Though Derrick Morgan played nine years in the National Football League with the Tennessee Titans, he had youth-level and high school teammates in Coatesville with even more talent. Soon enough, many were dead or locked up. That haunting loss of potential—often the result of one bad decision—destroyed lives. “As a 13- or 14-year-old, I didn’t know how to process it,” recalls Morgan. “It could’ve very easily been me. I was at house parties that were shot up. I’m not saying that there are bullets flying every day in Coatesville, but kids there are more susceptible to experiencing that than, say, in Downingtown. It’s just a harsh reality.”
But Morgan and others made it out OK. “We were attracted to each other for that reason,” says Miguel Torres, a friend of Morgan’s since seventh grade. “We see others now in their 30s, like us, and maybe they’re just starting to get themselves together. Maybe they didn’t have the guidance when they were younger, but we were wild, too. It’s true—we know too many who’ve spent their lives in prison, or who aren’t with us anymore. It’s easily 15 or 20.”
For those reasons and more, Morgan—now 31 and retired from the NFL for a year this month—has returned to his Chester County roots. As managing partner of KNGDM Group, he and his network of investors and builders share a passion for social justice. They’ve announced a plan to build a sports complex and events center at the 22-acre “Flats” site along Route 30 west of Route 82, near the West Branch Brandywine Creek.
The 2017 Federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act created Opportunity Zones—what Morgan and Torres refer to as OZ. These allow for programming to increase investment in economically distressed communities like Coatesville. The goal is to improve the status quo by ramping up real-estate/infrastructure and increasing small-business startups. The Flats and three other census tracts within the city of Coatesville have that designation. “I kept hearing about the Flats, this huge plot of land that could be used to revitalize the city,” says the former linebacker.
“Being from the area, I know what a thriving place Coatesville could be, and I understand the number of lives that could change. In Chester County, the sky’s the limit.”
Based on personal connections and opportunities, KNGDM Group chose four cities in which to invest its time, energy, capital and influence. The other three are Austin, Texas; Atlanta; and Nashville, where Morgan now lives. The federal government enables investors to build tax-free wealth by deferring capital gains taxes while using that money as seed capital to fund community redevelopment projects. Based on longevity, the overall tax benefits grow. “We’ve put together a design and schematics, developed relationships and brought partners to the table,” Morgan says. “There’s a lot in motion. We’ve put a team together to get across the finish line.”
Morgan’s right-hand man at ground zero, Torres says his old friend first called and shared the idea about 18 months ago. “It sounded so far-fetched,” he admits. “It seemed crazy.”
They began with smaller real estate upgrades in an effort to boost home ownership. There were also improvements for startups and other local businesses. “Pretty much all of the city of Coatesville is in OZ,” Torres says.
Morgan still has a personal cell phone with a Chester County number. Born in Lancaster, he moved to Coatesville in seventh grade. His mother took a job at QVC in West Chester, while he attended North Brandywine Middle School. Morgan’s dad had spent the six previous years in prison.
Acclimation to Coatesville came quickly through sports. But even with football and good grades, Morgan grew up wondering how he’d afford college. “College was not preached in my home, but work ethic was,” he says. “I had six jobs before I graduated, but it became clear that football was my way out.”
By his senior year at Coatesville Area High School, Morgan had become the top-rated football player in the state. He went on to Georgia Tech and majored in business management, later receiving his MBA from the University of Miami. Drafted into the NFL as a first-round pick in 2010, a knee injury ended his rookie season. But Morgan returned and played eight more seasons for the Titans, all the while knowing he was building his own narrative.
Morgan took an early interest in investment. A family man, he’s married with two children. Faith is a focal point in his life, as is his passion for helping youth. As he refined his interests, it became more important to invest in opportunities that better matched his Christian values. Over the past few years, he’s begun pulling money from the stock market to reinvest in socially conscious opportunities. “If I only cared about the single bottom line—profit—I wouldn’t be the first in line to invest in Coatesville,” he says. “Being from the area, I know what a thriving place Coatesville could be, and I understand the number of lives that could change. In Chester County, the sky’s the limit.”
Morgan also insists that he’s not the “silver bullet.” No one person can be in Coatesville. But perhaps he can provide a model for every small industrial town in America where steel or something else “came and went and left people without jobs and applicable skills.”
Josh Maxwell is hopeful that Morgan’s dream can give Coatesville a start on a path to long-term prosperity. “Coatesville’s a special community with an incredible amount of pride, so it’s wonderful to see the people show an interest in his coming back,” says the newly sworn in 36-year-old Chester County Commissioner and former Downingtown mayor. “He’s from Coatesville, but he also has a genuine interest, understands the sense of pride that exists and the love the people have for their city.”
There have been hiccups in Morgan’s plan, which is typical in Coatesville. Morgan could’ve backed out many times, and he’s done much to proactively inform the community. “From the beginning of the project to now, there’s been a 180,” says Torres. “There’s no more fear. This is the furthest anyone has seen real change come here. This is not your typical top-down investment—it’s bottom-up. He wants everyone to have a say in whatever way we can make it better.”
Hardly oblivious to Coatesville’s history of false starts, or its residents’ resistance to planned development and revitalization, Morgan recognizes the mishaps of others. He also knows that his OZ could be a game-changer. A CBS Thanksgiving Day NFL segment this past November on Morgan’s efforts certainly didn’t hurt. “It put a light on Coatesville,” he says. “Now we can appeal to a wider demographic.”
Morgan truly believes that he has the right project at the right time—one that honors two Coatesville mainstays: sports and the steel it will take to build the complex. “You might not go to Coatesville for anything else, but you will go for sports, teams and leagues,” says Morgan. “Between Friday and Sunday, it could become a regional and national draw, then the whole sports tourism industry gets Coatesville’s economy cooking because dollars are being spent there that otherwise wouldn’t be.”
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If Morgan’s plan has an assumption, it’s this: Sports is a common ground, a longtime positive sustainable in Coatesville, it’s building block. “Being from Coatesville, we often hear all the bad things first, or you’re on the front page for things you hope you’re not,” says Mike Maxwell, a high school teammate and friend who now lives in Newtown Square and works with Haverford Trust. “Derrick’s an absolute anomaly in every sense. He’s a perfect role model. He made it out of Coatesville, and he’s done it the right way.”
Maxwell was a year ahead of Morgan and continued his football career and education at Dickinson College. His father recently retired after a 40-year career in the steel industry. His mother was a special-education teacher and aid in the district, and his sister and two nephews still live in Coatesville. “Maybe we were just some of the lucky ones, but we were also keenly aware that everyone wasn’t as lucky,” says Maxwell. “Growing up in Coatesville, you see a lot of failure, and you might even learn that it’s OK to fail. But failing forward is important. Derrick and I share a common denominator: We were both willing to fail as many times as it took to succeed.”
Even now, with the added uncertainties and challenges of COVID-19, Maxwell’s confidence in his friend remains unshaken. “There are no guarantees in life, but I guarantee that Derrick, his team and myself will ensure that this initiative does move forward from a financial perspective,” he says. “Derrick wouldn’t be able to look at his life after football the same if he doesn’t get this done now or later.”
Torres says Morgan is the same guy he’s always known. “He left us behind on the football field, but never as friends,” he says. “He’s a caring person.”
Though it was never made public, Morgan has helped Torres run holiday coat and turkey drives to help social service agencies in Coatesville. “All of it was him,” Torres says.
Torres still lives in Coatesville, and he might never leave, still knowing that the city is “a planned black eye for the county.”
“If you house everything that’s not good in one place, this is it,” says Torres. “We want to try to be that element of change. If Derrick makes this work in Coatesville, we’ll definitely start calling him the Wizard of OZ.”