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The Long Reunion: How Malcolm Koonce and TJ Morrison went from high school to pro teammates

TJ Morrison Malcolm Koonce Stepinac

The first time Malcolm Koonce stepped onto the Archbishop Stepinac High School practice field, it had been a very long time since he had played a snap of football.

Koonce was already a natural athlete with great size, but he had played rugby for most of his life in Peekskill, New York, before deciding to make the switch to give football a shot. It was a daunting situation for anyone to step into, and for Koonce's calm, reserved presence, it was a lot to take in.

Meanwhile, across his new locker room, TJ Morrison couldn't have been more different.

As a young cornerback, one who had already established himself as an emerging star for the Stepinac Crusaders of White Plains, New York, Morrison was an outspoken leader.

So it didn't take long for the personable Morrison to take it upon himself to get to know this quiet new addition to the team and break him out of his shell, a story Morrison said he's always been fond of telling.

"I remember it was a summer workout, and we were all coming into the locker room, and Malcolm is this huge guy, of course," Morrison said. "Being that I was the person I was — very sociable, outgoing, talkative — I was the first one to really step up and have a real conversation with him.

"I was just trying to talk to him, and he was a little reserved at first, and I understand because it was a new environment for him. When he told me he played rugby, I started laughing, 'Like, seriously?!'"

While Morrison may have not been the biggest dog in the park, he's always had a big bite. And he saw in Koonce a similarly dominant force, even if they didn't have much in common on the surface.

"You know when you're the biggest guy on the field like Malcolm, you don't have to do whole lot of talking," Morrison said. "When you're almost always the smallest guy on the field like I was, you have to make your presence felt."

For his part, Koonce said that it was no accident Morrison was a talented team leader.

"TJ, most definitely [was the better athlete]," Koonce told PIX11 News in New York. "He was a receiver, a corner – he played everything."

But behind each of them, Koonce and Morrison, was a third man, helping them along a road that would lead them to the Las Vegas Raiders.

Michael O'Donnell has been the head coach of the Crusaders for 33 years. He has won three state championships and nearly 100 games in the past decade.

He was also tasked with getting the most out of Morrison and Koonce, despite their contrasting personalities.

"They both took very different paths," said Coach O'Donnell. "TJ has an unbelievable personality, and he's outspoken, and he was a leader right from the time we met him when he was 14 years old. TJ played offense, defense and special teams and really did it all for us. He always worked very hard and was driven to be the best player he could be. He always knew how to talk the talk and walk the walk."

"Malcolm was a very good athlete, big body, but he was kind of quiet," O'Donnell said. "He was learning, and we always talk about how when you're driving a car, and when you're not very sure about something, you drive slow, or if you don't know where you're going, you drive slow, but once things start to clear up, and you know where you're going, you drive faster. That was kind of how Malcolm played — once Malcolm understood the game, he really improved, and you could tell how special a player he was because his athletic ability started to shine."

As Koonce's training wheels fell off and he adapted to football, he formed a one-two punch with Morrison that dominated New York state football for the better part of three seasons. The Crusaders won two CHSFL AAA league championships and went undefeated en route to a 2015 New York State Championship.

"It was never really a matter of getting [Koonce] ready to play football, because he already had all of the intangibles just being so athletic and so big," Morrison added. "It was just more getting him comfortable around the team and building that relationship and camaraderie with the team. Once he got comfortable around the team, the whole team dynamic changed."

Despite being dominant players on a championship team, neither received any Power Five collegiate offers, so both decided to stay true to New York — Koonce took his talents to the University of Buffalo; Morrison chose Stony Brook.

It didn't take long for both of them to make their mark — Koonce racked up 110 total tackles in 17 sacks at Buffalo, while Morrison had 109 tackles and 18 pass deflections at Stony Brook — and in spite of the odds, both made it to the big leagues. Koonce is the first defensive player drafted out of Buffalo since 2015, and Morrison was the only Raiders undrafted free-agent signing from a FCS school.

"Growing up, there was nobody in the league from Westchester (County) at the time," Koonce told PIX11 News. "The only people like that were way older than us. So it's definitely nice to be somebody people can look up to."

"We did amazing things statistically that showed we were good enough to go to a Power Five school, but we were slept on back then," said Morrison. "And we kind of understood that. We knew how the recruiting process was for the Northeast region, specifically New York. We were humbled, and we understood. We knew we had to work harder, and it didn't matter what steps it took to get there, but we knew we were just as good as anyone in the country.

"Even though we got here it's not the end of it. We still have a lot to prove and a lot to show."

While few could have predicted the long road they took to reuniting in the Silver and Black, no one could be in their corner more than their former head coach.

"Both of those guys worked hard; we're proud of them here," said Coach O'Donnell. "I'll be rooting for the Raiders every week ... and everyone at the school is really excited for them.

"I got a new place on my bucket list I have to go visit."

Take a look at the 53 players on the Silver and Black's current roster. (Last updated Tuesday, December 14)

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