memory of Ted. It will always stick with me.”

(Ted Morgan, in the middle with his finger up, celebrates the 1980 Region Championship as a member of the Leslie County football team.)

A Family Affair 

Nearly 33 years after Ted’s championship moment, football once again brought everyone together. The next generation of brothers teamed up with their father and uncle on the football field. In 2013, Tanner moved to Hazard, Kentucky, for his freshman football season. Tim, who was already the defensive coordinator for Hazard, added Ted and Tyler to the coaching staff.

(left to right: Tim Koogler, Tyler Morgan, Grandma Margaret, Tanner Morgan, Ted Morgan after coaching a Hazard game together)

Shortly after arriving, Morgan, a 14-year-old at the time, was named the starting quarterback. Tyler said despite the fact Tanner was young, his teammates never looked at him differently.

“A lot of people would see this freshman coming in and be like, who is this guy trying to tell me what to do? But they all followed his leadership,” Tyler said. “I think that just goes to show how strong of a leader he is.”

Morgan conquered the challenge, leading the Hazard Bulldogs to an 11-2 record during his freshman season. Tanner immediately rallied his teammates and got the best out of them. It was something Morgan’s younger sister, Grace, noticed and emulated as a future softball player.

“I learned my leadership skills and abilities from Tanner. I would not have known how to lead a team if I didn’t call him and say, hey, how do I do this? How do I team build? It is not easy leading a team in any capacity, but he definitely has a special gift,” Grace said. “It is just awesome to lean on him and ask him for help when I need it.”

Tanner’s uncle, Tim, noticed the same trait during his nephew’s freshman football season. Koogler, a former high school coach for Kentucky quarterback and No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Tim Couch, knew Tanner’s leadership traits, competitive fire and maturity would take him places.

“He has a bullet proof vest on him and he just lets everything ricochet off of him. He’s way mature beyond his years. I’ve coached thousands of athletes and just what he’s been able to do in taking it to the next level is exceptional. His leadership and everything he’s about,” Tim said. “I got to coach Tim Couch all the way through high school as an assistant. And then Tim goes onto college and the NFL. So my career is book ended with Tim Couch on the bottom end and Tanner on the top end. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Morgan and the Bulldogs finished 10-3 in his sophomore season. However, after wrapping up the 2014 campaign, Tanner transferred back to Ryle High School in Union, Kentucky.

At the time, many people questioned whether Morgan could compete against all of the top teams in northern Kentucky. Tanner heard the noise, but kept his head down while preparing for a huge 2015 season opener vs. Covington Catholic.

That night, Morgan marched onto the field and removed any doubts. He completed 25 of his 36 passes for 451 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-28 win. The Ryle quarterback also carried the ball 10 times for 58 yards and a pair of scores. More importantly, with the game tied at 28 in the final minutes, Morgan took off for a go-ahead 26-yard rushing touchdown. 

“People always doubted me going into high school. They didn’t think that I’d be a good enough high school quarterback. They didn’t think that when I transferred back to Ryle that I was fast enough to to do it, that I was a good enough player, that I played against too small of schools,” Tanner said. “My first game I threw for 450 yards against Covington Catholic.”

Morgan embraced the underdog role while leading Ryle to a 10-3 record in 2015. The Raiders doubled their win total and Tanner set the program’s single-season record for passing yards. Ultimately, Ryle put together a strong 2015 campaign, but lost 41-23 to Simon Kenton in the playoffs.  

Rowing the Boat 

After capturing the attention of northern Kentucky football enthusiasts, Morgan started gaining college interest. In February of 2016, Tanner earned an offer from head coach P.J. Fleck and Western Michigan. Morgan never really heard of the program, but after doing research, decided to take a visit with Ted.

“I looked into Row the Boat, that was awesome. I remember getting there and meeting the people in the program and seeing Coach Fleck’s vision and what his program was all about. It was exactly what I was looking for. A program that was more than just football. I was going to get developed as a man,” Tanner said. “I got to meet everybody that went into it and come to find out, the guy who drove me around on that visit was Greg Harbaugh, the co-OC and quarterback coach now in Minnesota.”

Tanner and Ted never thought they would be making a college decision that day. The two of them were simply fact-seeking and learning more about the Broncos’ program. Morgan’s mother, Pat, couldn’t attend the visit, but wasn’t worried because she didn’t think anything was remotely serious. However, following the visit in Kalamazoo, Tanner got in the car with Ted and reflected upon the fun day they had.

“My dad was like, you know, don’t feel like you have to commit today and I kind of laughed at him,” Tanner said. “I was like, I’m not committing, we’re still going to Western Kentucky, we’re going to Memphis next week. I kind of laughed at him because, you know I was like, I’m not going to commit to Western Michigan right now, like you’re kidding me.”

On the drive home, Tanner felt a strong pull toward Coach Fleck and the program. He didn’t want to wait any longer.

“We were driving home and I committed,” Tanner said. “I just knew when I met Coach Fleck and the people involved in the program that it was who I wanted to play for.”

When Morgan told his mother he committed, she was quite surprised. Pat wished she was part of the visit, so Fleck and the staff recreated everything for her the next weekend.

“I didn’t speak to Tanner and Ted for two days,” Pat laughed. “P.J. came back and recreated the whole thing for me. And P.J. goes, okay, we’re gonna do this whole thing again. He did. I think Tanner just fell in love with what PJ had to say that day.”

Making History at Ryle

Morgan and his high school teammates remembered the 2015 playoff loss and used it as motivation throughout the next offseason. As a result, the Raiders came back even better in 2016. Ryle completed a perfect 10-0 regular season for the first time in school history. Morgan broke his own single-season passing record and the Raiders rolled into the playoffs.

Ryle won its first two postseason games, setting up a highly-anticipated clash with Scott County in the region final. Tanner and the Raiders trailed late in the fourth quarter, but climbed back. Morgan connected for a 21-yard touchdown that pulled Ryle within 42-40. Ryle then recovered an onside kick attempt, setting up a game-winning drive opportunity for the Raiders.

A few plays later, Morgan fired a pass into the end zone, but the route was jumped by a Scott County defender. The interception with 23 seconds left ended Ryle’s magical season. Along with it, Morgan’s high school career came to an end.

The emotion of a difficult loss was still raw, but an embrace between two competitive brothers put everything into perspective. Tanner’s older brother, Tyler, his backyard football rival, was right there when he needed it most.

“At the end of that game Tanner and Tyler had this embrace and they’re both bawling. Just to see those two boys and Tyler being there for him and Tanner embracing his brother was special,” Pat Morgan said. “The love of the game and how that game brought them together. I mean, they’ll always have that bond. As a mom, I really loved that moment.”

Tyler still remembers the hug like it was yesterday. A flood of memories filled his mind as he shared an emotional postgame embrace with his younger brother.

“I just remember seeing him on the field after that,” Tyler said. “There’s a picture of it, but he’s crying and I was giving him a hug and that was a special moment.”

Throwing Down the “M”

About a month later, the Morgan family hosted Tanner’s graduation party. Ted and Pat had all of the Western Michigan decorations set up, including the “W” on his cake. However, the morning of the party, Morgan’s phone lit up.

P.J Fleck, who was just hired as the new football coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, called and asked Tanner if he wanted to follow him to Minneapolis. Hours later, Morgan’s uncle, Tim, remembers getting a call from his nephew.

“Tanner asks me, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘Look dude, Minnesota is in the Big Ten. That’s big-time college football.’ Immediately after, he told me, ‘That’s what I thought. I’m going to go,’” Tim said.

Despite never even visiting the University of Minnesota campus, Morgan followed Fleck to the Big Ten. The young quarterback completely believed in the program and knew it was the right place for him.

Much like a quarterback, the Morgan family made a quick audible before the graduation party. Ted and Pat looked at the graduation cake and decided they could just flip the Western Michigan “W” upside down to an “M.”

“We still had a Western Michigan cake and cookies, but we just turned ‘the W’ around to an ‘M’,” Ted Morgan told me in 2019. “And then, the next weekend, we drove into Minnesota. Me, my wife, or Tanner, had never been to the state. That’s how all in we were.”

Fueled by Faith 

Shortly after making the decision, Morgan arrived in Minneapolis for his first full season. Everything was a blur, but Tanner quickly adjusted by leaning on his faith. The young quarterback immediately got involved with the University of Minnesota’s Athletes in Action (AIA) club. Morgan said his faith drives him forward each and every day.

“Faith is the whole thing in every aspect of life. Football has been a huge part of that for me and it’s been a huge platform that God’s been able to give me and something that I love to do,” Morgan said. “Faith drives everything that I do. It deep down drives where where I want go as a person as a husband, as a football player. That’s what I lean on and what I use to drive me.”

Morgan credits his parents for instilling this mindset in him at a young age. Years later, his mother, Pat, is grateful for the resources and support that Morgan had while he was a member of the Gophers football program.

“He is just letting God have his way and direct his path and I’m grateful for Athletes in Action. I know that made such an impact on him,” Pat said. “I always prayed that God would just bring people into his life that were faith-filled that would speak into him. And he got quickly involved with Athletes in Action and they have just really made a huge impact on his life and his journey.”

Reflecting back, Tanner’s sister, Grace, said Tanner’s faith journey has inspired her as she pursues a career in ministry.

“If I wouldn’t have been shown how Tanner was devoted in his relationship with God, I would not be where I am today. He continues to do that every day,” Grace said. “I’ll call him and just talk about life and he’s always there listening with open ears and gives me great advice. Both of my brothers are my best friends.”

“Made to Be Courageous” 

In the spring and fall of 2018, Morgan competed for the starting quarterback job. He didn’t initially win the role, but kept learning, growing and supporting starter Zack Annexstad. However, when Annexstad went down with an injury, Tanner made his first career start at home vs. Indiana in 2018. That week, after Morgan found out he was starting the game, he could feel the nerves flowing in practice.

“I remember it was a short week so we played on a Friday night. We really only had one day of practice, so I got every single rep. I took every throw and I was gassed in practice just taking every rep. I felt very prepared and then I remember ‘Fast Friday,’ which was on Thursday that week,” Tanner said. “I made like two mistakes in a row in the walkthrough because I was starting to get really nervous.”

Fleck and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca immediately sensed Morgan’s nervousness as he went through the walkthrough. To this day, Tanner vividly recalls the conversation he had with two of his most influential mentors.

“Coach Fleck and Coach Ciarrocca came up to me and were like, buddy, just relax. They were like, you can’t play when you’re like that,” Tanner said. “You just need to relax and that’s what I did. I just calmed down and relaxed. And I remember being so peaceful throughout the entire game and just so confident because that’s what I always wanted to do.”

On game night, while running onto the field for his first start, the song, ‘Courageous’ by the Casting Crowns ran through Morgan’s mind. He sang the lyrics in his head and immediately found peace.

“I said, God, I can’t do this alone, I need you to to help me out and do this,” Morgan said. “I just stepped onto the field thinking, I’m gonna have a courageous drive and we’re gonna go get it done,” Morgan said.

Minnesota traded punches with Indiana the entire night, but Morgan stepped up when his team needed him most. Rained poured down as the Gophers’ young quarterback entered the huddle. With the game tied at 31 in the final minutes, Minnesota went for the home run punch.

The Gophers ran a double move off of the slot glance route. Morgan pumped, the defense bit and he aired it out deep to wide receiver Rashod Bateman. Morgan hit Bateman in stride, he angled past the defender and sprinted into the end zone for the game-winning 67-yard touchdown.

Morgan passed for 302 yards and three touchdowns in the Gophers’ 38-31 win over Indiana. The victory snapped a four-game losing streak and gave Minnesota confidence down the stretch.

“Don’t Be Afraid to be a Legend”

The Gophers went 1-2 in the next three games before traveling to Wisconsin for a rivalry showdown with the Badgers. Minnesota had not won Paul Bunyan’s Axe since 2003. Before the game, Morgan saw all of the experts’ picks on College GameDay.

“I remember me and Zack Annexstad. The TV was on and we walked out and that was when Alex Hornibrook was their quarterback,” Morgan said. “College GameDay was on and it said, Alex Hornibrook will start. I remember looking and it had all of the picks and it was a lot of Wisconsin. I was like, good, think that, we’re going to go out and win.”

As the game approached, Morgan remembered the energy jolt he felt after P.J. Fleck’s “Don’t Be Afraid to be a Legend” pregame speech:

Tanner said Fleck’s motivational words dialed him in before he took the field.

“Coach Fleck’s line before the game really stuck out to me, like ‘Do not be afraid to be a legend’ was in my head. I was like, yeah, I’m going be the quarterback that wins the Axe for the first time in 15 years. I’m going to do this,” Morgan said. “We’re going to win the Axe and I’m going to be the guy that is the quarterback who wins the Axe.”

Minnesota heard Fleck’s message and played one of its best games of the season. Running back Mohamed Ibrahim rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown, while Morgan completed nine of his 16 attempts for 124 yards. Wide receiver Demetrius Douglas returned a punt for a touchdown and Bryce Williams put the game on ice with 16-yard touchdown run. The Gophers won 37-15 at Camp Randall Stadium, accomplishing their goal of winning Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time in 15 years.

“I threw for like 115 or something, we ran the ball extremely well and I managed the game, made a couple of huge third down conversions on the last drive to Tyler and Bate,” Morgan said. “It was a great game.”

The Gophers celebrated by chopping down the goal posts, taking photos and spraying Axe body spray all over the locker room. Then, a few hours later, when Minnesota’s bus arrived in Dinkytown, thousands of fans were waiting for them at the football facility.

“Going back to the indoor and seeing thousands of people there, I realized that this game means a lot to Minnesota fans and it was just really cool,” Morgan said. “To be able to bring it home for the first time was a huge relief for all of us.”

A Magical Season Begins

Minnesota kicked off a magical 2019 season with three non-conference wins, including dramatic victories over both Fresno State and Georgia Southern.

After starting the season 3-0, the Gophers traveled to Purdue for a Big Ten West showdown vs. Purdue. That day, Morgan launched the ball all over Ross-Ade Stadium. Morgan finished the afternoon with 396 yards and four touchdowns in the Gophers’ 38-31 win. He also completed 95.45 percent of his passes, which was the highest percentage in Big Ten history for any player with more than 15 passing attempts. Pat remembers watching Ted keep track of Tanner’s stats throughout the game.

“Goodness, that Purdue game where he broke all those records, that game was so fun because of Ted. He was tracking his stats. All kinds of Hazard fans came up too because it was the closest game for a lot of people,” Pat said. “Ted had the biggest grin on his face and that was kind of like a moment of like, Tanner is for real.”

Storming the Field 

Six weeks later, No. 13 Minnesota hosted fifth-ranked Penn State at Huntington Bank Stadium. The Gophers entered the game with an 8-0 record for the first time since 1941. Minnesota came out firing on all cylinders against one of the nation’s top teams.

The Gophers quickly capitalized upon an Antoine Winfield Jr. interception when Morgan found Rashod Bateman up the right sideline for a 66-yard touchdown. As Bateman burst into the end zone, a sea of gold towels radiated throughout the stadium.

Minnesota didn’t stop attacking through the air either. Morgan completed 18 of his 20 passes for 339 yards and three touchdowns against the Nittany Lions. Penn State fought back, but Gophers safety Jordan Howden sealed the victory when he intercepted Sean Clifford in the end zone. Moments later, Morgan took a knee, sealing one of the most memorable wins in Gopher football history.

“Beating Penn State in 2019 was one of my favorite memories because of what it took to get there and what it meant seeing TCF Bank Stadium sold out with the waving towels, that was really cool,” Morgan said. “And then rushing the field, that was was one of my favorites for sure.”

Fans rushed the field from every direction, including members of the Morgan family. Tanner’s sister, Grace, said she will never forget celebrating the win with her family and friends.

“Me and Sarah [Tanner’s wife], we were like, we have to go down on the field. We were sprinting down on the field. We jumped over the barrier and everyone was storming the field, it was so fun,” Grace said. “Then me and Sarah looked at each other and we’re like, we gotta find Tanner, we gotta find Tanner. We were just so happy and proud of him because we knew that it meant a lot to him.”

Tanner’s father, Ted, who was beaming with pride, stormed the field as well. Seconds later, he was approached by ESPN reporter Holly Rowe. Rowe asked Ted why his son was good enough for that moment. Ted responded, “He’s good enough. I think we proved it today. This team is outstanding and the coaching staff is outstanding.”

Weeks after the Penn State win, the Gophers capped off a historic 2019 season by defeating ninth-ranked Auburn in the Outback Bowl. The huge victory marked the first time Minnesota won 11 games in a season since 1904.

photo: University of Minnesota

No Doubt or Disbelief 

As Ted and Pat’s three kids grew older, they provided each of them with key resources and connections. Ted took his kids to camps, throwing sessions, softball tournaments and other events across the country. He not only helped his own kids, but opened doors for everyone around him. Ted never stopped serving others, even when he faced his own challenge.

In the spring of 2020, Ted was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a rare and aggressive form of brain cancer. Morgan, a Navy veteran and strong man of faith, never doubted or showed disbelief. He instead remained positive and continued serving others.

Ted attended almost all of Tanner’s games in 2020, cheering him on every step of the way. However, in the summer of 2021, Ted’s condition worsened.

Morgan passed away on July 12, 2021.

A Wink From Above 

The day of Ted’s funeral, the sun was shining bright. Everyone gathered underneath a gazebo as naval officers honored their fellow sailor. Seconds after the first note of taps rung out, a downpour of rain burst down.

“Rain for me is kind of almost like a God wink,” Grace said. “Everyone had to come in under the gazebo. That was my dad saying, hey guys, you need to come together. Don’t be spread apart, come together. And so every time I see rain it just reminds me of how my dad was an awesome guy and just wanted to do life with people instead of alone.”

Rain has become a sign for the entire Morgan family. It is a symbol of peace, comfort and Ted’s presence. Months after the service, when Tanner took the field for his first football game since his father’s passing, rain was falling inside Huntington Bank Stadium.

Fast forward ahead to the final game of the 2021 regular season – the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe vs. the Badgers. Minnesota defeated Wisconsin 23-13 at Huntington Bank Stadium. Tanner was thinking about his father as the clock struck zero.

Morgan took a knee, triggering complete euphoria across the state of Minnesota. Fans stormed the field and danced to “Jump Around” as the Gophers won the Axe in Minneapolis for the first time since 2003. Shortly after the win, Tanner sifted through fans and found one of his father’s best friends – Jerry Kieft.

“I saw Jerry Kieft on the field, Ko Kieft’s dad, a great friend of my dad’s and to my family. I had the game ball and I remember giving it to him and that was a pretty cool moment,” Tanner said. “And I just got off the field as quickly as I could and got to the locker room and prayed and just watched people walk in and it was pretty cool.”

photo: University of Minnesota

One month later, Minnesota took on West Virginia at the Guaranteed Rate Bowl in Phoenix. There was barely a cloud in the sky all week as the Gophers prepared for the game. However, that night, when Gophers players and coaches arrived for warmups, everyone stopped in their tracks. Rain was pouring down in the desert. For Morgan, it was once again a sign. His father was there, just like always.

After Minnesota won the bowl game, Morgan celebrated with his mother on the field. The picture, captured by the Gophers’ team photographer, beautifully encapsulated a mother’s deep love for her son.

Like Tanner and her kids, Pat feels Ted’s presence ahead of big life events. Light rain fell before Tanner’s wedding last July. Most recently, on Valentine’s Day – Ted’s birthday – Pat was driving home from her nephew’s basketball game at 10:30 p.m. when rain started hitting her windshield. 

“It wasn’t supposed to rain, but we went down to watch my nephew play basketball in Lexington and when I was driving back home at 10:30 p.m., it started raining,” Pat said. “So yeah, it’s just symbolic to me and to Tanner and our family. It’s just a reminder to us that Ted is always with us and in our hearts and we’ll see him again. For me, you still have purpose here and you’ve got to keep on living.”

The Last Dance in Minnesota 

Morgan, who already became the all-time winningest quarterback in 2021, returned for one final season in maroon and gold. He came back for the 2022 season because of his teammates, coaches and love for Minnesota football. Morgan said he will never forget all of the lessons he learned from head coach P.J. Fleck and the entire program.

“[P.J.] really taught me a lot about leadership throughout the years. In the leadership classes and all the one-on-one talks we’ve had, he’s always been in my corner,” Tanner said. “I’ve always been able to talk to him about things going on in my life. Good things, bad things, hard things, all kinds of stuff. He’s been a huge part of my life and will continue to be.”

Morgan feels the same way about former offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who returned to Minnesota for Tanner’s final season with the Gophers.

“Kirk taught me how to play quarterback, taught me how to see coverages, and really gave me the tools to dive deeper and how to understand and study the game of football. Understanding defensive recognition, coverages, defensive alignments, how to attack different things,” Tanner said. “And he knew me really well, he knew how to push me, he knew how to get the best out of me. I’m so thankful for both [P.J. and Kirk]. They mean a lot to me in my life and are two guys that I will have relationships with for the rest of my life.”

Photos: University of Minnesota

Passing the Torch

Minnesota finished the 2022 season with a 9-4 record. However, in mid-October, Morgan suffered the first major injury of his career. The Gophers’ veteran quarterback missed the final three games of the season with a head injury. Morgan led the team as a coach until he returned for the Pinstripe Bowl. Quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis suffered an injury in the first quarter, so Tanner entered the game.

Like always, Morgan wasted no time impacting the game. The Gophers’ veteran quarterback tossed a 20-yard touchdown to wide receiver Daniel Jackson in the back right corner of the end zone. As the seconds ticked down in Minnesota’s 28-20 win over Syracuse, Tanner ended his Gophers career in a familiar position – victory formation.

Morgan, who typically presented victory formation balls to others, wasn’t sure what to do with the ball from his final college game. He thought about keeping it until he saw a group of young Gopher fans in the crowd. At that moment, Morgan officially passed the torch.

“Every game where it ended in a knee and it was a big game, I never kept the ball, I always gave it away. The Penn State win in 2019, I gave it to Coach Fleck. When we beat Wisconsin the first time in 2018, I gave it to Ciarrocca. In 2021, I gave it to Jerry Kieft,” Morgan said. “And the last game vs. Syracuse, I kept it, but then I saw some young fans in the stands that I knew, so I threw it up to them.”

The Underdog Mindset

After wrapping up his sixth season with the Gophers, Morgan is focused on the next phase of his football journey – the NFL. The former Gophers quarterback was recently drafted by the Michigan Panthers in the second round of the USFL Draft, however, he is still going through the NFL Draft process.

Morgan started his latest football journey by attending the Hula Bowl in Orlando. That week, Tanner learned from former Super Bowl Champion head coach Brian Billick. Morgan completed five of his eight passes for 94 yards, led Team Kai on a pair of scoring drives and ended the game in victory formation. As a result of his strong performance at the Hula Bowl, Tanner earned an invite to the East-West Shrine Bowl. While there, Tanner interacted with NFL scouts and learned from the Atlanta Falcons coaching staff.

“The Hula and East-West Shrine Bowls were both great experiences. At the Hula Bowl, it was awesome to learn under Coach Brian Billick who has won a Super Bowl and coached some of the best players to ever play the game,” Tanner said. “And just being able to go in there and operate NFL-style systems, I was really comfortable. And I think I had a lot of good things, some things that I would have wanted back, some things I could have learned from throughout the week.”

Morgan once again felt his late father’s presence during East-West Shrine Bowl Week. One day, as Tanner ran onto the practice field, raindrops fell from the Las Vegas sky. It was another wink from above.

“Rain gave me peace at my dad’s funeral. It gave me peace in my first game at Indiana, which, at the time, I really didn’t think about it,” Morgan said. “I think it just always means peace. It always gives me peace when there’s a little rainfall. I enjoy it. I enjoy playing in it and I think it’s pretty fun.”

Each day, Morgan’s peaceful mindset and underdog mentality are driving him toward his lifelong dream of playing in the NFL.

“Being an underdog is something that I like,” Morgan said. “You can always count me out, that’s fine, but I’m going to find a way not to prove you wrong, but just to prove myself right. That I know I can hang and I know that I’m confident in my abilities.”

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