For Jihad Morris, sports was the ticket to a better, safer life.

Now, the former Western Kentucky football player is using his experiences growing up in Newburgh, N.Y., to try to help the youth in southcentral Kentucky achieve their goals.

Morris is working with kids out of Quantum Flex Training with his organization, Blazing Athletics, to try to help them improve their craft and prepare them for the next steps in their lives.

“It’s truly everything,” Morris said. “That right there, for me, it was literally the ticket out of the neighborhood.”

“ ... I really feel like sports saved my life because there were kiddos that I knew that were just casualties. Even though I wasn’t in the mix, just on my way walking home or walking to the store at times we had to duck from people shooting and things of that nature. At times there would be crime scenes and we were young and were literally seeing yellow tape, dead bodies laying out on the street. For us in Newburgh, N.Y., your goal was to do as well as you can do in sports to punch your ticket out of the community.”

Newburgh sits roughly 70 miles north of New York City just off the Hudson River, and several times has been listed as the most dangerous city to live in the state. According to NeighborhoodScout’s Most Dangerous Cities – 2021 edition – a list released in January featuring the top 100 most dangerous cities in the U.S. – Newburgh ranked as the 36th-most dangerous and had the highest ranking of any city in New York. There’s a violent crime rate of 11.5 per 1,000 residents, and residents had a one in 86 chance of being a victim of violent crime, according to the list.

Newburgh ranked 38th in 2020, 36th in 2019, 26th in 2018, 22nd in 2017, 14th in 2016, 15th in 2015, 10th in 2014 and ninth in 2013, according to a Jan. 27 article by the Hudson Valley Post.

“For years it has been the most violent city in the state of New York and one of the most violent cities in America,” Morris said. “With that being said, the times I was at football practice were the times the kids that quit the team, they were killed during that time. I’m talking about 13 years old, 14 years old, 15. They were murdered at 13, 14 or 15 or they were killing people at 13, 14, 15. It’s a different mind state, so to speak.”

For Morris, sports was a chance to find a path to a better future.

Morris started playing football at age 6, and in an October, 2009, interview with the Daily News during his senior season at WKU, he gave credit to his father, Kelvin, who he said “paved the way for me and taught me right from wrong early.”

In the same interview, Morris told the Daily News he wanted to keep his football career alive any way he could after college, and when he was done with that, he wanted to teach and coach.

Since his time as a Hilltopper, he’s done just that.

The cornerback recorded 99 total tackles, including 2.5 for loss, and an interception in three years at WKU from 2007-09. When his WKU career ended, he did a three-day camp with the Baltimore Ravens and worked out with a couple of professional teams in Canada, before settling into a career in the Arena Football League. There, he played in Tulsa, Okla., in Texas, in Seattle and in Nashville, where he finished his career in 2015 before moving back to Bowling Green.

“For me, what sold me on here – I had bigger universities that were looking at me – but the Hilltopper spirit was alive. When I got off that plane and the Hilltoppers told me they’d take me into their family, they stuck by that word,” Morris said. “... I’m a Hilltopper. I love the Tops. With that being said, I just love the city of Bowling Green – I really do.”

His time giving back came before then, however.

Morris started Blazing Athletics in 2011 and held his first camp back home in Newburgh, where he left Newburgh Free Academy with nine school records. He’d work smaller camps before AFL games, and Blazing Athletics also later started AAU basketball programs and began hosting tournaments.

After his AFL career, Morris, who has a background in behavioral science, began working at Kentucky Steps, an organization that provides evidence-based strategies to assist individuals and families with struggles or crisis, according to its website.

“As I was working at Kentucky Steps, it was just kind of a love for working with the children in that population. As we begin to keep working out, I notice myself doing some recreational therapy with the kids,” Morris said. “I’m bringing them through different drills, I want them to kind of be able to trust themselves more, to understand they are powerful within their own right and challenging them to do different obstacles mentally and celebrating them, giving them big cheers and big praise and now they’re like, ‘I can do it.’

“In doing that, I just got a knack for that type of energy it gave me and it was reciprocal – not only was I giving them energy, but they were giving me energy as well.”

At Kentucky Steps, Morris worked with Adrian Wells. Wells is related to Tremayne Pillow, Morris says, and started training people out of Pillow’s Quantum Flex Training facility at 103 Nellums Ave. in Bowling Green.

“(Wells) started here in June of last year and I would always come over to the gym like, ‘Man, I’m just so amazed at what you guys are doing. This can be big,’ “ Morris said. “I finally came on and once I came on the rest has been history.”

Morris held his first Blazing Athletics training session at Quantum Flex on Jan. 31 and it has continued to grow. In addition to his own AAU players, he’s training athletes from local schools in Bowling Green and getting others from outside of town from places like Franklin, Scottsville, Russellville and Elizabethtown, he said.

Morris said they train kids for any sport or age, working on things like quickness and agility.

“These kids are meeting each other for the first time, and just to see them form that bond within each other, it’s amazing because they’re pushing each other,” Morris said.

Even more than that, he’s hoping to prepare them with knowledge or what it would take to achieve dreams of playing at the college level. Because of academics, Morris went to Hudson Valley Community College for his freshman season, before signing with WKU during the midyear junior college transfer period.

“Western Kentucky University gives me the scholarship, but that was hard-fought,” Morris said. “I went to Temple University and they came back and said, ‘Jihad, we love you, your film, you’re the No. 1 running back right now in the state of New York, but we don’t know if we can get you into admissions.’ I was like, ‘Whoa.’ I was taken back by that. University of Connecticut, same thing. University of Buffalo, same thing. Syracuse, same thing. Wisconsin, same. I was like, ‘What’s going on?’

“What I’m trying to do – it starts at ninth grade, so the bulk of the children are kind of in that frame of seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th grade, so we have those younger kiddos coming up. My goal is, for them, we’re already registering them for the NCAA Clearinghouse, so now they reach 11th, 12th grade, they don’t have to have those same feelings that I did going into that. It’s like, ‘I’m already cleared. I knew what it took prior. Jihad and Quantum Flex already previewed me to this information. I’m ready to go. I’m ready to accept that scholarship.’ “

For Morris, sports was the path to a better future. That experience helped shape his future, and is a major part of why he’s trying to help the youth in southcentral Kentucky achieve their goals.

“The children of Newburgh, N.Y., they know that and they understand that sports is our ticket out of it. What isn’t that well understood is that only like 1.7% of people will actually get those scholarships, but it’s the fight to want to do that that will keep them engaged academically as well. Even if they go to school to play football, they’ll in turn get that degree which will change their life and their trajectory,” Morris said.

“ ... Sports, we understand that’s a savior. Me and my energy going into it, I’m always dialed in, I’m very attentive to detail, I understand how important it is to train at the highest level. Having a behavioral background and working with individuals with developmental disabilities, I also have the patience with the kids who aren’t quite there with the same understanding that sports won’t just save your life from violence, but it’ll also teach you skills that you’ll need later on in life.”{&end}

– Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.