Players on the Morgan State football team call defensive end Chris Eugene "Nine Lives," and not just because of his cat-like quickness as a speed rusher.
Eugene was just 9 years old when his life took a most dramatic turn.
It was July 4 in the North Miami neighborhood of Little Haiti when he and close friend Gregory Oliver, also 9, had just finished playing basketball, and were walking back toward their homes in the public housing project known to locals as the Pork 'n' Beans.
They had nearly made it home when Eugene first heard the shots. He initially mistook them for holiday fire crackers.
"Something just sounded funny, and I reacted to what I heard," recalled Eugene, who was standing on the opposite side of the street. "That's when everything happened. … It was like a breath of air was taken from me."
Oliver lay bleeding in front of his house, and hours later was dead.
Eugene will never forget the feeling of despair.
"That was my ace, my main man. We grew up together," he said. "He was in front of his house and he was the wrong person."
Confusion ensued, and a series of events unfolded after that day that led to Eugene's older brother landing in prison, where he remains. Eugene prefers not to delve into his brother's situation, but says the two remain close.
The tragedies served as an unforgettable life lesson to an impressionable child growing up in a rough neighborhood.
"It told me that life is short, and you've got to love the ones around you right now," he said. "I have a little sister who looks up to me, and I didn't want to be that example that she sees out on the street."
"He's one of those guys who understands that adversity doesn't mean you're counted out. It just means you've got to work a little harder to get ahead," Bears coach Donald Hill-Eley said. "Either you're going to hold the world hostage because of your situation or you're going to look at it as God placed you in that particular spot so that you could propel yourself out and do something about it."
That's precisely what Eugene has done.
He maintains a 3.1 grade-point average, majoring in business administration with a concentration in accounting, and is on track to graduate in four years. He hopes to become an accountant, ideally following a career in professional football.
Eugene thrives on the field, as well, last year using his impressive speed to finish fifth on the team in tackles as a linebacker. He has put on 25 pounds to move back to his natural position of defensive end, where he should see significant playing time this season and challenge for a starting role.
"He's a hard-hitting, fast guy," Hill-Eley said. "He's faster than your normal defensive end and plays very aggressive."
He also makes no secret of his desire to punish opposing quarterbacks. Last year, he recorded a pair of sacks, as well as 3.5 tackles for losses.
"That's my specialty. That's what I want to do — go straight after the quarterback, because that's the money man," Eugene said. "He's the second one to touch the ball, and I want to be the third."
The 21-year-old says he often flashes back to the moment he lost Oliver, particularly while lying in bed at night. Though he may never shake the images of the past, he uses those memories to help steer his future in the right direction.
"I feel like everyone should have a secondary plan in life," Eugene said, "because you never know what's going to happen with your first one."
COACH: Donald Hill-Eley (10th season)
CONFERENCE: Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference
LAST YEAR: 4-7
RADIO: 88.9 FM
STADIUM: Hughes Stadium
TICKETS: $30 reserved, $20 general admission, $15 seniors (65-over)
PARKING: $10 in campus garage
OFFENSE: Multiple spread
DEFENSE: Multiple 4-3
OUTLOOK: Optimism is high at Morgan, which got off to a strong start last season before fading down the stretch, dropping its final four games. To move into the upper echelon of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, the Bears will need to drastically improve an offense that in 2010 ranked last in the 117-team Football Championship Subdivision, producing just over 216 yards per game. Incumbent quarterback Donovan Dickerson, who completed just 38 percent of his passes while splitting time last season, will go into the season opener at Towson as the starter. Should he struggle, however, Morgan won't hesitate to bring in sophomore Nader Furrha, a former all-state quarterback out of Michigan who spent his first year of college as a redshirt with the Wolverines. Jourdan Brooks and David Brown will lead a down-hill running game that, along with the run defense, should be the strength of the team. One huge addition should be the return of former defensive coordinator Alonzo Lee, who spent the past two years as the head coach of North Carolina A&T. Lee was the architect of a disciplined Bears unit that in 2008 led the FCS in total defense. Talented defensive ends Zary Stewart and Bakari Smith, as well as linebacker Allen Stephens, will anchor a defense that produced just 19 sacks a year ago. The Bears need to take advantage of a soft early-season schedule, which includes four opponents (Towson, Bowling Green, Howard and Savannah State) that finished a combined 5-40 a year ago. Morgan was picked to finish sixth in the 11-team MEAC in a preseason poll of coaches and sports information directors.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun