ANN ARBOR, Mich. — At the edge of the Florida Everglades, the black soil of Muck City is known for producing two things: football players and sugar cane.
The small communities of Pahokee and Belle Glade have a reputation for producing more NFL players per capita than any other region in the country. The place has inspired books, documentaries and the dreams of countless kids trying to be Muck City’s next All-American.
In that fertile soil, a seed took root. It started on Saturdays as parents gathered to watch Muck City’s next generation of football stars play youth league football. The coach, a former offensive lineman at Florida State, had a son on the team. The field was full of promising young players, but the real show happened at halftime, when the kid passing out water picked up a football and stepped onto the field.
As the crowd looked on in amazement, the kid started firing passes to the coach: 10 yards at first, then 20, all the way out to 50 or 60. Even as the ball stung his hands, the coach knew that, unlike his son and the other boys on the team, this player wouldn’t have the chance to become a football star. There would be no Friday night lights and no football offers, and one day he’d have to explain why.
The player was his daughter.
“At that time, there were no girls allowed,” Mike Morris Sr. said. “You could have been on a team as a kicker, but for a young lady to play quarterback, it was never heard of. I didn’t want her to have to go through that kind of stress.”
One day last month, Mimi Bolden-Morris slid behind a desk inside Schembechler Hall, pausing for a few moments before her next staff meeting. She’s come a long way since those Saturdays on the youth league fields of Muck City. Though she never played a snap in high school or college, her football career is just taking off.
When she started at Michigan, Bolden-Morris told the players they could call her Mimi, the nickname she’s had since she was a kid. Her mother prefers Milan, her given name. Around Schembechler Hall, she goes by something else.
“I don’t mind them calling me Mimi,” she said. “To me, it’s personable. Their response is always, ‘No, you’re my coach, so I’m going to call you coach.’”
As a first-year graduate assistant, Bolden-Morris is believed to be the first woman to hold that position in the Big Ten and the second at a Power 5 football program, following in the footsteps of Georgia Tech’s Carol White. Her parents, Mike Sr. and Melanie Bolden-Morris, have the rare privilege of rooting for a son and a daughter on the same college football team: Milan as a GA, Mike Jr. as a starting defensive end for the No. 3 Wolverines .
The Morris family never imagined this kind of reunion when Mike, 21, and Mimi, 23, went off to college. Playing high school or college football wasn’t an option for Mimi, so she poured herself into basketball instead. She earned a scholarship at Boston College and spent three years there before finishing her career at Georgetown, where she averaged 12.8 points and started every game in the backcourt as a senior. All that time, she held onto the dreams that came from growing up in one of the most football-rich regions of the country.
“That’s what sparked my love for it,” Bolden-Morris said. “My dad being a football coach just added on. I was his water girl forever. Football’s been something that’s been in my life since I was a kid. It’s one of the first sports I was ever introduced to.”
Though women have made inroads in staff positions, football is still a sport dominated by men. With her background in college basketball, Bolden-Morris knew she faced long odds to break into a notoriously competitive business. She considered playing basketball overseas or trying out for the WNBA, but her football roots kept pulling her back. During her time at Georgetown, she started coaching in a flag football league and decided to look into opportunities at the college level.
Bolden-Morris reached out on social media to a pair of prominent women in the NFL, Buccaneers assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust and Bills offensive assistant Sophia Lewin, and started sending her resume to college football programs. When her mother suggested reaching out to Michigan, Mimi’s response was “No shot.”
“One, it was a little bit of fear,” Mimi said. “Two, I didn’t want to be in the same environment as my brother. Me and my brother are so close. I didn’t want to make him feel uncomfortable in his space.”
It took an act of motherly intervention to get the wheels in motion. As a high school principal, Melanie Bolden-Morris understood the value of a connection in landing that first big break. Mimi wasn’t looking for a shortcut, just a chance. Melanie decided to take matters into her own hands and reach out to Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.
“I said, ‘You know what, let me just call,’” Melanie said. “The worst thing that can happen is he can say no.”
Harbaugh said he would see what he could do. At first, Mimi thought she would be coming to Michigan as an intern, but then Harbaugh called with some news: Michigan was promoting Grant Newsome to a full-time coaching position and had an opening for an offensive GA. Was Mimi interested?
That’s how Bolden-Morris ended up sitting across from Harbaugh as he quizzed her about her football knowledge. After their initial conversation, she’d started volunteering with the FCS football program at Georgetown, trying to soak up whatever she could. The experience at Georgetown gave her a head start in learning how to break down film, a big part of her responsibilities as a graduate assistant.
“I hired her, and without me knowing it, she was voluntarily working at Georgetown University at the football program to prepare herself for this job,” Harbaugh said. “I just thought that spoke volumes.”
There remained one unresolved question: How would Mike feel about having his big sister on the sideline? As it turned out, Mimi had no reason to worry.
“I knew her fear was that she was going to invade my space and overstep,” Mike Jr. said. “I don’t really see it that way. I looked at her as my sister going into a field, and being able to help her through it. I’m glad that she chose this place as her first place so I can be here and talk her through everything.”
Being together at Michigan brings out the goofy side of the sibling relationship. When Mike, 292 pounds, sees Mimi before practice, he likes to jump on her back and see how long she can carry him around. Most of the time, though, they’re so busy with their respective jobs that they hardly know the other is there.
Congratulations to Milan Bolden-Morris!
—Patrick Waring (@WaringPatrick) September 3, 2022
Mimi’s week starts on Sunday as she breaks down film of the upcoming opponent and studies the opposing coaching staff’s tendencies and influences. By early in the week, she’s drawing up cards for the scout team to make sure Michigan is practicing against the right looks. According to her dad, she often opens the building at 5 am and doesn’t leave until 11 pm or midnight.
Coming from the world of college basketball, Bolden-Morris was used to thinking about X’s and O’s in the context of five players on the basketball court. With 11 players on a football field, the array of possible schemes, variations and variations of variations increases exponentially.
“In basketball, you play man or zone and most of it is all the same,” Bolden-Morris said. “In football, I can play man so many different ways. I can play zone so many different ways. There’s so many types of zones on top of all the different ways to play it.”
Mike Morris Sr. knows this much about his daughter: If Mimi doesn’t understand something, she’ll work until she finds the answer. As the daughter of a high school principal and a law enforcement officer, she had toughness and discipline instilled at an early age.
Mike Sr. remembers watching Mimi in a playground basketball game with a group of boys when she was young. After Mimi drove for an easy layup, Mike stopped the game and told the boys in colorful terms that anyone taking it easy on his daughter would have to answer to him. Mimi came home that day with bloody elbows, but the lesson was learned. She wasn’t going to back down from anybody.
“All I wanted was an equal playing ground,” Mike Sr. said. “I’d put her against anyone. If you say, ‘We’re going to grade this thing fairly,’ she’s going to outdo most guys.”
With Mike and Mimi both at Michigan, Mike Sr. and Melanie make regular trips from their home in Palm Beach, Fla., to spend Saturdays in Ann Arbor. Melanie Bolden-Morris is a team mom known for her cooking, including the Thanksgiving feast she prepares for Michigan’s defensive linemen.
The family has a pregame tradition that happens three hours before each home game, when Mike Jr. emerges from Schembechler Hall and finds his parents tailgating in a grassy lot nearby. They join hands, form a circle and pray. Then Mike boards the bus to the stadium while his parents cross the parking lot to Michigan Stadium, where they will have one eye on Mike and another on Mimi.
“It is a dream come true for me to have my family together,” Melanie Bolden-Morris said. “It’s rooted in us that a family that prays together, stays together. Now that they’re living it, it just means the world to me.”
Soon, Mike and Mimi will go their separate ways again. Mike’s breakout senior season has him climbing the draft boards, listed as high as the first round in some projections. It’s hard to predict where Mimi’s career will go, but no one will be surprised if she continues to climb the coaching ladder. Her goal is to be a position coach someday, either in college or the NFL, and there’s no reason she has to stop there.
“She was talking about working in football, being the first female head coach in the NFL,” Mike Jr. said. “She wanted to do so much. I was happy as her brother to see my sister is so determined to do groundbreaking things.”
There was a time when Mimi wanted to be the first woman to play quarterback in the NFL. For the little girl throwing passes at halftime of her brother’s youth league football games, it was hard to give up on the dream. But a seed was planted, and now it’s bearing fruit.
The first time she stepped onto the field as a coach, Bolden-Morris felt like she was back in Muck City, right where she belonged.
“I absolutely loved it,” she said. “It was a full-circle moment, like, ‘Yeah, I really love this.’”
(Top photo of Jim Harbaugh, Ron Bellamy and Mimi Bolden-Morris: Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images)