ST. PETERSBURG — Maurice Hall remembers the exact time a bullet, shot for no specific reason by a stranger driving past, nearly ended his football career and his life.
It was 9:45 p.m., Sept. 17, 2012, and he was walking home from his god-sister's birthday party to get some sleep before his Saturday morning weightlifting session with the Gibbs High School football team .
“It feels horrible to be shot,” Hall said. “It feels like you just fractured your whole arm, but 30 times badder than that, and at the same time it feels like you haven't eaten anything for an entire year and you have the biggest headache in the world. That's what it feels like.”
Yet the 6-foot-1, 185-pound 18-year-old survived, turning yet another tragedy in his young life into the fuel he needs to set the gridiron ablaze.
There was a time when simply graduating high school seemed a longshot for the wide receiver. But today, Hall will join 300 classmates walking across the turf at Tropicana Field to receive a diploma. Then, it's off to Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, in July on a football scholarship.
“It felt really good for my friends to see me alive and persevering after they all spent so much time with me in that hospital,” Hall said. “To be a great football player, sometimes you have to go through bad stuff. I feel like if I hadn't gone through any of this, I wouldn't have it to motivate me to want to be something more.”
Hall can relate to the sense of loss emanating around Marshall's football team, which lost nearly every player in a plane crash in 1970.
His father died when he was 12, and his mother and four grown siblings moved to St. Petersburg from Miami for a new start and lower bills. The first person Hall met was a coach for the Child's Park youth league football team, and his love-affair with the sport he used to play with his father blossomed, he said.
He was going to be a star like his hero, wide receiver Randy Moss. He was going to be a record-breaker, and he'd get picked in the NFL draft. He was going to play on TV. It didn't matter which team, as long as he got to play, he said.
“Football is good for your soul and, for me, if there's stuff going on in your house or anything else that causes you to have stress, or want someone to talk to, and if no one's around to talk to, you have football,” Hall said. “Football kind of helps me get all that stuff out of my head. It kind of helped me mature into a man.”
By the time he entered Gibbs, Hall was becoming a star. He earned a spot on the varsity football team his freshmen year, and after his third game, at 15 years old, he got a scholarship offer from the University of Oklahoma. He began breaking records for kick returns, touchdowns, rushing yards and tackles. But the harder Hall worked on the football field, the lower his grades fell until he became ineligible for his scholarship in the 10th grade with a 1.9 GPA.
Then, later that year, came the shooting.
“Sitting in that hospital bed, there were times where I thought I would never get out,” Hall said. “It seemed to rain every day and I would just stare out the window, thinking of all my friends at home having fun with their families when I had to sit in here. I thought I would never play again and I was just going to be another kid that could have been a star. But my mama would say, 'Don't listen to what the doctors say, not all the time.'”
The bullet passed through his hip, traveling through the right side of his body and stopping by his colon and stomach. Hall was in the hospital for more than a month. Back at school, his junior year became a school-wide mission to get back into his No. 3 jersey.
His principal, Stephanie Adkinson, kept Maurice's schedule and would pop into his classes to make sure he was completing his work. School Resource Officer Scott Howard became a mentor, talking him through his doubts and frustrations while making sure he was signed up for SAT's, his grades were on point and he stayed on the “straight and narrow.”
Slowly, his grades began to improve. Feeling returned to his legs after hours of physical therapy, and he became well enough to participate in track and basketball. By football season his senior year, he was ready.
If he couldn't get a football scholarship, Hall was determined to get an academic scholarship to college, to be the first in his family with a college degree.
Once his grades started improving and he made it back to the football field, Hall started mentoring younger students of his own, Howard said. While in school, he plans to pursue a degree in sports management or dual degrees in technology and business.
“The opportunities are right in front of him. He just has to be motivated to go out and get it, which watching him this year and seeing everything he was able to accomplish, I know he's going to go on to great things,” Howard said. “I see how the students look up to him, and becoming a role model for other kids like him has really helped Maurice become just a great man ... And my family lives near Huntington and has season tickets, so he knows even though he's going to be off at school my eyes are everywhere.”
Things were finally looking up for Hall when on the day he was supposed to commit to the University of Akron he got a call from Marshall asking him to reconsider.
In January, Hall visited the school campus, his first time leaving Florida, and fell in love with the town, which virtually shuts down when there's a home football game. He loved how the school commemorated its lost football players with memorial fountains that flow on the birthday of each player and the anniversary of the plane crash. He loved how friendly the students and locals are. But when the head football coach brought a surprise guest to the field to meet his young recruits, Hall knew Marshall was where he's meant to be. It was Randy Moss.
“I was always trying to figure out which school this man went to. Growing up I had his green jersey, but there weren't any logos on it or anything, and when I actually saw him walk around the corner I couldn't talk no more,” he said. “I was just looking at this man in awe. Some day, I'll be like Randy Moss for someone else.”