One day after Syracuse scored a major upset over second-ranked Clemson in October, John Lally was taking a tour of his alma mater when it struck him. There were reminders everywhere he looked of immortalized football players who had worn No. 44 for the Orange.
Ernie Davis wore 44 when Syracuse won the national championship in 1959 and two years later when he became the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. Jim Brown wore 44 before him, as did Floyd Little after him. Forty-four years after Davis' final season, the number was officially retired.
No. 44 had become a regional symbol of greatness, so important that the university switched the prefix to its telephone numbers to 443 and its ZIP code to 13244.
Lally, an offensive lineman from Clarence who played for the Orange in the late 1970s and early '80s, was well-versed in the history behind the number. For years, it bothered him that a player who wore No. 47 was never given the same respect despite owning nearly every meaningful school rushing record.
Where was the love for Joe Morris?
"Looking at how many records he held, it became very apparent to me that because he didn't wear No. 44, he was seemingly overlooked," Lally said. "You know the story of 44 at Syracuse. You can see it everywhere. You can see statues and pictures of those guys. Joe was represented more along the lines of a good running back, not a great running back."
Lally wanted to help Morris gain the recognition he deserved from the university that neglected him for 36 years after he graduated, to right a wrong, if you will. Getting jersey No. 47 retired became the No. 1 priority for No. 66, who blocked for Morris for three seasons and wanted him to take his place with a select few.
What began as an idea quickly turned into a movement, and it was kept secret from Morris for months in the making. Lally rounded up support for Morris, starting with his football brothers from the Buffalo area. Syracuse's roster was stocked with guys from Western New York who played when Morris was a star.
Many who paved the way for Morris on the field also paved the way for him to be recognized. By extension, honoring him was an honor for the grunts that opened holes for him. Their glory comes from other players who get the glory. You never hear fans and media fawning over the right guard after a big win, after all.
"We decided to spearhead the charge to get Joe the recognition he deserved and subsequently the rest of us the recognition we deserved for blocking for the all-time leading rusher at Syracuse," Lally said. "Joe was the hardest-working, hardest-running person you would ever see. Retiring his jersey became a no-brainer."
Lally gathered former Steelers great Craig Wolfley from Orchard Park, Tony Hazzan from Cardinal Dougherty, Mark Edhe from Grand Island, Dennis Hartman and Gordy Gronkowski from West Seneca West. All five blocked for Morris and wanted his number retired.
So did other guys on the team, such as quarterback Billy Hurley of St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute, and Bob Arkeilpane, a defensive back from Sweet Home and former AD at the University at Buffalo currently serving as director of athletic development at SU. Athletic Director John Wildhack is from Kenmore. He graduated from Syracuse in 1980, two years after Morris arrived, and spent 36 years building ESPN from its infancy.
They had firsthand knowledge of Morris' ability and class. At 5-foot-7, he literally and figuratively was overlooked while coming out of high school. He was offered No. 44 after rushing for 1,001 yards as a freshman at Syracuse but respectfully declined. "I wanted nothing to do with that number," Morris said Saturday. "It scared me to death."
Anyway, he wanted to carve his own path.
"And he did," Hartman said. "Unfortunately, if somebody wasn't following Syracuse football at the time, or unless they look at the record book, nobody really knows Joe Morris. But he's well-deserving of anything that they do for him because he's a top-notch guy, and he had a great career."
People are familiar with legends who wore No. 44, but Syracuse also had retired numbers of four other players: fullback Larry Csonka (39), tight end John Mackey (88) and quarterbacks Don McPherson (9) and Donovan McNabb (5). Morris was never held in quite the same company.
If anything, he should stand alone. He holds or shares 15 records, including rushing yards in a career (4,299), season (1,372), game (252) and per game (113). On Sept. 20, 1980, he returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown against Miami of Ohio on the first play in the history of the Carrier Dome.
For one reason or another, his accomplishments were largely ignored. He played on mediocre teams that finished 19-25-1 during his four years at SU. His name became lost with so many players coming and going in the years that followed. Morris was a fantastic player in a forgettable era. SU seemed to forget about him, too.
Fortunately, his teammates never did.
"Joe certainly deserves to be talked about in the same sentence as Jim Brown, Floyd Little and even Ernie Davis," Hurley said. "He should not be in the shadows of those other guys. That's not to take away from the accomplishments of those three guys. Obviously, they were tremendous. But Joe belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Syracuse running backs, if not the pinnacle of Mount Rushmore."
Morris, who played eight NFL seasons and helped the Giants to the Super Bowl in 1986, will take his rightful place in September. He can mostly thank Lally, who made a fortune as co-founder and president of PCB Piezotronics Inc. In 2016, he sold the global engineering company that started in Depew for $580 million.
Good man, John Lally. He has donated millions of dollars to numerous charities that long have been dear to him and his wife, Laura, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, Sisters Hospital and the United Way.
Last year, Lally gave $1 million to Syracuse to spruce up its outdoor practice football field. He was donating the money before Morris' name was raised, but the gift started a conversation about retiring his number. Wildhack also believed Morris had been overlooked and joined the mission to honor him.
"It's a really cool thing they're doing, and Joe is such a good guy," Wolfley said. "If Joe wasn't bow-legged, he would have been 6 feet tall! But he was such a powerful back. It was such a special group of guys, man, just salt of the earth, roll up your sleeves and show up to work."
Morris had no idea what to expect last Friday evening when he showed up for a party at the Lallys' winter home in New Port Richey, Fla. He figured it was nothing more than a Syracuse reunion that included many of his former teammates. Wildhack and Orange coach Dino Babers also were in attendance.
He still didn't know what was coming after they unveiled a highlight reel commemorating his career at Syracuse. When the moment was right, Lally presented him with a ball declaring Syracuse's plans to retire his number. He will be honored Sept. 22, when Syracuse plays a nonconference game against Connecticut.
Thirty-seven years after his last game, No. 47 will stand alone.
"It was out of the blue," Morris said. "I was very humbled. I have wonderful friends that I played with. I'm just thankful to all of them for making it possible. But here's the thing: My offensive line deserve the credit for what people give me credit for. It meant a lot to have all the guys here. I was overwhelmed."