Raheem Morris puffed out his chest to show the blue logo on his black sweatshirt, shimmied his shoulders and gushed about a championship team.
Was he talking about the NFC champion Rams?
As he prepared for a big spot as the Rams defensive coordinator in Super Bowl 2022, Morris walked the halls and sat in front of a camera Friday in Los Angeles proudly representing Irvington High School football, which won its first-ever New Jersey state sectional title just 80 days ago.
“I am extremely excited about those guys and what they’ve done,” Morris said. “And that community, my hometown … and all the people that have been involved in my life.”
Morris, 45, is the pride of one local team on the rise and another that is defunct. After starring at Irvington, he played in the secondary at Hofstra and later officially got his coaching start there on a staff that sprouted three current NFL defensive coordinators: Morris, the Cowboys’ Dan Quinn and the Browns’ Joe Woods. Hofstra shuttered its program in 2009.
But the real truth is Morris’ coaching career started as a sophomore at Irvington, when his grades barely left him eligible to play football. Morris’ father interjected, even though it meant taking away his son’s chief distraction and eventual ticket out of the crime-infested city.
“My dad said, ‘No chance. You are not eligible in our household,’ ” Morris told The Post. “Everybody [in town] was mad at my father, but I understood it even at a young age. Throughout the whole process, I was able to help with the Pop Warner football team I had just finished playing for — and that’s where the whole feel for coaching started.”
To drive home the academics-first message, Morris’ mom started short-lived tutoring sessions in the family living room.
“The first part was so miserable that I made sure I never had to go back to that again,” Morris quipped. “I hit the books, got on the Honor Roll.”
Call it a blessing in disguise. Not just for Morris. Also, three decades later, for the Rams, who replaced Brandon Staley when he became the Chargers head coach with Morris, who oversees a defense allowing just 274.7 yards and 18.3 points per game during three playoff wins.
“Just this one year, he’s taught me more about how to look at the game and how offenses can scheme different things up and how different things can be played on defense than I ever learned in previous years combined,” All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey said. “He’s been great for my development.”
Ralph Steele was great for Morris’ development. Steele first coached Morris to play quarterback in a youth league, stayed in Morris’ home when he visited and texted him after the NFC Championship game: “You might as well take it all now.”
“When he was 11 years old, you knew he was a leader,” Steele told The Post. “If he was with a group of guys who wanted to [find trouble], he’d be the one to say, ‘Nah, I’m out,’ and go the other direction, and you’d have to follow him. He was going to be all right in Irvington or anywhere else. He just had that personality — and he still has it.”
Coordinating a defense with big personalities and future Hall of Famers such as Aaron Donald, Von Miller, Eric Weddle and Ramsey requires the right individualized touch.
“Irvington is the kind of deal where you have to form relationships with people in different walks of life, and you have to know what to stay away from and what to be a part of,” Morris said. “That’s something I’ve carried with me. When I evaluate players, when I meet people for the first time, when we put them through our processes, I have a real keen sense of people.”
This is the second act of Morris’ NFL coaching career. The first happened before the Buccaneers surprisingly named him as Super Bowl-winner Jon Gruden’s successor at age 32 in 2009. Only two Super Bowl-era head coaches, including the Rams’ Sean McVay, started younger.
“When he was on the sidelines for our Pop Warner team he had his pad, tracing the plays,” Steele said. “He had the coaching gene. He hasn’t changed at all. He still talks the same, kids around the same. He knows his football, though.”
Fired after three seasons by the Buccaneers, Morris is back on head-coach short lists after a long stint under Quinn with the Falcons, where he showed his versatility by coaching wide receivers and defense. He interviewed with the Vikings last month.
“Growing up in that Hofstra system with [deceased head coach] Joe Gardi was the best environment to be in,” Morris said. “You knew they were all-in to help you, but at the same time they were going to tell you the absolute truth. Sometimes you need the soft rub, and sometimes you get right in the face and go down the old Turnpike. It’s been a big part of why I’ve been able to do this for a long time.”
The difference between winning and losing Sunday isn’t unfamiliar to Morris. He won a ring as a Buccaneers assistant in Super Bowl 38 and had another slip through his fingers when the Falcons squandered a 25-point lead in Super Bowl 51.
“We still get those texts on the date of the [Tampa Bay] game from somebody saying, ‘Remember those days?’” Morris said. “I hope to have that same type of bond with these guys. It’s forever once you do that.”