One former high school football coach aids another in need

Phillip Morgan (left), a former football coach at several Lowcountry high schools suffered a massive stroke over a year ago. His close friend and a former coach Robert Biggerstaff (right) is helping out Morgan and his wife in need.

Jeff Hartsell

As a visitor prepares to leave, Phillip Morgan has one more thing to say.

"Joe Paterno will be in my office tomorrow," he says. "You can come interview him then."

Thing is, the Penn State coach won't be in Morgan's office, and there will be no interview. Morgan, the former football coach at Macedonia, Timberland and Stall high schools, is drifting back in his mind, back to a time when he coached some of the best football players the Lowcountry has ever produced, and college coaches like Paterno were frequent visitors.

Morgan, 61, suffered a massive stroke a year ago on Labor Day. Four aneurysms burst in his brain, and he was flown to a hospital in Greenville for treatment. Doctors told his family he wouldn't make it through the night.

Ten days later, he woke up paralyzed. As Morgan was moved from Greenville to MUSC Hospital in Charleston, then to a nursing home and finally his own home in Goose Creek, an old friend realized that Morgan would need help, and lots of it.

"He was struggling, and he needed help," said Robert Biggerstaff, the longtime coach at St. John's High School on Johns Island. "Somebody had to do something."

It's only fitting that somebody would be the 75-year-old Biggerstaff, who coached at St. John's for 33 years, retiring in 1998.

"(Morgan) was on my first team in 1965," Biggerstaff recalled. "He didn't start as a freshman, but when we won the state championship in 1968, he was our starting defensive end and center. He was a good player."

After Morgan graduated from Georgia Southern and decided to go into coaching, Biggerstaff hired him at St. John's, and the player/coach relationship became a lifelong friendship.

Their families visited often and vacationed together in the North Carolina mountains, Biggerstaff eventually buying a piece of land next to Morgan's.

When Morgan was head coach at Macedonia, he and his mentor were in the same conference. One year, Morgan beat his old coach by a single point.

"He must have apologized 100 times," Biggerstaff said. "But that's just part of the game."

At the old Macedonia High School in Berkeley County, Morgan coached players such as Courtney Brown, Joe Hamilton and Pierson Prioleau. Brown went to Penn State and was the No. 1 pick in the 2000 NFL Draft; Hamilton was a record-setting quarterback at Georgia Tech and runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 1999; and Prioleau went to Virginia Tech and had a 12-year career in the NFL.

"I never thought Phillip got enough credit as a coach," Biggerstaff said. "How many coaches have had the Heisman Trophy runner-up and the No. 1 draft pick in the same year?"

After the stroke, Morgan moved back to his home in March. And when Biggerstaff visited, he saw for himself how difficult life had become for Morgan and his wife, Shelba.

"They needed a van, so she could take Phillip to the doctor's office," Biggerstaff said. "He has to go three times a week, and she could not get Phillip and his wheelchair into their car. They need wood floors in the house so they can move his bed around. He has to be cranked up to get out of bed, and it takes an hour for him to go to the bathroom."

The Morgans had to dip into retirement savings to buy a van, but still owe payments. Insurance and disability payments take care of some of Morgan's medical bills and help pay for two caretakers, but it's not enough.

To help, Biggerstaff established a trust fund at First Citizens Bank and went to work. He wrote a letter to the state's high school coaches and spoke at the coaches' annual meeting. The coaches voted to write a check for $1,000, then passed the bucket and contributed $1,800 more.

Folks at Morgan's church, Crowfield Baptist, built a ramp at the front door for his wheelchair, and cut his grass regularly. Some of Morgan's former players have stepped up, as well. Brown visited his former coach shortly after the stroke, and stopped by recently with a check for $1,000.

All told, Biggerstaff has raised about $11,000 for his friend. After a local TV station did a story on Morgan, there was an uptick in donations, but Biggerstaff -- whose own wife of 53 years, Jane, suffers from dementia -- wants to do more.

Maybe he can get college coaches involved, he said, or do something through the annual Sertoma Classic game at Johnson Hagood Stadium. Maybe a golf tournament would raise some money.

Morgan hasn't given up, and neither will his coach.

"Phillip is the most honest person and the most clean- living person I know," Biggerstaff said. "He's the original designated driver. Everybody's got a best friend, and he's mine."