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July 13, 2012It's a cool summer day in Thousand Oaks, and Christian Morris is eating it up.
The big man is sitting on a steel bench, arms spread over the top of the back rest, head up to the sun with a big smile plastered onto his face.
"I love L.A.," he says with a sigh. "Down south weather, it's like, 'Oh, my God.' It's like you're getting suffocated down there."
The cloudless sky and the smooth Los Angeles breeze are only part of the reason for the million-dollar smile on Morris' face. The heat and the humidity down south are bad, but where Morris is from, they're not nearly as bad as the gangs, the gunshots, the robberies, the sirens, the drugs and the violence.
Where Morris is from, a sunny day on a steel bench is tense. It's clenched fists. It's eyes darting from person to person.
Where Morris is from, a Los Angeles day like this one only happens when he closes his eyes.
"In North Memphis," he says, "every day it's always something going on. From murder to robbery."
Morris may be UCLA's next big thing today, but a few years ago, he was in the middle of that Memphis mess. The Bruin blue and gold was a pipedream. The only big thing he was on track to be was prison's next big inmate.
He was always the big kid. A 6-footer by sixth grade, Morris always towered over his peers. But in Memphis, that just made him the target.
"When you're down south, they really don't care," Morris said. "Size don't mean nothing down there. Everybody has to work their way out."
So Morris scrapped. He fought kids. He punched students, beat people up, and even took his own lickings from time to time.
"Eleven," he says of the fights he's been in without blinking. "I won a good percentage of them. But some guys got the best of me."
That's how it was in Memphis for Morris. He rolled with his crew, he fought, he saw beatings, he saw robberies and murders and crimes, and that's just the way it was.
"It was in the atmosphere," Morris said. "And I was into some of it. My sixth-through-eighth grade years, I was a very bad person. I was picking fights and everything. Just hanging with the wrong crowd."
His father, who has been in and out of prison for Morris' whole life, saw it all. So did his grandmother, whom he lived with until just a few years ago. And one day, they all sat him down and told him things needed to change.
"My father said, 'If you want to go down the same path as me, go right ahead,'" Morris said. "And then it all changed after my grandmother gave me a wakening call."
She told him he needed to get out of all of it. He needed to find sports, find a life, make something of himself.
So he did.
He picked up basketball, and ditched most of his friends. They were going down the wrong road, and after talking with his family, he didn't want to be there anymore.
"I said, 'I don't even want to do everything like that,'" Morris explained. "I want to have a future, you know, get big."
He played basketball and did well. He took the right way home, stopped answering the bad phone calls, and then, once he began high school, he even started thinking about football.
But there was a problem. He attended Craigmont High in Tennessee, and the fights just seemed to come to him.
"When I was at Craigmont," he said, "it was ugh."
His grandma would get phone calls, explaining what Morris was and wasn't doing. The calls were often, too. A teacher or principal would be on the other line explaining to her how a kid who had come so far from the wrong road was heading right back for it.
"I kept getting phone calls home talking about I'm not doing this and that," Morris said. "I'm a smart kid, but it was a bad environment."
So his grandmother moved him. She sent him to Memphis East, and finally, as a sophomore in high school, Morris could breathe.
He took a spot on the basketball team, and then decided to snag one on the football team as well. As one of the biggest guys on the squad, he played both tackle spots on the offensive line, and he was good. Really good.
He had started only a handful of games when Memphis called and offered him his first scholarship. And then, a few months later, UCLA offensive line coach Adrian Klemm got a hold of his film, and offered him one too.
"It was cool; the West Coast doesn't usually recruit out here," Morris said of the Bruin scholarship. "I was like, 'How did you get my film?' That was a great moment for me. I knew that was something."
Morris accepted that Bruin scholarship offer on Thursday, announcing to the world he was UCLA bound.
And, in a way, he announced to the world he had turned himself into something.
"I changed it all around," he said. "I came a long way to get here, and I'm only 17."
Morris rests his elbows on his knees, thinks about it all and lets out a laugh.
"A normal day in Memphis, you have fights on the street," he says, still sitting on that steel bench in Thousand Oaks. "Then in nightfall, you hear nothing but gunshots, sirens and helicopters. It's kind of like what I've seen on the movie 'Redemption' with Jamie Foxx."
It's 2,000 miles from Morris on this summer day, but it's still so vivid. And it will be a part of his life for another 12 months, until he officially makes it out of Tennessee and into this paradise of Southern California.
"We're still in the same neighborhood," he says of his Memphis home. "But I don't indulge into all of the stuff that's going on."
He's focused now. The 6-foot-6, 293-pound, three-star offensive tackle has a job to do.
He's the next big thing at UCLA, and he couldn't be happier to be there.
"It really is ecstatic," Morris says. "I don't know what to say. I'm speechless."
Then he pauses, thinks about his next words, and utters a statement he couldn't be more pleased to say.
"I'm happy about life," he said. "I came from nothing.
"And now I'm something."