Since being selected as SI’s first High School Athlete of the Month, Malik McMorris, a senior three-sport athlete at Mater Dei (Calif.) High, has been tabbed to play in the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl in January. Check back here each month for more stories of student-athletes who display strength and character on and off the field. To nominate a candidate, fill out the form at bottom.
SANTA ANA, Calif. -- The alarm on his phone sounded at 6:50 a.m., for the fourth time that morning. No more delaying. It was time to drag himself off the living room couch that had become his bed for the past few months, microwave a frozen breakfast sandwich, throw on his dress code-approved collared shirt and hurry out the door to catch his lift to school and watch football film before class.
The house was quiet -- no one else but the dog, Duchess, who had to be fed and let out in the backyard. The triplets awoke nearly an hour ago to take a city bus to middle school. His brother Hakim was some 3,000 miles away at the Tennessee boarding school he had enrolled in on scholarship earlier this fall. His father wouldn’t clock out from his midnight to 8 a.m. shift as a customs agent for Homeland Security at Los Angeles International Airport for another half hour, and wouldn’t be home until he battled freeway traffic for another 90 minutes beyond that. Malik McMorris was alone in his family’s one-story stucco ranch home.
But he wasn’t. Not really.
As the Mater Dei (Calif.) High senior walked out of the dining room filled with trophies and ribbons, through the living room, past the television set and toward the front door and the honking horn of his teammate’s car, he glanced at her picture. His pair of sparkling, jewel-encrusted state track championship rings laid on the table beneath the photograph couldn’t compare to the brilliance of her smile -- caught mid-laugh -- and the mischievous twinkle in her eye.
He gave her a nod. We got this today, he thought.
At 6-feet and 290 pounds, McMorris -- or Mo, as teammates know him -- is the best thrower on Mater Dei’s state champion track and field team, the center for the JV basketball team and a captain and two-way player (defensive lineman and fullback) for the Monarchs’ renowned football program, which has earned two high school national titles and produced two Heisman Trophy winners (John Huarte and Matt Leinart). McMorris, last year’s co-Trinity League defensive MVP and a first-team all-CIF and all-county selection, also owns a 3.7 GPA.
For the past nine months McMorris has been waking up to an empty home ever since his mom, Lucy Guerrero Martinez, died of breast cancer last January at age 39. Ever since then he has given that photograph, an image displayed at her memorial, a silent nod on his way out the door.
Malik McMorris, it turns out, is never alone.
Even as a baby it was clear McMorris was one of a kind. “Most kids say ‘daddy’ or ‘mommy,’ but his first word was ‘ball,’” Malik’s father, Patrick, says. “I knew from that point on that he was going to be doing something athletic.”
His Mater Dei linemate, Dallas Moaliitele, met McMorris when he signed up to play on a Junior All-America football team in seventh grade. “At practice, my coach would always say, ‘Our team’s not complete yet -- Big Mac’s not here.’ And I would say, ‘Who is Big Mac?’” Moaliitele says. “I’m just waiting to see who this amazing person is. And out of nowhere, I see this big kid carrying this bag that’s always around his shoulder. And I said, ‘Where’s he been this whole time?’ They said, ‘The Junior Olympics.’ And I thought, oh, this guy’s amazing.”
McMorris juggled football and track and field starting in third grade. His mom, a former thrower who would compete in the mile event at the start of a meet to warm up, suggested the activity. “One day my mom picked me up from day care and she just asked me, ‘Malik do you want to throw?’” he says. “I wasn’t playing basketball or football at the time so I was really bored and said, sure, I’ll try something new. So we practiced and I was pretty good for my age and just kept rolling with it.”
Lucy, who taught in the Santa Ana public school system, was also the reason he enrolled at Mater Dei, a private parochial day school of 2,200 students known for being an athletic powerhouse in talent-rich Southern California. “I clearly remember this moment -- me and my mom were driving down here on Edinger Avenue and she said, ‘Malik, I think I want you to go to that school one day.’ And I thought it was a college because it was really big,” he laughs.
Lucy had big dreams for her son. “She always pushed me to do more,” he says. “Even though I won a few track meets, she’d say, ‘That’s not enough, there’s other kids out there that are throwing even better than you.’ So she kind of put a sense of competition in my head and taught me how to work each day and get better and better. She was a teacher -- I was always around her and she always preached that grades are the most important. That’s why every day in school I just try to do my best and out on the field just try to do my best, like she would do.”
Lucy was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2012, during the fall of Malik’s sophomore year.
She used to wake him up and drive him to school in the morning. She used to be there when he and his siblings got home, making dinner for the family. She used to be in the stands at every game and in the parking lot after, offering him a burrito or a gyro and a ride home. Then all of that changed.
Malik and his dad dragged an adjustable hospital bed into the master bedroom to make her more comfortable. Patrick started working nights at the airport so he could take care of Lucy and the kids during the day. That first summer Malik’s aunts, uncles, cousins and his mother’s coworkers would all come over to help. But when summer ended, it was up to Malik and his dad to keep everything together.
When Patrick would head out the door around 11 p.m., Malik’s shift began. He slept beside his mom’s hospital gurney in his parents’ bed, ready to help with anything in the middle of the night. If her bed needed to be propped up or reclined, he would adjust it. If she needed to use the bathroom, he would walk her there. If she wanted the TV switched on or off, he would oblige. If she was cold, he’d put an extra blanket over her; hot, and he’d take one off. “Toward the end of her life, I was always there,” Malik says. “I was always staying home, helping her.
“I tell people, if you think life and football is hard, there’s weaker people who have gone through worse than you have. So, I have that mindset now to the point where if something’s hard, my mom went through worse, so why should I give up when she couldn’t? That’s how it pushes me every day in every aspect of life.”
Lucy died on January 29, 2014. She would have turned 40 less than two months later.
“She was beautiful, intelligent, outgoing, athletic -- just an amazing individual,” Patrick says. “She was a teacher, an educator, an administrator. She was a remarkable woman. Santa Ana lost something they’ll never see again.”
At his mother’s memorial Malik’s old middle school gym teacher took him aside. “He told me, ‘Your mom set a great path for you -- all you have to do is follow it,’” Malik says. “That really meant something to me because that’s true. She set all the right paths for me and now all I have to do is walk ‘em and take advantage of what I have.”
McMorris wrote the word “Mom” on his track shoes and poured energy into training for the season ahead. “When my mom passed away, the first thing that came to mind was to do something for her and do something in her name,” he says. He set his mind to winning CIF and state track titles. “She believed that that could happen even though a lot of us didn’t, and that was the main motive for me to just go out there and do something that she would have loved to see me do.”
Moaliitele watched his friend reach a new level. “After his mom passed away, I would go to all his track events when they were held at school and I would see him throwing these crazy numbers,” he says. “I would think, this is crazy, how is this even happening? But we all knew that he was being driven by his mom’s passing.”
Track coach Rick Martinez noticed McMorris’ renewed determination too. “His family has been very supportive and I think that has helped him get through that very heartbreaking time of his life,” he says. “But I think he was trying to keep his mind off it by working hard, by getting out there, by being with his teammates and doing something that he enjoys the most. His mother was the one that got him into throwing. I knew he was out there working harder to make her proud.”
By the time the state championship meet in Clovis, Calif., rolled around, the boys' team had already won the CIF Southern Section title, thanks largely to McMorris’ first place in the discus. Martinez knew it had a chance to win states as well.
In the state discus preliminaries McMorris threw a competition-best 190’ 8”, which outdistanced the next-best thrower by a full seven feet. But in the finals he fell to fourth place with a throw of 182’ 11 ¼”, good for five points, but not nearly the individual win that was within his grasp. “He had one of his average days, in his standards, and he placed fourth and he was very, very disappointed about that,” Martinez says. “I remember contemplating going up and talking to him afterwards but I knew he was going to get refocused and go on to his next event.”
As the meet wound down, with only the shot put event left, Martinez tallied up the points and realized that the state title was attainable if McMorris could finish in fifth place or better. He ran toward the throwing ring, where McMorris had already taken his first attempt. “If you get sixth, we tie. If you get fifth, we win!” Martinez yelled from across the track. McMorris just nodded his head. He had five remaining throws, and out of the next four, two were personal bests. Then he heaved his sixth and final one. The mark was taken, the measuring tape unspooled and an official read the distance aloud: 60’ 91/2” -- a lifetime best by more than a foot, and good for a fourth-place finish. His teammates huddling in the infield just outside the shot put ring erupted as McMorris gave a single fist-pump.
“Everybody was jumping around clapping,” McMorris says. “Personally, though, me and my mom talked about doing that and winning [the team title]. And when it happened I was just so happy that it really happened. I didn’t think it could.”
It had come down to the wire and McMorris’ effort had clinched the Monarchs’ first boys’ track team title in school history by the slimmest of margins. The final score: 30 points for Mater Dei, 28 for runners-up Castro Valley (Calif.) High.
“I think deep down inside him, he felt that he had done something that his mom would always be very, very proud of him for,” Martinez says, wiping away a tear. “I knew for sure that the first thought in his heart and his mind was his mother after winning that state championship.”
Football season has presented McMorris with a new opportunity to make his mother proud, and his family and friends have rallied around him in his quest to win a title. His cousin launched a Facebook page, the Malik McMorris Fan Club, so his many aunts, uncles and cousins, who call themselves the Malik Maniacs, can keep track of his on-field heroics. His linemate Zach Silvas began giving him rides to school in the morning so he wouldn’t have to take wake up at 5 a.m. to take two city buses to get to campus. His teammates even voted him one of the Monarchs’ four football captains.
“The guy they wanna please is Malik McMorris,” head coach Bruce Rollinson says of his players. “If they are not working as hard as he is every day, if they are not seeking perfection like he seeks every day, he has a problem with you.”
McMorris' dream is to compete in both football and track in college. However, despite his reputation, he has flown under the recruiting radar and has yet to receive an offer from a Division I school. As a kid he was forced to play two age divisions up because he exceeded the Pop Warner weight limits. Ironically, the kid who was considered too big to play among his peers then is now perceived as undersized by some scouts.
McMorris isn’t worried. “It doesn’t matter what size you are,” he says. “It’s pretty much in the heart and if you have the desire. For what I lack in height, I make up for with my desire and love for the game. I make up for it with being a very tough competitor and just wanting it more than the other guy across from me.”
On Friday, Sept. 26, McMorris and Mater Dei prepared for a game against Edison (Calif.) High. The team executed a series of warm-up drills, timed to precision by unofficial assistant coach Leo Boese. McMorris was nearly as graceful as the willowy cheerleaders practicing basket catches on the sideline. “Watch his feet,” Boese said, pointing to No. 33. “He could dance on eggs, his feet are so light.”
Moments before kickoff, Rollinson addressed his squad. “Gentlemen, you know what needs to be done out there tonight. You’ve worked hard this week and the challenge is on the table. There are some men going in less than 100 percent, going in wounded. Your brothers’ll cover ‘ya. To me, that’s a beautiful thing. Because it tests your courage, it tests your pain tolerance. It tests just how tough you are. A lot of guys talk tough. The ultimate test is, when you’re wounded can you still go? And that’ll motivate those that are at one hundred percent when they look over and see you reaching down, and finding it play after play.”
It was like he was talking directly to McMorris and the invisible wound he carries in his heart -- the hole that was always there as he lifted one more rep in the weight room, as he stayed up late finishing his homework, and now, as he clasped hands with a teammate and marched onto the field to the pounding beat of the drum line.
Late in the game, McMorris would literally play hurt: His right ankle, bruised from a hit from in the previous contest, would prompt a minor but visible limp. After the team scored an insurance touchdown, coaches would take him off the field in the fourth quarter. A trainer would remove his tape, secure a bag of ice to his ankle and instruct him to sit, but McMorris wouldn’t hear it. He insisted on using crutches so he could hobble over to the edge of the field and cheer on the second string.
Mater Dei would beat Edison 34-12 and McMorris would order his standard 4-x-4 quadruple cheeseburger with animal-style fries at the team’s celebratory postgame trip to In-N-Out. His ankle would heal up just fine -- the next week, he scored the game-winning touchdown in a thrilling 28-27 victory over Harvard-Westlake (Calif.) School -- but all of that would come later.
As McMorris and his three fellow captains walked out for the coin toss against Edison, he looked up to the sky for a split second. It was subtle, something you wouldn’t notice unless you were looking for it. But in that moment he was having a silent conversation with his mom. “I just look up into the sky and I know she’s got my back,” he says.