Notre Dame safety D.J. Morgan driven by tragedy to pursue career as homicide detective

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — D.J. Morgan was 12 years old when his great aunt was shot and killed.

Gwen Taylor was walking to her car at Rogers Park in Inglewood, Calif., on Dec. 12, 2010, following a Christmas picnic organized to celebrate veterans and their families. She was there with Jose Taylor Jr., her husband of 40 years, as well as three of her grandchildren.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Taylor was holding her youngest grandson’s hand when she abruptly collapsed on top of him. The 61-year-old matriarch was hit with an errant bullet, which narrowly missed the head of her 5-year-old grandson.

“I’m gonna be all right,” she said, as her husband and grandchildren looked on, helpless.

She passed away at a nearby hospital. The shooter remains at large.

Seven and a half years later, Morgan’s motivation is perfectly clear. The 6-foot-2, 208-pound safety has dreams of national championships at Notre Dame, Super Bowl parades and Pro Bowls.

But when football fades away, he wants to honor the aunt he lost.

“That drove me to want to be a homicide detective,” Morgan said on Wednesday.

In the years following Taylor’s death, Morgan found football, developing into a highly touted prospect at St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, Calif. His interest in criminal justice continued to blossom, and he devoured television shows like “Law and Order: SVU” and “Criminal Minds.”

After first committing to Arizona State, Morgan ultimately signed with Notre Dame and settled in South Bend, where his grandmother and many of his cousins continue to live.

Life has gone on without Taylor, though it hasn’t been the same.

“We always had big events for big holidays, and she was the one that kind of kept the whole family together, always planning stuff for the whole family,” Morgan said. “That side of my family is huge. My grandmother has eight sisters and four brothers.

“Once she passed, everybody kind of went their own ways. She was the glue.”

At Notre Dame, Morgan’s major is anthropology, the study of human beings and their cultures. The soon-to-be sophomore plans to use that degree to accelerate his path in criminal justice, with the end goal having a career in law enforcement. He can also absorb advice from Sam Diggins, his second cousin, who works nearby as a sergeant in the South Bend Police Department.

And, who knows? Maybe he’ll even see his cousin on Sunday.

That’s when Morgan, as well as the rest of his Irish teammates, will participate in “Football & The Force,” a charity softball game between the Notre Dame football team and local law enforcement at 4 p.m. at Four Winds Field. Tickets are $5 for adults and free for children under 12. Parking is $5.

Proceeds from the event will benefit Indiana C.O.P.S. (Concerns of Police Survivors), which provides resources to assist surviving families of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.

For Morgan, it’s an opportunity to take swings, meet fans … and perhaps glimpse into his future.

“I get to talk to more police officers and get a feel for how they feel about the job and how they separate business and work from home,” Morgan said. “That’s the main thing.”

Of course, the real competition begins in August, when Morgan — who didn’t see the field in his freshman season — aims to ascend the safety depth chart and make an impact in a young secondary. In first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s hybrid defense, the Norwalk, Calif., native is training at the strong safety, free safety and rover positions.

“I feel like I fit in really well with this program and how (Elko) runs his defense,” Morgan said. “I definitely think I can be a big part of the defense at any three of the safety spots.”

Soon, he’ll catch criminals.

But, for now, he catches quarterbacks.

Morgan is approaching his life one career at a time.

“This is just a time to get better and work to get where we need to be to win a national championship,” Morgan said.

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

D.J. Morgan (32) during practice on Notre Dame Football Media Day Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016, at LaBar Practice Field on the Notre Dame campus in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN